I’ve been thinking about this poem by the renowned Harlem Renaissance poet, and not just because it’s the source of the title for Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, a play my sophomore English students began reading this week.
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
Like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
Like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
– Langston Hughes (1951)
I’ve been thinking about this poem because it seems fitting after the racial unrest this summer in Charlottesville, Virginia, and as the nation reels from the NFL’s national-anthem controversy.
I’ve been thinking about this poem because I sense that Dr. Martin Luther King’s dreamed-of America — the one in which people “will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” — remains just that: an unattainable dream. Indeed, it feels like that dream today “sags like a heavy load,” as Hughes writes, and could easily “explode.”
“Bigotry seems emboldened,” former President George W. Bush said in a speech last week. “Our politics seems more vulnerable to conspiracy theories and outright fabrication.”
“We have seen our discourse degraded by casual cruelty,” Bush continued. “At times, it can seem like the forces pulling us apart are stronger than the forces binding us together.”
The national-anthem controversy is a case in point. According to a Quinnipiac University poll, “white adults disapprove of the protests, 63-30 percent, [while] black adults approve 74-17 percent.”
That divide has been echoed in several Connecticut high schools.
Earlier this season, about half of the Newington High School volleyball team knelt during the national anthem before a match.
“I took a knee to protest police brutality against African-Americans,” explained Yasmin Ricon. “Too many people have been killed unjustly and without reason. Me being a Hispanic, black, Muslim woman, I am disgusted by the way minorities are treated.”
The players’ actions drew criticism from community members, but the board of education backed their right to kneel.
Students and football players at Manchester’s East Catholic High School, meanwhile, produced a video last month with the message that “taking a knee during the national anthem is offensive, especially towards those serving our country.”
“I just could not imagine having the disrespect to kneel, sit, whatever, during the national anthem considering my grandpa was a Marine,” said co-captain Marc Zazzaro.
The divergent views of the Newington volleyball players and the East Catholic football players – just like those of other Americans – could not be starker. But the recent events at a third Connecticut high school are perhaps the most insidious example of the current chasm in American society.
The incident began unremarkably, as students at Lyme-Old Lyme High School hung a banner at a soccer game last month which read “Our Defense Is A Wall.” The sign did not go unnoticed by the opposing team from the Morgan School of Clinton, several of whose players are Hispanic.
As a New London Day article explained, “President Donald Trump has said he wants to build a border wall between the U.S. and Mexico, and some in the Hispanic community find the reference to building a wall offensive.”
Clinton Schools Superintendent Maryann O’Donnell contacted officials at Lyme-Old Lyme Schools, and both she and Lyme-Old Lyme Superintendent Ian Neviaser noted this situation has become a “learning opportunity” for all involved.
Still, many people see such episodes as overblown political correctness. “The sign was a reference to defense in soccer,” they say. “People these days are too sensitive. Even if it was a reference to Trump’s wall, so what? It was a joke — kids being kids.”
I disagree. If we can so casually dismiss incidents like this, then the joke is on all of us. Some teenagers probably think it’s funny to invoke a veiled racist reference on a banner, but that’s because they’re teenagers. Adults should know better. And they should teach kids that such behavior is vulgar, hateful, and unambiguously wrong.
As Langston Hughes asked, “What happens to a dream deferred?” I fear we’re seeing a very vivid answer to that question in America right now.
Barth Keck is an English teacher and assistant football coach who teaches courses in journalism, media literacy, and AP English Language & Composition at Haddam-Killingworth High School.
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