Illustrated by Minji Reem

Harlem (Dream Deferred)

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

My throat feels sore from talking. I have been talking for days. Seated in Professor Sturm’s living room with some battle-weary folk. Sitting now on my porch in snow-capped Colorado. It is peaceful and quiet here, but I can’t quite escape heated images of flames, of rage, of desperation. I feel overwhelmed by my own feelings of grief: that friends and strangers alike could feel so deeply cheated by both the legal system and the country I have been taught to revere. The realization makes me feel cheated too. And, it is more than disconcerting.  It is gut wrenching, tumultuous, frenzied.  It can’t be tamped down.

On Tuesday, I sat with the rag-tag Civil Rights Act reading group. Incongruous in our causes, but bound by similar concerns: equity, improvement. We had started with the age-old problem of discrimination made, on that day, undeniably relevant. Yet—concern aside—we were there because we still carry a deep seed of belief.

One member commented that what motivated him, brought him here to study law, drove him to shoulder against an onslaught of injustice waiting each day, was fear. Basic physiology demonstrates how we are fundamentally conditioned to respond to fear. Fight or flight. Fear overcomes logic, and allows instinct to take the reigns. Fear inherently impedes and diminishes our quality of life. I also believe we don’t like what it does to us.

Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1941—before the Civil Rights Act, before the country formally acknowledged its shortcomings with respect to the dream of equality for all—challenged us to recognize an “essential human freedom”: freedom from fear.

I know fear. I have known it in my own way. I know it being followed for blocks, crude comments being called. I have known it on my back, incapable of movement. It is a different kind of fear, but this I know: fear, not being free from it, births fight. In innumerable ways, predicated on our own strengths and weaknesses, we fight in our own way.

What happens to a dream deferred? A dream, of something so fundamental as living freely and without fear, explodes.

I have been talking for days. My throat is sore. I have heard the bewilderment, but I know that this sore has been festering for some time. It has festered since the founding of this nation until this very moment. This is only one single moment of outrage. And what a moment it is.  But it is a time of reckoning. It is time to acknowledge deficiencies, and it is time to reassess and do better. It is time to regroup and heal. It is time to do more than dream.