Langston Hughes wrote about dreams at a time when racism meant that black people’s dreams were silenced
“I have a dream.”
You’ve heard the line. But what you may not know is that the poetry of Langston Hughes, born on this day in 1902, influenced King’s sermons on a fundamental level and helped give rise to the preacher’s most lasting line. Hughes, an accomplished poet, is remembered by many as one of the architects of the Harlem Renaissance and an important African American voice. He’s less remembered for his connection to the civil rights leader.
Hughes wrote a number of poems about dreams or dealing with the subject of dreams, but they weren’t really positive poems — they were truthful reflections of the struggle he and other black Americans faced in a time of institutionalized and mainstream cultural racism. What happens to a dream deferred, he asked: sometimes it just becomes a “heavy load.” Other times, it explodes.
But, Miller writes, King was also influenced by others whose work reached back to the poet. One of the biggest cultural milestones that had happened just before Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his first speech about dreams was the debut of A Raisin in the Sun.
The play took its name from a line of Hughes’s famous poem, “A Dream Deferred (Harlem),” writes Miller. The poem was printed in full on the playbill, according to Michael Hoffman for The Florida Times-Union. After it premiered, Hoffman writes, King wrote to Hughes: “I can no longer count the number of times and places… in which I have read your poems.”
The play began its run on March 19, just a few weeks before King delivered his first sermon about dreams, on April 5. “Because King was obligated to preach about Palm Sunday, and then Easter on successive weeks, April 5 literally marked the first possible opportunity after the play’s premier for him to create and deliver a new sermon,” Miller writes. “In his sermon, King used the poem’s imagery, repeated questions, theme and diction.”
These kind of details demonstrate that King’s preoccupation with dreams—which manifested itself in speeches particularly from 1960 onwards, according to one scholarly analysis—came from the literature of black oppression, Miller writes.
From this preoccupation came King’s most mainstream rallying cry, “I have a dream.” And it’s worth thinking about why King chose that word, rather than another. For instance, the April 5 sermon about dreams was actually titled “Unfulfilled Hopes” — if he’d kept running with that language, it’s possible his best-known line might have been “I have a hope.”
Ms. Tippett:He talked about how the prophets are always poets, and it’s with poetic language that they rise above the merely political and have something other than merely political impact. He says that the line we all remember of Martin Luther King is actually a line of poetry. “I have a dream” is actually a line of poetry.
Mr. Rampersad:Yes, a line of Langston Hughes’s poetry.
Ms. Tippett:Is it really? It’s a line of Langston Hughes’s poetry? I didn’t know that.
Mr. Rampersad:Well, I think Langston Hughes always believed that, because he had consistently invoked the motif of the dream in his poetry, in his civil rights poetry. So he always felt that Martin Luther King owed him one.
Ms. Tippett:I see.
Mr. Rampersad: Yeah. But that’s another story.
.. Ms. Alexander: Yes, I think of the Dr. Du Bois — that was always how he was referred to in my family. And I think that was very important because he was someone to be respected, that even though African Americans had attained higher education by the time I was a child, I know that I knew he was the first African American to get his PhD from Harvard University, that it was an extraordinary thing to have become educated in the way that he did, so that we ought to give him that title. And later on, I learned, there are a number of African-American elders of a generation for whom only the letters of their names are what we know. “W.E.B.” That was strategic, a way that he could not be called William or Bill, that someone would have to call him “boy” or call him Dr. Du Bois. It forced the issue of his stature. I think that that interested me a great deal. I remember learning that when I was probably a young teenager. I didn’t read The Souls of Black Folk until I was in college. I remember very much reading it for the first time, sophomore year with Professor Michael Cooke in a big survey course on African-American literature. It was a graduate course and, at that time, the only place that Du Bois was taught alongside Booker T. Washington and other greats of the tradition. I remember thinking, “Oh, not only is he a great man, he’s a beautiful writer” — and how that felt like such a gift that these important ideas came forward to us in language that was unforgettable.
Ms. Angelou: As one of the great thinkers. For a black man at that time, to teach and to learn and to study under those circumstances when people were being lynched, what Dr. Du Bois showed is that he had enormous courage. I would encourage young men and women, black and white and Asian and Spanish-speaking and all, to look at Dr. Du Bois and realize that courage is the most important of all the virtues, because without courage you can’t practice any other virtue consistently. You can’t be consistently fair or kind or generous or forgiving — any of those — without courage.
Southern denominations faced enormous social and political pressure from plantation owners. Public expressions of dissent on the subject of slavery in the South were not merely outlawed, they were a death sentence.
.. Baptist ministers who rejected slavery, like South Carolina’s William Henry Brisbane, were forced to flee to the North. Otherwise, they would end up like Methodist minister Anthony Bewley, who was lynched in Texas in 1860, his bones left exposed at local store to be played with by children.
.. Generation after generation, Southern pastors adapted their theology to thrive under a terrorist state. Principled critics were exiled or murdered, leaving voices of dissent few and scattered. Southern Christianity evolved in strange directions under ever-increasing isolation. Preachers learned to tailor their message to protect themselves. If all you knew about Christianity came from a close reading of the New Testament, you’d expect that Christians would be hostile to wealth, emphatic in protection of justice, sympathetic to the point of personal pain toward the sick, persecuted and the migrant, and almost socialist in their economic practices. None of these consistent Christian themes served the interests of slave owners, so pastors could either abandon them, obscure them, or flee.
.. What developed in the South was a theology carefully tailored to meet the needs of a slave state. Biblical emphasis on social justice was rendered miraculously invisible. A book constructed around the central metaphor of slaves finding their freedom was reinterpreted. Messages which might have questioned the inherent superiority of the white race, constrained the authority of property owners, or inspired some interest in the poor or less fortunate could not be taught from a pulpit. Any Christian suggestion of social justice was carefully and safely relegated to “the sweet by and by” where all would be made right at no cost to white worshippers.
.. Stripped of its compassion and integrity, little remained of the Christian message. What survived was a perverse emphasis on sexual purity as the sole expression of righteousness
.. Guarding women’s sexual purity meant guarding the purity of the white race.
.. Graham never made any difficult statements on race, never appeared on stage with his “black friend” Martin Luther King after 1957, and he never marched with King. When King delivered his “I Have a Dream Speech,” Graham responded with this passive-aggressive gem of Southern theology, “Only when Christ comes again will the little white children of Alabama walk hand in hand with little black children.”
.. There is no changing the white evangelical movement without a wholesale reconsideration of their theology.
.. Why is the religious right obsessed with subjects like abortion while unmoved by the plight of immigrants, minorities, the poor, the uninsured, and those slaughtered in pointless gun violence? No white man has ever been denied an abortion. Few if any white men are affected by the deportation of migrants.
Fifty years after his death, many pay lip service to his ideals, but far too few are following his example.
It almost goes without saying that the leading civil-rights organizations today can no longer count people of that caliber in their ranks. Which may be the clearest indication yet that the movement is over and that the right side prevailed. If black Americans were still faced with legitimate threats to civil rights—such as legal discrimination or voter disenfranchisement—we would see true successors to the King-era luminaries step forward, not the pretenders in place today who have turned a movement into an industry, if not a racket.
Racial gaps that were steadily narrowing in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s would expand in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, which suggests that the disparities that continue today aren’t being driven by racism, notwithstanding claims to the contrary from liberals and their allies in the media. It also suggests that attitudes toward
- work and
- the rule of law
play a much larger role than the left wants to acknowledge. More marches won’t address out-of-wedlock childbearing. More sit-ins won’t lower black crime rates or narrow the school achievement gap.