When I took Langston Hughes to work for Take Your Poet to Work Day, I did not post excerpts from his best-known poem, “Harlem.” It’s the one that begins, “What happens to a dream deferred?”
I’ve been thinking about that last line — “Or does it explode?” What would that look like, if a dream exploded?
Way back in college, when I took a psychology course, when I thought that was what I wanted to do with my life, we covered Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Do any of you remember that pyramid-shaped diagram? The basic idea is that a person’s physiological needs — food, shelter, clothing — are at the bottom. From there the needs climb: safety, social, esteem, and at the top, self-actualization, or personal growth. Now that I’m more into poetry than psychology, I’d put the word “dreams” at the top, in the sense that Langston Hughes uses the word.
So, what happens when the dream is deferred? It might be deferred because a tornado ripped through your town, and you lack food and shelter. You might live in a place that’s become a war zone, so safety is a bit more important than following your dream. I know that if my social relationships, especially in my family, are going badly, I’m not very interested in personal growth.
What if the dream has been deferred so long that you’re not even sure it’s there?
All this wondering about dreams makes me think of my friend Deidra Riggs, who is all about helping people follow their dreams. She’s the dreamer behind Jumping Tandem: The Retreat. I didn’t get to attend the first retreat in 2013. Work was going to be busy, so I didn’t even think of signing up, but we ended up having a crisis that weekend, so it was just as well. The 2015 retreat will be held at a better date for me, May 1-3.
I’ve told Deidra many times that I don’t have a dream, but the more times I read Langston Hughes’ poem, the more I think it may just have been deferred. A year ago, I would have said it dried up “like a raisin in the sun.” Now, “Maybe it just sags / like a heavy load.”
One thing I know: I don’t want to wait so long that it explodes.