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Langston Hughes once asked, “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?”
What Hughes may very well be talking about may not be just any dream, but THE dream- that is, the American dream. Today, there are thousands of dreams an individual holds dear. While some are easily attainable, there are those that are not. Some may reach their American dream in a few short years, and others die before they can even grasp it. Some strive for similar dreams: a big house, fancy car, and a life full of luxury. Others include wealth, love, and fame. All in all, people have diverse perceptions of what the “American Dream” is, and will spend their whole lives attempting to get hold of it.
Such is the case of the characters in Lorraine Hansberry’s ‘A Raisin in the Sun’. Her novel, centering on the perils of a typical black family living in a poverty-set background as they all attempt to take a crack at bringing their own visions of the American dream to life, also touches on and depicts the racial and economical inequality many African Americans endured during those times set in the 1950s in various ways. “A Raisin in the Sun’ centers on the Younger family in their search for a better life than the one they currently live in. The Younger family consists of Lena (Mama), Beneatha (Daughter of Mama), Walter Lee (Son of Mama), Ruth (wife of Walter), and Travis (Walter’s and Ruth’s son).
Langston Hughes’s poem can also be used to relate to many of the character’s dreams. For instance, in his first stanza, he asks what happens to a dream that is deferred; does it “dry up like a raisin in the sun?” This can be seen in Mama’s dream. Lena Younger, or Mama, has a dream to get her family out of the little “rat-trap” house into a spacious house with rooms and light and a yard big enough for her to garden in. This dream is one that she has nurtured for years, shared with her late husband, Big Walter. She explains, “We were going to set away, little by little, don’t you know, and buy a little place out in Morgan Park. We had even picked out the house. But Lord, child, you should know all the dreams I had about buying that house and fixing it up and making me a little garden in the back – And didn’t none of it happen”. It was due to their socio-economical instabilities, that their dream was wait-listed, or deterred. However, with the hefty insurance policy check credited to the passing of her husband coming her way, Mama finally has the opportunity to bare her dream to fruition. In a big leap of faith, Mama goes out and puts a down payment on a house that is featured in the wealthy, mostly white-dominated neighborhood called Clybourne Park. Knowing that living in that section during a time when racial chaos still existed would not be a piece of cake, Mama remains strong in her decision. Even when a member from the Clybourne Park Improvement Association, Karl Linder, visits the Younger family advising them to not move into a place where they are not welcome, stating that, “Our association is prepared to buy the house from you at a financial gain to your family”, Mama is able to say no to Linder’s offer and is set to finally fulfill her dream.
Next, in the following lines of Hugh’s poem, “Maybe it sags like a heavy load, or does it explode?”, we can sense the relation between Walter and his unsuccessful attempts at living his American dream. Walter Lee is an ambitious family man whose ideas of the American dreams have been continually shot down. Often misunderstood by his family, Walter no longer wants to work for the white man as a chauffeur. He exclaims, “ I drive a man around in his limousine and I say, “Yes, sir; no, sir; very good, sir; shall I take the drive, sir?” Mama, that ain’t no kind of job… that ain’t nothing at all. Mama, I don’t know if I can make you understand”. He wants to be a man who can take care of his own. Walter believes that in order to accomplish this, he can become a successful businessman by investing mamma’s money into fashioning his own Liquor Store. He decides to take a risk and gives the rest of the money mama hands over to a partner who ultimately cons him then vanish with the money.
Beneatha is the daughter of Lena Younger and the sister of Walter. Her big dream is to become a doctor and help people. She states, “That was what one person could do for another, fix him up – sew up the problem, make him all right again. That was the most marvelous thing in the world…I wanted to do that. I always thought it was the one concrete thing in the world that a human being could do”. However, that dream is also deterred when Walter puts all the insurance money (some of which was supposed to go to pay for her medical school) in a failed business transaction. Another characteristic of Beneatha is that she is always trying to ‘express’ herself and is seen to be somewhat immature in the opening scene of the play. For example, she goes through various hobbies, never completing just one thing. Even Mama asks, ‘Why you got to flit so from one thing to another, baby? How long is it going to be before you get tired of this now?”. While Beneatha wants to have an independent career; she also desires to find her own identity. Interested in her African roots, Beneatha draws herself to Asagai, who offers her a new and mature perspective on life. Asagai tells Beneatha that the mistake she makes is believing the world to be a circle. He goes on to tell her that, “It isn’t a circle-it is simply a long line-…one that reaches into infinity. And because we cannot see the end-we also cannot see how it changes”.
Langston Hughes’ poem introduces a realistic view of many dreams that failed to spark. Its’ relation to Lorraine Hansberry’s characters in ‘A Raisin in the Sun’ is strongly evident. What DOES happens to a dream deferred? Does it wither? Or does it explode? Although these questions do hold some weight, it is one’s actions that define oneself the most. For Mama Younger, her American dream indeed did wither; but her actions, her strength in holding onto hope that one day her dream WILL come true is what defines the whole picture. Walter’s character on the hand, gives the message that we all, after all, humans and humans make mistakes. Walter’s actions belied that he believed he was making the right sacrifice for his family. There is nothing wrong with hope, even if it is false. As for Beneatha, the message that one can gain from her character is that although your dream may not happen, you can always make another dream for yourself. And another. And if that dream doesn’t work out, make another. Someone once said the road to success is not straight; there are many bumps, forks, cracks, and loose rocks. However, the beauty of dreams is that there is no expiration date. Anyone can reach their “American Dream”, as long as they are prepared for the journey!
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