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?
like a heavy load.
I thought I understood this poem when I read it sophomore year in American literature class. I thought I understood this poem when I taught it numerous times to hundreds of students. I did understand it. But understanding something on an intellectual, sympathetic level and living the subject matter one's self differ substantially.
I could never appreciate Hughes' genius in illuminating the complex psychology of having an unfulfilled dream until I was lying in bed a few nights ago pondering my own struggles with having a baby. The roller coaster of the past three and a half years--well, the roller coaster metaphor just isn't articulate enough to express what it feels like to keep dreaming of something only to have it elude you time and time again in various ways. Thank you Langston Hughes! Thank you for having the understanding, the imagination, and the very words to evoke something so complicated and multifaceted through a series of seemingly simple comparisons.
I remember debating in class both as a teacher and as a student, arguing over which of the poem's six main images best encapsulates the pain of a deferred dream. Hughes seems to set up the debate himself by using 'or' to connect many of the comparisons. As I lay in bed making the connection between this poem (seemingly long forgotten) and my own life, I was startled by the realization that these aren't either/or images for me. Sometimes (most times?) I feel like I am carrying a heavy load. Sometimes I feel the sore festering. Other times the stink spoils things beyond imagining. Don't get me started on the drying up! What a horrible image for an older woman struggling with infertility.
Things do crust over from time to time, though I'd say it's more like a scab you feel certain will reopen than a syrupy sweet. Aspects of the dream have crusted over and dried up for certain. Gone is the notion of having as many kids as I decide I want, for example. Two kids sounds good, but the option of more was there at some point in the distant past. Maybe it's a possibility that would never have been selected, but that possibility is gone. Now we have firmly joined the "we will be lucky to get one" faction. Good bye to the dream of being a young mother, as I always thought I would be. Not too young, of course, but just the "right" age to merge the energy of youth and the stability and wisdom of being a little bit older and settled. You spend so much time worrying about an unwanted pregnancy when you are not ready to be a mom: one of the great ironies of infertility, as each one of us struggling with this diagnosis knows. You plan things out as though you and you alone will dictate exactly when--down to having a baby during school's summer vacation perhaps--that you really never seriously consider that your dream won't accommodate your whims and fancies. These and other aspects of the dream have been put to rest simply because you have no choice in the matter. Time is like that; it will decide things for you.
This poem's brilliance lies in the way it depicts a real life struggle. I may have worried in a general way that my dream would not be easy to achieve, but what happens when you carry your dream for so long that you actually believe for certain it may not come to be? The final haunting line evokes terror in me. My dream has not exploded, but could it really? (It does often feel like a ticking bomb.) The dream has already morphed and changed and adapted as it has had to wait for my readiness to be able to fully embrace it. Altering the dream is one thing, but letting it go is altogether different. Of course I am not there yet, though some days it feels oddly liberating to wonder what would happen if the dream did explode in some definitive way, freeing me from the not knowing and allowing me to settle at last into the next phase of my life. Part of the pain of the deferred dream is the interminable struggle--the weight of it; the pain of it; the uncertainty; the hours, days, months, and years. The struggle makes you question the dream itself. Is the dream the problem? Is it the dreaming? You are simultaneously living your life and living in limbo all at the same time. You ask yourself if the limbo is all your life is anymore.
I'm sure I'm not alone in holding a deferred dream. Perhaps you have had one or two of your own, some gone and buried and others still just out of reach. Hughes doesn't ponder what happens when a dream deferred becomes a dream achieved, but I can only hang on to the hope that all the desiccation, the soreness, the scarring, the stink, and the heavy lifting will enable me to never undervalue or take for granted becoming a mother, when and if that event comes to pass. I again look to the words of another man I studied in American Literature, Thomas Paine, to express this hope of mine far more eloquently than I could:
What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly:
it is dearness only that gives every thing its value.