Montage of a Dream Deferred
Montage of a Dream DeferredINTRODUCTION
"What happens to a dream deferred?" That question—one of the most famous lines of poetry to issue from the pen of an American writer—captures the essence of Langston Hughes's 1951 work Montage of a Dream Deferred. In this tightly interwoven collection, the "dream deferred" is the collective dream of the African Americans. Although slavery was abolished nearly a century before, black Americans in the 1940s and 1950s were still not seen as equals in the eyes of the general public nor, often, in the eyes of local and state lawmakers. While white Americans were riding a wave of post-World War II prosperity toward the fulfillment of their vision of the American dream, most blacks were left waiting for their opportunity to join in the country's success.
A montage is an artistic work that consists of smaller pieces of art combined into a unified whole that reveals a larger picture or meaning. This is an accurate description of Montage of a Dream Deferred, which Hughes preferred to think of as a single, book-length poem. Recurring themes and phrases occur throughout the smaller poetic works that make up the book; in fact, the book begins and ends with the same two lines: "Good morning, daddy! / Ain't you heard?"
Montage of a Dream Deferred is, in addition to being a statement about denied opportunities for African Americans, a rich portrayal of the places and personalities that make up the New York neighborhood of Harlem where Hughes lived. According to biographer Arnold Rampersad, from the vantage point of his Harlem home, "Hughes watched the historic evolution of African American culture from its roots in the rural South to its often tangled exfoliation in the cities of the North." More importantly, he documented this evolution for the entertainment and enlightenment of both current and future generations.
One of the most notable stylistic elements of Montage of a Dream Deferred is Hughes's use of jazz and bebop musical techniques to infuse his poems with a spirit that is uniquely African American. This includes the use of irregular rhythms and onomatopoetic bursts of sound such as "pop-a-da!" For Hughes, jazz music represented the beating heart of the African American experience. As he wrote in The Big Sea: An Autobiography in 1940:
I tried to write poems like the songs they sang on Seventh Street—gay songs, because you had to be gay or die; sad songs, because you couldn't help being sad sometimes. But gay or sad, you kept on living and you kept on going. Their songs—those of Seventh Street—had the pulse beat of the people who keep on going.
Langston Hughes is beloved for writing poetry, prose, drama, and nonfiction over his four-decade career. His single most famous poem is probably "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," written when he was a teenager, but his most famous concept resonates throughout Montage of a Dream Deferred. Though the book is not currently in print as a stand-alone work, it can be found as part of The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, a mammoth anthology of the poet's professional works, edited by Arnold Rampersad and published by Knopf.
Montage of a Dream Deferred is a work of freeverse poetry describing different elements of life in Harlem. Although Hughes asserted that the book is intended to be read as a single long poem, it consists of eighty-seven individually titled short works, many of which were previously published as stand-alone poems. The poems are linked stylistically and thematically, with certain phrases appearing as refrains in multiple pieces. Many of the poems consist of less than twenty lines, and some are as short as three lines. In the years after the book's initial publication, Hughes made minor changes to several of the poems that were incorporated into later editions; the versions reprinted in The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes reflect these minor changes. The poems discussed here are an overview of the entire work.
James Langston Hughes was born in Joplin, Missouri, on February 1, 1902. His parents separated while Hughes was still young, and he spent most of his childhood in Kansas and Ohio, sometimes living with his mother and sometimes with his grandmother while his father sought fortune in Mexico. In eighth grade, Hughes was selected as class poet, and during high school he was a frequent contributor to his school's monthly magazine. His first professionally published poem, "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," appeared in the magazine The Crisis when Hughes was just nineteen years old. After studying for a short time at Columbia University, Hughes spent the next several years writing poetry and traveling the world as a seaman.
Hughes's first book-length collection of poetry, The Weary Blues, was published to critical acclaim in 1926. Over the next four decades, he went on to produce several more volumes of poetry, short stories, novels, plays, and even nonfiction works, including 1959's Montage of a Dream Deferred. Hughes died of congestive heart failure on May 22, 1967. He is considered by critics and scholars to be one of the most influential artists of the Harlem Renaissance, and he remains one of America's most popular poets.
Boogie Woogie Poems
"Dream Boogie" is the first poem in Montage of a Dream Deferred, and establishes the musical, "be-bop" tone and style found throughout the rest of the collection. In the first two stanzas, Hughes establishes a smooth and rapid rhythm that matches his description of a "boogie-woogie rumble" in the third line. It is just one of several that refer to boogie or boogie-woogie as the sound of a dream deferred. It opens with the line "Good morning, daddy!" addressing not the speaker's father, but using a be-bop era slang term for a fellow hipster man. The mood of the poem at first seems upbeat; however, Hughes uses the phrase "dream deferred" in the last line of the first stanza, which hints at the speaker's frustration. The energetic rhythm of the first two stanzas is broken by an interjectory third stanza that asks, "You think / it's a happy beat?" He allows the "daddy" being addressed to go on thinking that boogie-woogie is cheerful music, but he clearly hears discontentment in its rumble.
In "Boogie: 1 a.m." and "Lady's Boogie," Hughes returns to his metaphor for the troubles masked by the music. "Boogie: 1 a.m." repeats the line "The boogie-woogie rumble / Of a dream deferred" from "Dream Boogie," then goes on to describe the "trilling" and "twining" the instruments make to express that mood. Even though the woman in "Lady's Boogie" "ain't got boogie-woogie / On her mind—" he believes "she'd hear / … / The tingle of a tear," if she would just listen.
"Nightmare Boogie" continues the musical rhythms and imagery found in "Dream Boogie," but it also directly addresses the subject of race. The poem is written in a single stanza of twelve short lines, most of which contain just three or four syllables to create a consistent, driving rhythm. In the first part of the poem, the narrator dreams that he sees "a million faces / black as me!" The dream turns into a nightmare, however, when the black faces suddenly turn white. Hughes concludes the poem with imagery of musical instruments, as if the narrator has channeled his unease into boogie-woogie music.
The last poem in the book to use the "boogie-woogie" metaphor, "Dream Boogie: Variation" describes a black piano player, his music, and what the poet sees in the musician's face: "Looks like his eyes / Are teasing pain, / A few minutes late / For the Freedom Train." In all these poems, Hughes uses the sound and rhythm of exciting, energetic, complicated music. He hears hardship, grief, sadness, and simmering anger, but also finds a salve for those woes in the music.
Harlem to Outsiders
Many poems in the collection focus on perceptions of and interaction between black and white Americans. In "Parade," the poet describes a black marching band that is to take part in a parade and imagines a white observer's reaction: "I never knew / that many Negroes / were on earth, / did you?" and concludes that it will be "A chance to let / … / the whole world see / … / old black me!" He mocks white America's misconception of him in "Movies," which he describes as "crocodile tears / of crocodile art," saying, "(Hollywood / laughs at me, / black—/ so I laugh / back.)"
"Ballad of the Landlord" expresses a plight common among those who live in low-income neighborhoods. The first part of the poem is written from the point of view of a black tenant who is upset at his landlord's failure to make repairs to the building where he lives. By way of protest, the tenant refuses to pay rent until the problems are fixed. When the landlord threatens the tenant with eviction, the tenant threatens the landlord physically; this leads to the tenant being arrested and ultimately sentenced to three months in jail.
The first six stanzas of "Ballad of the Landlord" feature a conventional abcb rhyme scheme, though the number of syllables in each line varies widely. As with many of the other poems in Montage of a Dream Deferred, Hughes uses repetition and parallel structure to create rhythm and mood. For example, the first line of each of the first two stanzas consists of the tenant's plaintive call, "Landlord, landlord"; later, in the first line of the sixth stanza, the landlord's response is, "Police! Police!" The tenant also repeats the phrase "Ten Bucks"—the amount of rent that is due—in the third stanza. Hughes chooses to capitalize this phrase, perhaps to indicate its significance to both parties: to the landlord because he is a businessman; and to the tenant because he is poor.
In "Theme for English B," the narrator is a student writing a page about himself for his college English class. The student, a resident of the Harlem YMCA, describes himself as "the only colored student in my class." The narrator lists many of the things he likes, all of which transcend race: "Well, I like to eat, sleep, drink, and be in love." This leads him to wonder: "So will my page be colored that I write?" The narrator realizes that, in America, people of different races become a part of each other simply by interacting and learning from each other—though he does acknowledge that his white instructor is "somewhat more free" than he is himself.
Hughes envisions a racially integrated future in "Projection," and writes that on the day that black and white culture embrace each other, "Manhattan Island will whirl." He concludes, "Father Divine will say in truth, / Peace! / It's truly / wonderful!" A less optimistic view of people of different races coming together is presented in "Mellow," which describes the thrill and danger of interracial dating. One area of life that is already fully integrated for Hughes is New York's public transportation. He describes the mingled crowd in "Subway Rush Hour," as being "so close" there is "no room for fear."
Harlem to Insiders
With the poem "Children's Rhymes," Hughes trades boogie-woogie rhythms for a cadence more likely to be heard in a schoolyard than a nightclub. In the poem, an older narrator reflects on the chants of neighborhood children as they play. The chants they sing emphasize the gap between the young and old generations; while the narrator remembers innocent childhood chants from days gone by, the rhymes of this new generation carry a message:
By what sends
the white kids
I ain't sent:
I know I can't
The narrator expresses disapproval at the audacity of the younger generation as they call attention to the inequality they face every day. For the narrator, inequality is simply a fact of life not worthy of comment. Hughes uses this contrast between generations to suggest that the members of the younger generation are less willing to accept inequality without some kind of resistance—even if that resistance is limited to silly rhymes chanted while playing.
The poems "Low to High" and "High to Low" both deal with the dream of achieving a higher social status. In "Low to High," the narrator (the "Low" referred to in the title) speaks to a friend who has achieved success, charging, "Now you've got your Cadillac, / you done forgot that you are black." Then he asks, "How can you forget me / When I'm you?" As the narrator in "High to Low," the achiever ("High") responds to the downtrodden, lower-class friend. The narrator lists all the things that are wrong with the lower-class friend, which include "you talk too loud" and "look too black." The upper-class narrator contends that he is "trying to uphold the race / and you—/ … / we have our problems, / too, with you."
In "Passing," Hughes offers an ode to his neighborhood. The term "passing"—which appears only in the title and not in the poem itself—is used to describe a light-skinned black person who successfully passes himself or herself off as white in mainstream society, and is therefore freed from the prejudices and inequalities that blacks normally face. In the poem, Hughes describes Harlem on ideal "sunny summer Sunday afternoons," and assures his neighborhood that "the ones who've crossed the line / to live downtown / miss you," even though "their dream has / come true." To those who deny their true selves, Harlem represents comfort and community that they can never again experience. In "Passing," Hughes suggests that those who give up their heritage to achieve their dreams are ultimately left with a sense of loss every bit as potent as a dream deferred.
The quartet of poems "Sister," "Preference," "Question," and "Ultimatum" gives four different perspectives on men and women whose romances are complicated by financial worries. In "Sister," a man talks to his mother about why his sister dates a married man. The mother asks, "Did it ever occur to you, son / the reason Marie runs around with trash / is she wants some cash?" "Preference" offers a man's point of view about why he would rather date older women: "When she conversations you / it's ain't forever, Gimme!" In "Question," a woman asks this question of a man: "Can you … / love me, daddy—/ and feed me, too?" The flip side is presented in "Ultimatum," when a man threatens to stop paying his girlfriend's rent if she does not see him more often.
A much softer side of romance is given in "Juke Box Love Song." Hughes crafts a vision of Harlem through the eyes of a romantic pledging his love to his "sweet brown Harlem girl." Though the poem does not use an established meter, Hughes uses rhyme and parallel structure throughout the poem—for example, the phrase "take the Harlem night" in the first line is mirrored in "Take the neon lights" in the third line—to create a consistent rhythm and flow that is much smoother than the abrupt "boogie woogie" style breaks in many of the book's other poems. The last four lines use an abba rhyme scheme, a more formal structure than is found in the rest of the lines. Though the poem differs in rhythm from Hughes's boogie-woogie efforts, the theme still focuses on music: the narrator wants to turn the sounds of Harlem into a song for his girl so that they may dance all day.
Hughes offers different perspectives on the issue of working in the poems "Necessity" and "Buddy." In the first, the speaker starts with the declaration, "Work? / I don't have to work." He describes his tiny room and how his landlady charges too much for rent, then concludes, "Which is why I reckon I does / have to work after all." In "Buddy," a speaker describes his friend who "works downtown for Twelve a week," of which he gives his mother ten, spends the remainder on transportation and clothes, and can spend the rest on "anything he wants."
Hughes focuses several poems on the challenges of Southern blacks who move north. The first is "Croon," a three-line poem: "I don't give a damn / For Alabam' / Even if it is my home." In the next poem, "New Yorkers," Hughes presents a dialogue between a man and woman who are from different backgrounds yet have found love in each other. The man states that he is a native New Yorker, born "right here beneath God's sky." The woman—whose words are differentiated by the poet's use of italics—reveals that she has come from a place where "folks work hard / all their lives" and yet still never have an opportunity to own anything for themselves. "So I come up here," she says. However, as the woman in the poem tells the man, the opportunities she hoped for in New York have led to only one success: "Now what've I got? / You!"
Like "New Yorkers," the poem "Not a Movie" deals with the migration of Southern blacks to more northern parts of the United States, particularly Harlem. In the poem, an unnamed black man is terrorized and assaulted after he tries to vote somewhere in the South. In response, he boards a train bound for New York and takes up residence on 133rd Street, one of the main thoroughfares of Harlem. As the narrator notes, the man will be safe there because "there ain't no Ku Klux / on a 133rd." The poem contains only two rhyming lines, which form a graphic couplet in the middle of the second stanza: "Six knots was on his head / but, thank God, he wasn't dead!" The sing-song meter of the lines presents a stark contrast to the severe violence they describe, and the rather optimistic tone of the narrator suggests that many other Southern blacks suffered a far worse fate.
The meaning of the poem's title, "Not a Movie," is perhaps less clear to modern readers than it was at the time of the book's initial publication. A contemporary reader might take the title to mean that the events of the poem really occurred, or that they are too tragic to be considered entertainment. Within the context of Montage of a Dream Deferred, however, the poet seems to suggest a different reason for the title: Such an accurate portrayal of a black man's life would not be considered suitable for a movie, because black characters in movies were often limited to grotesque and insulting stereotypes intended to make white filmgoers laugh.
Two more poems later in the collection portray Southern men working in the North. In "Neighbor," two people discuss a man who goes to a bar after work and debate whether he is a "fool" or a "good man." They agree that he talks too much. It seems to the reader that he is in the bar seeking company more than drinking. In "Letter," a man writes to his mother from "up here" and tells her, "Time I pay rent and get my food / and laundry I don't have much left / but here is five dollars for you / to show I still appreciates you."
The poems "Green Memory," "Relief," "World War II," and "Casualty" offer unusual perspectives on the economics of being black in the United States during and after World War II. The narrator recalls World War II with a certain wistfulness—"A wonderful time," as the first line of "Green Memory" states. The narrator explains this fondness for the war by noting in "Green Memory" that it was a time "when money rolled in." This was true for many black workers who were given jobs in industries that supported the war effort. After the war, many of these jobs disappeared or were taken over by white workers returning from the battlefield.
In "Green Memory," the narrator acknowledges that "blood rolled out" as wealth came in—a reference to those soldiers who traveled overseas and died in battle. In "Relief," the narrator envies "them Poles and Greeks / on relief way across the sea / because I was on relief / once in 1933." He admits that it would be fine with him "if these white folks want to go ahead / and fight another war." In "World War II," the narrator repeatedly refers to the war as "a grand time," and is "[s]orry that old war is done!" Only an echoing voice, set off in italics, asks: "Did / Somebody / Die?" For the narrators of these three poems, the war and its consequences are distant matters. In "Casualty," the war and its end have a much more personal effect for the narrator. For him, too, times were better during war: He was a black man in uniform and walked tall. Now, he is just a black man again, who "walks like his soldiering / Days are done."
The collection contains a trio of poems about the desperation that drives people to gamble with what little money they have. "Numbers" tells of a man's fantasy of winning some money and that he "ain't gonna / play back a cent." His resolve to stop gambling falters in the next sentence, even before his daydream ends. That dream has come true for the narrator of "Situation," who finds himself with an unexpected problem after a big win: "I was scared to walk out / with the dough."
Gambling is seen as keeping food out of the mouths of the hungry in "Hope." Referring to a method of choosing lucky numbers that gives numerical values to certain dreams and visions, a woman translates her husband's dying wish for fish into a number to gamble with.
The poems "Motto" and "Advice" are both brief aphorisms that provide suggestions on how to live one's life. Both poems use simple meter and rhyme schemes to allow the reader to quickly commit these short life lessons to memory. In "Motto," Hughes uses terms commonly associated with jazz and boogie-woogie musicians—such as "play it cool" and "dig all jive"—to offer a worldview elegantly simple and universal: "Dig And Be Dug / In Return." The word "dig" is used here to mean both "understand" and "appreciate." The message, then, in less stylized wording, is simply, "Understand and appreciate others, so that others will understand and appreciate you." In "Advice," the narrator points out the hardships encountered at both the beginning and end of a person's life, and concludes "so get yourself / a little loving / in between."
Montage of a Dream Deferred opens, returns to often, and closes with the idea of dreams deferred. It is present in the "Boogie" poems, as well as several others. Early in the collection is the fiveline "Tell Me," which asks why the narrator's dream has to be deferred for so long.
In "Deferred," the poet intertwines the voices of people who all wish to achieve some small but significant piece of the American dream. The first would like to graduate from high school, despite the fact that he is already twenty and he received inadequate schooling in the South when he was young. Another would like a white enamel stove that she has dreamed of owning for eighteen years. Yet another voice states, "All I want is to see / my furniture paid for." In this poem, Hughes creates a literal montage of dreams that have been deferred by people who have not yet been granted the opportunity to achieve the success they desire.
"Harlem" is perhaps the most famous poem in Montage of a Dream Deferred. In the first line, the narrator asks, "What happens to a dream deferred?" The narrator suggests that such a dream might "dry up / like a raisin in the sun," or "stink like rotten meat." The similes used by the narrator all suggest that the dream would wither or decay, until the final line offers another possibility: "Or does it explode?"
"Good Morning" describes people coming to New York from Caribbean places such as Puerto Rico, Cuba, Haiti, and Jamaica, and from southern states like Georgia, Florida, and Louisiana, all seeking their dreams. The narrator asks again, "What happens / to a dream deferred?" "Same in Blues" answers that question for some. Through different snippets of conversation that reveal people's unfulfilled dreams, the poem explains that "There's a certain amount of" traveling, nothing, impotence, and confusion "in a dream deferred."
The last poem in the book, "Island," describes Manhattan as "Black and white, / Gold and brown—/ Chocolate-custard / Pie of a town," where "Dream within a dream, / Our dream deferred." It closes with the lines that open the book's first poem: "Good morning, daddy! / Ain't you heard?"
Discontent with inequality is one of the central themes of Montage of a Dream Deferred. The deferred dream to which Hughes refers in the title is the American dream as it applies to African Americans. In Hughes's Harlem, while white Americans are free to pursue their dreams, black Americans continue to be held back by racism and poverty. Hughes addresses this issue directly in the short poem "Tell Me," when he asks why his aspirations have had to wait.
In "Children's Rhymes," the chants of the playing children illustrate a keen understanding of this inequality, even going so far as to proclaim, "We knows everybody / ain't free!" In the poem "Harlem," the narrator suggests that such inequality might eventually result in violence or revolt. Although this fundamental unfairness is easily recognized, for many of the characters given voice in Montage of a Dream Deferred, it is accepted—for the moment, at least—as an obstacle that must be dealt with on one's own terms.
The "boogie-woogie rumble" present in so many of the poems in the collection, however, reminds readers that the dissatisfaction with the inequalities African Americans face in American life is growing, not shrinking, and makes the explosion predicted in "Harlem" seem near.
Several poems in Montage of a Dream Deferred focus on social status and financial wealth as a measure of success. In "Sister," the narrator laments the fact that his sister Marie is dating a man who is married and has a family. The narrator's mother points out that Marie simply wants to be around someone with money. "Don't decent folks have enough dough?" the narrator asks. The answer is, "Unfortunately usually no!" The underlying message in these lines is that working hard does not necessarily lead to wealth and success. In "Preference," the narrator expresses his fondness for dating older women; younger women, he asserts, always ask men to buy them things. Older women are more likely to share their wealth. The narrator fails to realize that he is treating older women the same way younger women treat him. This poem illustrates how both men and women in Hughes's Harlem see money as a path to better lives.
While several poems show people trying to gamble their ways to a better life, wealth is measured on a smaller scale for most of the characters in Hughes's Harlem. In "Dime," a child dares to dream of a spare ten cents that his grandmother simply does not have. In "Relief," the narrator notes that he would not object "if these white folks want to go ahead / and fight another war," because it would mean a chance to get a job and earn enough money to survive.
Social status is the main focus of the paired poems "Low to High" and "High to Low." Taken together, the poems represent a dialogue between two old friends, High and Low—one of whom has attained a high-status life, while the other remains on the lower rungs of the social ladder. Both had dreamed of living the high-class life together, and now Low feels cheated and forgotten. However, High reveals that to achieve that success, he has had to adopt a new, "white" way of thinking and abandon the older, "black" perspective—as well as those people it represents.
The notion of community is a theme that runs through much of Montage of a Dream Deferred. The vision Hughes paints of Harlem in "Passing," for example, is a stirring depiction of a tightly knit neighborhood in which residents may face adversity, but they take comfort in knowing that they face it together. The subject of "Neighbor" is a Southern man working in New York who misses the easy community he had back home, sitting on his porch talking with neighbors. People in New York suspect him of drinking too much because he is in the bar so often, but he is really there seeking company. Throughout the collection of poems, voices frequently overlap and intrude into monologues just as they would if the narrator were talking on the street among friends. This shifting of narrative voice not only suggests an ease and camaraderie among the local residents, but also allows the reader to achieve a sense of community by experiencing Harlem life from many unique viewpoints.
Although the American dream promises a bright future for those who seek it, there are several poems in Montage of a Dream Deferred that look at people for whom the future is more of a chore than a reward. The character in "Wine-O" drinks his days away, "Waiting for tomorrow," when he will drink some more and wait for the next tomorrow. The title character in "Drunkard" drinks not to pass the time, but to forget "the taste of day." The character in "Blues at Dawn" is not drinking to forget, but he is trying to suppress his dread every morning as he faces each new day. He says, "If I thought thoughts in bed, / Them thoughts would bust my head—" and "If I recall the day before, / I wouldn't get up no more." The future is a concern for the residents in Hughes's Harlem, but it is something to avoid rather than embrace.
The Great Migration
Prior to the Civil War, most African Americans living in the United States were slaves in the South, working the plantations that formed the backbone of the Southern economy. During the first half of the twentieth century, however, several factors contributed to a significant geographic shift in the African American population that is often referred to as the Great Migration.
One major factor contributing to the Great Migration was the institution of Jim Crow laws throughout the South. These laws created segregation between the races and were often used as an excuse to exclude blacks from facilities and businesses frequented by whites. In the 1896 Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson, the federal government allowed such segregation as long as facilities for whites and blacks were "separate but equal." In reality, African American citizens hardly ever received services comparable to white citizens. They were often threatened or assaulted when simply acting within their rights, particularly when they attempted to exercise their right to vote. In addition, the rising popularity of the white supremacist terror group Ku Klux Klan led many African Americans to leave the South for fear of their own safety. In Montage of a Dream Deferred, the unnamed character in "Not A Movie" moves to Harlem after such an assault.
Another important factor in the Great Migration was the rise of factory jobs in the North and Midwest. New York in particular offered a growing urban economy that demanded a constant influx of capable workers. This need only increased during and after World War I, and the New York neighborhood of Harlem became a center of this new urban black population.
Soon after the war, the community that formed in Harlem gave rise to an astounding number of influential African American musicians, poets, authors, and activists; this blossoming of the arts during the 1920s became known as the Harlem Renaissance.
One of the men credited with helping nurture the Harlem Renaissance is civil rights leader, author, and scholar W. E. B. DuBois, who served as the editor of a magazine called The Crisis. The magazine, devoted primarily to African American themes and issues, was the first professional publication to print a poem by Langston Hughes. The poem was titled "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," and it turned out to be the first of many poems Hughes wrote for The Crisis. Other literary luminaries who called Harlem home during this time included James Weldon Johnson, Countee Cullen, Richard Wright, and Zora Neale Hurston.
The Harlem Renaissance is widely acknowledged as ending in the early 1930s during the Great Depression; though many prestigious members of the Harlem arts community continued to produce work for decades longer, the public no longer viewed Harlem as the vibrant popular destination it once had been. Still, the artists who rose to prominence during the Harlem Renaissance helped to shape the philosophies and viewpoints of an entire generation of African Americans. Historians have asserted that the influential artists of the Harlem Renaissance helped set the stage for the success of the African American civil rights movement in the 1950s.
The Rise of Jazz and Bebop Music
Jazz is a uniquely American musical style created by drawing from both traditional African and popular American music. The earliest versions of jazz featured elements of ragtime, blues, hymns, and even military marches, and appeared in numerous African American urban and cultural centers across the United States in the first two decades of the twentieth century. New Orleans is generally recognized as the birthplace of jazz music, with the Storyville district—an area notorious for prostitution and other shady cultures—often listed as the center of the burgeoning jazz movement. In 1917, however, the secretary of the navy effectively shut down Storyville in an attempt to keep sailors from engaging in inappropriate behavior while on leave in the port city.
While New Orleans remained an important center for the development of jazz, other cities in the Northeast and Midwest also contributed to the developing sound. Chicago, Washington, D.C., and New York all produced artists who went on to achieve legendary status within the genre, including Duke Ellington, James P. Johnson, and Jelly Roll Morton. Many of the most famous jazz musicians performed regularly at clubs throughout Harlem during the 1920s, contributing to the notion that the rising popularity of jazz was to some degree a product of the Harlem Renaissance. The white composer George Gershwin, with his jazz-influenced works "Rhapsody in Blue" and Porgy and Bess, helped to bring jazz music to a larger, mainstream audience and further cement its standing as a respected and beloved American art form.
Bebop emerged as a variant of jazz in the 1940s and is characterized by fast tempos, improvisation, and an unusual musical interval known as a "flatted fifth" that is derived from traditional African musical scales. The term "bebop" is meant to mimic the sound of the trademark two-note phrase often used to end a song; many of the poems in Montage of a Dream Deferred use this same technique, ending with a similar two-syllable line such as "De-dop!"
Bebop became one of the most popular forms of jazz throughout the 1940s and 1950s, with performers such as Charlie Parker and Thelonius Monk drawing both black and white audiences to clubs in urban music centers such as Harlem. Two decades after the rise of jazz music, bebop influenced a new generation of writers and artists, including Jack Kerouac and other icons of the Beat Generation in the 1960s.
Montage of a Dream Deferred was first published in 1951, at a time when Hughes was already recognized as one of the most important literary figures of the Harlem Renaissance. In addition, many of the poems in Montage of a Dream Deferred had already seen publication in various magazines, though some were slightly altered for their appearance in book form. For these reasons, the critical reception of Montage of a Dream Deferred was to some extent colored by pre-existing views of Hughes's work and the public's prior exposure to many parts of the book; this might help explain why initial reviews of the book were, according to biographer and anthologist Arnold Rampersad, generally "lukewarm."
Critics were often quick to note the strong musical influence seen in the book's poems. In an unsigned review for Booklist, the critic notes, "The persistent beat and rhythm of jazz, boogie-woogie and other forms of current popular music sound in these kaleidoscopic flashes that make a poem on contemporary Harlem." Babette Deutsch, in a review for the New York Times, writes, "Langston Hughes can write pages that throb with the abrupt rhythms of popular music." In his review for the New York Herald Tribune Book Review, Saunders Redding notes that the book is filled with "quick, vibrant and probing" imagery, and applauds the author's "spiritually rewarding return" to the subject matter and themes on which he had built his following.
For many critics and academics, however, Hughes's sentimental style and frequent use of everyday vernacular were characteristics of popular writing, as distinguished from works of true literary merit. As Babette Deutsch puts it, "Sometimes his verse invites approval, but again it lapses into a facile sentimentality that stifles real feeling as with cheap scent." Deutsch also argues that the book as a whole reveals "the limitations of folk art," and that although Hughes is "a poet of undeniable gifts," he should make an effort to aim his literary sights higher.
Langston Hughes recorded spoken-word versions of many of his poems, including several in Montage of a Dream Deferred in 1958, with accompaniment from jazz legends Charles Mingus and Leonard Feather. The recoding is called Weary Blues and was re-released by Polygram records in 1991. It is available on compact disc.
In the decades since Montage of a Dream Deferred was first published, academics have come to acknowledge the poet's significant contributions to American literature. He remains one of the most anthologized American poets of the twentieth century, and in an online poll sponsored by the Academy of American Poets in 2002, Langston Hughes was selected above such luminaries as Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, and Carl Sandburg as America's favorite poet.
Walter C. Farrell and Patricia A. Johnson
In the following excerpt, Farrell and Johnson examine how Hughes's poetry reflects the mood, tone, and culture of the music of post-WWII Harlem.
The "bebop era" was also one of unrest, anxiety, and massive discontent in the urban ghetto. Harlem, for example, was the scene of a bloody race riot in 1943. The just indignation of Afro-American people had finally surfaced in the form of massive violence. But the injustice of racism and poverty was only compounded by the injustices of police brutality. Black urban workers found themselves not only trapped in the ghetto but pinned beneath the heel of police repression as well.
Langston Hughes was among the few black intellectuals of this era to sympathize with justly aggrieved poor people in Harlem. In a 1944 edition of Negro Digest, he denounced the snobbery of "Sugar Hill" Negroes who viewed the riot as a deterrent to "Negro advancement." Examining the economic determinants of the disturbance, Hughes compared the lifestyles of Harlem's well-to-do Negroes with that of her working poor:
It is, I should imagine, nice to be smart enough and lucky enough to be among Dr. Dubois' "talented tenth" and be a race leader and go to symphony concerts and live on that attractive rise of bluff and parkway along upper Edgecombe Avenue overlooking the Polo Grounds, where the plumbing really works, and the ceilings are high and airy.
But under the hill on Eighth Avenue, on Lenox and on Fifth there are places like this—dark, unpleasant houses with steep stairs and narrow halls, where the rooms are too small, the ceilings too low and the rents too high …
In vast sections below the hill, neighborhood amusement centers after dark are gin mills, candy stores that sell King Kong (and maybe reefers), drug stores that sell geronimoes—dope tablets—to juveniles for pepping up cokes, pool halls where gambling is wide open and barbeque stands that book numbers.
The kids and grown-ups are not criminal or low by nature. Poverty, however, and frustration have made some of them too desperate to be decent. Some of them don't try any more. Slum-shocked, I reckon.
Hughes's poetic commentary on the unrest and anxiety of post-war Black America was presented in a collection published in 1951 entitled Montage of a Dream Deferred. In a prefatory note, Hughes explains that his poems were designed to reflect the mood and tempo of bebop. As Hughes puts it:
In terms of current Afro-American popular music and the sources from which it has progressed—jazz, ragtime, swing, blues, boogie-woogie, and bebop—this poem on contemporary Harlem, like be-bop, is marked by conflicting changes, sudden nuances, sharp and impudent interjections, broken rhythms, and passages sometimes in the manner of the jam session, sometimes the popular song, punctuated by the riffs, runs, breaks, and distortions of the music of a community in transition.
When Montage was published, Hughes regarded bebop as a new type of jazz music that drew its strength and substance from a composite vernacular of black musical forms. In conjunction with this notion Hughes incorporated a variety of music-related poems into this collection.
In his prefatory notes, Hughes identifies the entire collection as a "single poem." Similarly, Donald Dickinson, a biographer of Hughes, described Montage as "one long interrelated poetic jam session." It is interesting to note that bebop itself evolved out of the jam session of the jazz musicians. Music historians agree that in its nascent stage, bebop was an "after hours" music that Minton playhouse "radicals" performed following their scheduled dates with swing orchestras. The relaxed informal atmosphere of these jam sessions would tend to produce an extemporaneous free-flowing form of musical expression that demanded a creative contribution from each participant. No one can listen to a typical swing number and then a bebop number without realizing that in the latter, the part (individual instrument) makes a singular or distinctive contribution to the ensemble, while in the former the individual component plays a less assertive role.
In Montage Hughes took advantage of the structural characteristics of bebop by drastically reordering the traditional limitations imposed on the poem. By breaking down the barrier between the beginning of one poem and the end of another, Hughes created a new technique in poetry. Perhaps one could more accurately describe Montage as a series of short poems or phrases that contribute to the making of one long poem. Each poem maintains some individual identity as a separate unit while contributing to the composite poetic message. Movement between passages is achieved by thematic or topical congruency or by interior dialogue.
Hughes developed a form of poetry writing which would allow him to compress a wide and complex range of images into one kaleidoscopic impression of life in Harlem during the 1940s. The fact that these images are historically accurate and the fact that they convey something of what it meant to be black in America during this crucial war-torn era are proofs of Hughes's profound understanding of the events and issues that have shaped the contemporary world.
The idea that America has perennially denied her black working masses the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is the concentric unifying theme of Montage of a Dream Deferred. In practical terms, these rights include access to adequate housing, a decent standard of living, and fair and profitable employment. Hughes had developed this theme earlier—on a much more general level—in a poem published in 1926 entitled "A Dream Deferred." In Montage, Hughes expanded the thematic substance of this poem and injected it with powerful social and political connotations.
Montage is divided topically into six main sections: "Boogie Segue to Bop," "Dig and Be Dug," "Early Bright," "Vice Versa to Bach," "Dream Deferred," and "Lenox Avenue Mural." Each section emphasizes a different aspect of life in Harlem—be it social, political, cultural, or economic—but without excluding any of these aspects.
"Boogie Segue to Bach," for instance, glorifies the fullness and richness of black culture, especially black music, through a cogent analysis of its social and political implications. "Dream Boogie," the first poetic passage in this section, identifies a questionable rumbling in the rhythms of bebop and boogie woogie. And since music has always served as the "heartbeat" of the black community, that rumbling becomes symbolic of an underlying state of anxiety and unrest in the urban ghetto:
Good morning, daddy!
Ain't you heard
The boogie-woogie rumble
Of a dream deferred?
You'll hear their feet
Beating out and beating out a—
IT'S A HAPPY BEAT?
Listen to it closely:
Ain't you heard
like a - - - -
WHAT DID I SAY?
Take it away!
Arthur P. Davis's description of the images of Harlem reflected in Montage of a Dream Deferred adequately expresses our ideas on this subject. Davis observed that the Harlem depicted in Montage had
… come through World War II, but [had] discovered that a global victory for democracy [did] not necessarily have too much pertinence at home. Although the Harlem of the 1948–1951 period [had]far more opportunity than the 1926 Harlem ever dreamed of, it [was] still not free; and the modern city having caught the vision of total freedom and total integration would not be satisfied with anything less than the idea. It [was] therefore a critical, a demanding, a sensitive, and utterly cynical city."
That cynicism was part of the overall feeling of disenchantment, of frustration, bewilderment and despair that informed the music—the very life impulse—of postwar urban life in America, as Langston Hughes knew.
Source: Walter C. Farrell and Patricia A. Johnson, "Poetic Interpretations of Urban Black Folk Culture: Langston Hughes and the "Bebop" Era," in MELUS, Vol. 8, No. 3, Fall 1981, pp. 57-72.
In the following excerpt, Presley examines the prevasive theme of the American Dream in the poetry of Langston Hughes throughout his career.
One summer in Chicago when he was a teenager Langston Hughes felt the American Dream explode in his face; a gang of white youths beat him up so badly that he went home with blacked eyes and a swollen jaw.
He had been punished for cutting through a white neighborhood in the South Side on his way home from work. That night as he tended his injuries young Hughes must have mused disturbed thoughts about fulfilment of his American dream of freedom, justice, and opportunity for all.
A few years after that traumatic Chicago afternoon Hughes inaugurated a prolific and versatile writing career. Over the four decades separating then and now, his reaction to the American Dream has been one of his most frequently recurring themes. For many years Hughes, often hailed as "the poet laureate of the Negro people," has been recognized by white critics as an author-poet of the protest genre. Others, more conservative and denunciatory, have assailed Hughes as radical and leftist, to mention the more polite language. In both instances the critics referred to Hughes's treatment of imperfections in the American Dream that we, as a nation, hold so dear.
The American Dream may have come dramatically true for many, Hughes says, but for the Negro (and other assorted poor people) the American Dream is merely that—a dream. If the critics and would-be censors had read further they would have noted that for Hughes the American Dream has even greater meaning: it is the raison d'être of this nation. Nevertheless, Hughes was still a regular target for right-wing barbs as recently as the 1960's, having been anathema to the right wing for decades.
As might be expected Hughes has written most frequently, though not exclusively, of Negro characters. Consequently the importance of the color line in America is frequently reflected in his work. The effect of the color line on the American Dream is therefore an integral part of his protest. In one of his biographies for young people, Famous Negro Music Makers (1961), Hughes quotes musician Bert Williams as saying: "It is not a disgrace to be a Negro, but it is very inconvenient." In viewing the string of "inconveniences" vitally affecting the dignity of black Americans Hughes voices his reactions to shriveled freedom, dwarfed equality, and shrunken opportunity—blemishes on the essential ingredients of the American Dream. His poetry and prose echo protest and, usually, hope.
Two poems especially reflect his theme of protest and hope. "Let America Be America Again," published in Esquire and in the International Worker Order pamphlet A New Song (1938), pleads for fulfilment of the Dream that never was. It speaks of the freedom and equality which America boasts, but never had. It looks forward to a day when "Liberty is crowned with no false patriotic wreath" and America is "that great strong land of love." Hughes, though, is not limiting his plea to the downtrodden Negro; he includes, as well, the poor white, the Indian, the immigrant—farmer, worker, "the people" share the Dream that has not been. The Dream still beckons. In "Freedom's Plow" he points out that "America is a dream" and the product of the seed of freedom is not only for all Americans but for all the world. The American Dream of brotherhood, freedom, and democracy must come to all peoples and all races of the world, he insists.
Almost invariably Hughes reflects hope, for that is part of his American Dream. However, some of his poems, apparently written in angry protest, are content to catch the emotion of sorrow in the face of hopelessness and gross injustice. One of his most biting is a verse in Jim Crow's Last Stand (1943). Aimed at southern lynch law which had just taken the lives of two fourteen-year-old Negro boys in Mississippi, and dedicated to their memory, the poem cried that "The Bitter River" has
… strangled my dream:
The book studied—but useless,
Tools handled—but unused,
Knowledge acquired but thrown away,
Ambition battered and bruised.
In one of his children's poems, "As I Grow Older," the poet looks at the Dream again. He had almost forgotten his dream; then it reappeared to him. But a wall rose—a high, sky-high wall. A shadow: he was black. The wall and the shadow blotted out the dream, chasing the brightness away. But the poet's dark hands sustain him.
My dark bands!
Break through the wall!
Find my dream!
Help me to shatter this darkness,
To smash this night,
To break this shadow
Into a thousand lights of sun,
Into a thousand whirling dreams
On a similar theme, one of the concluding poems in his child's book, The Dream Keeper (1932), treats of the Dream. In "I, Too," the "darker brother" of America eats in the kitchen when company calls. But tomorrow, he says, he'll eat at the table; nobody will dare tell him to eat in the kitchen then.
They'll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—
I, too, am America.
In Montage of a Dream Deferred (1951) Hughes might have been thinking of the wall which blackness had erected in the child's poem. Montage's background is Harlem. There is a wall about Harlem, and the American Dream, as a reality, exists outside Harlem. Harlem (and, one can just as well add, the world of the American Negro) is a walled-in reality where dreams are deferred. The faded Dream pierces black New Yorkers to their hearts. Things which "don't bug … white kids" bother Harlemites profoundly. White boys cling to the stimulating dream that any American may grow up to be President of the United States. The Negro boy knows better. He also knows that the liberty and justice of the Pledge to the Flag are inherent rights only of white folks. Even in Harlem, the capital of the North which Hughes once described in a novel as "mighty magnet of the colored race," the American Dream is frayed and ragged.
Throughout Hughes's life—and his literary expression—the American Dream has appeared as a ragged, uneven, splotched, and often unattainable goal which often became a nightmare, but there is always hope of the fulfilled dream even in the darkest moments. During World War II Hughes, commenting on the American Negroes' role in the war, recognized this. "… we know," he said in a 1943 speech reprinted in The Langston Hughes Reader (1958),
that America is a land of transition. And we know it is within our power to help in its further change toward a finer and better democracy than any citizen has known before. The American Negro believes in democracy. We want to make it real, complete, workable, not only for ourselves—the fifteen million dark ones—but for all Americans all over the land.
The American Dream is bruised and often made a travesty for Negroes and other underdogs, Hughes keeps saying, but the American Dream does exist. And the Dream must be fulfilled. In one of his verses he put it more plainly. He might have been speaking to his harshest political critics or to the white youths who beat him up on that long-ago summer day in Chicago.
I live here, too.
I want freedom
Just as you.
Source: James Presley, "The American Dream of Langston Hughes," in Southwest Review, Vol. 48, No. 4, Autumn 1963, pp. 380-86.
Deutsch, Babette, "Waste Land of Harlem (review of Montage of a Dream Deferred)," in the New York Times, May 6, 1951, p. 23.
Hughes, Langston, Montage of a Dream Deferred, Holt, 1951; reprinted in The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, edited by Arnold Rampersad, Alfred A. Knopf, 1994, pp. 387-429.
――――――, The Big Sea: An Autobiography, Knopf, 1940; reprinted, Hill and Wang, 1993, p. 209.
Rampersad, Arnold, "A Chronology of the Life of Langston Hughes," in The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, edited by Arnold Rampersad, Alfred A. Knopf, 1994, p. 15.
――――――, Introduction to The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, edited by Arnold Rampersad, Alfred A. Knopf, 1994, p. 4.
Redding, Saunders, Review of Montage of a Dream Deferred, in the New York Herald Tribune Book Review, March 11, 1951, p. 5; reprinted in The Book Review Digest: Forty-Seventh Annual Cumulation, H. W. Wilson Company, 1952, p. 428.
Review of Montage of a Dream Deferred, in Booklist, Vol. 47, March 1, 1951, p. 233; reprinted in The Book Review Digest: Forty-Seventh Annual Cumulation, H. W. Wilson Company, 1952, p. 428.
Younge, Gary, "Renaissance Man of the South," in the Guardian (UK), October 26, 2002, books.guardian.co.uk/review/story/0,12084,818715,00.html (September 28, 2006).
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