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What Happens To An American Dream Deferred?

This piece first appeared on the site Collected Young Minds, where I regularly contribute pieces of self-reflection, and thoughts on pop-culture and of course allyship and social activism.

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 happens to a dream deferred, America?

The American Dream for so many is represented by words like opportunity, freedom, independence, and acceptance. Since the first settlers came to Jamestown, Virginia to escape religious persecution, our country has been a place of refuge and promise.

The sweet perfume of a history of prosperity, achievement, and wealth permeates our senses. Americans embrace the notion that we are the world’s greatest nation, and when asked why we point to these ideas. And sometimes, we find ourselves lost in that aroma: the sweet scent of all that we have achieved as a nation.

However, the alluring aroma that accompanies these lofty ideals cannot mask an underlying stench – the stench from a dream deferred. Deferred dreams rot; they fester, sag, and explode. And despite our efforts as a country to mask it or accept it, the truth is that the smell has always been there, and continues to permeate the fabric of our nation. Deferred dreams are as American as white picket fences and apple pie.

Like the dream of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, who dreamed that one day this nation would rise up and live out the true meaning of these words “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

Like the dream of the immigrant who fled persecution and sought out this country on the strength of the opportunities spoken of in stories about America.

Like the dream of the unique soul that believes freedom and independence should mean freedom of self-expression and independence of thought and identity.

Like the dream of the woman who wants the world to see the beauty in her intelligence and character over the beauty of her body.

Like the dream of families living in economically deprived communities, believing that prosperity is around the corner.

Like the dream of the black man who wants to be seen as a person and not a threat, an object, or an animal.

And as I read Jeron Bro’s piece on the Untold Story of Young Black Men, I saw a dream deferred. For black men and women, it is a tale with its roots in slavery and perpetuated in systems over time that continues to subjugate and divide.

In that dream, it is the story of a black man who finds himself a product of an environment he didn’t ask to grow up in. A community that is the remnant of segregation and discriminatory practices, locating blacks in communities meant to intentionally isolate them. A community plagued by broken families, an often cited “issue” that is more likely a symptom of the real, often ignored issues: racial profiling in policing, criminalization of black men, and institutionalizing these men before they ever reach true adulthood.

Despite the setbacks and hurdles, this black man discovers himself, only to discover that the person he has become is one that society will not accept and cannot appreciate. And the black man’s dream to carve out a place for himself in society is deferred. Society teaches him to hate himself and his circumstances because society would have the black man believe that it is these characteristics preventing his dream and not the cruelty of a world designed to hold him back. That he is instead being held back by the absence of black men in his community, or the unwillingness of black people to rise above their conditions. That his culture is too extreme, too aggressive to “fit the mold” successfully.

His dream will be deferred, and he will hate himself, and hate his environment, and hate the circumstances in which he grew up, for holding him back.

I was so happy to see Jeron’s post end in a call to action for black men to love themselves in spite of the love the world will not show them back. And particularly for young black men that grow up in communities without the support of father figures, or in communities reinforcing a culture that seems out of sorts with the “status quo” of mainstream society, this message of self-love, creativity, and emotional health are especially important.

However, I believe that this approach lets society off too easily. No community should have to feel like they are not enough or less than. No person should feel like they aren’t meant to fit in. No individual should doubt their dream just because they are different. Placing the burden solely on the shoulders of black male youth to find their way in the midst of these challenges, without acknowledging the role that society has played in perpetuating these challenges for centuries, is another injustice within a long history of injustices.

What is the American Dream deferred?

The American Dream deferred dries up like the resolve of those that live lives confronting systemic oppression and microaggressions daily. It festers like a sore in communities dealing with a history of signals that perpetuate the notion they are inferior and less than. The American Dream deferred stinks like a set of ideas intentionally preserved in the marrow of our culture and identity.

The American dream deferred sags like a heavy burden. It can be a burden defined by hate, self-doubt, resentment, and isolation. I saw a man in Jeron’s story who was affected by this burden and dealt with the pain of that heavy burden by lashing out at his own community.

Ultimately though, his dream deferred – and other disenfranchised, disadvantaged, and minority groups’ dreams – is not his burden alone to bear. And for too long, society has embraced or ignored the oppressive forces that make pursuing that dream a fool’s errand for him.

And if we truly want to be great as a nation, we can no longer place obstacles in the way of other Americans trying to pursue their dreams today. Because behind the sweet aroma of ideals that have defined us as a country, is an underlying truth – we don’t smell nearly as good as we think we do. And like rotten meat, if we are truly serious about our own health and well being, we need to step up and throw this dual existence and this double standard out with the rest of the trash.

I know we like to think our shit don’t stink. But lean a little bit closer America.


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