By Langston Hughes, 1951
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?
Many of us were required to study this poem in a high school or college literature class, and we interpreted it and related to it with our limited knowledge and life experience at the time we read it. As I read this poem today, during our country’s social unrest, I understand Hughes’ lament for people of color not being allowed the privilege of fulfilling dreams.
As I read this poem today, it takes on a heart wrenching meaning, for Hughes’ prophecy has come true. The “dream that has been deferred” since January 1, 1863, when President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing all slaves, exploded in the 1960’s, and the “dream deferred” has exploded again.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (NBA basketball player) in a May 30, 2020, Los Angeles Times editorial asks the reader, “What do you see when you see angry black protesters amassing outside police stations with raised fists?” He answers, “What you should see when you see black protesters in the age of Trump and coronavirus is people pushed to the edge, not because they want bars and nail salons open, but because they want to live. To breathe.”
With Abdul-Jabbar’s essay, the Holy Spirit stabbed a hole in my false self. The awakening of truth in my spirit has been painful; I am ashamed, yet I know that recognizing a truth is the first step to change.
What is that truth? One aspect of that truth is as a white human in the United States, I have experienced white privilege. I am not at fault because I was born white, but I have enjoyed “white privilege.” I have been able to fulfill many dreams, without being consciously aware that many of my brothers and sisters are not able to fulfill theirs.
I have enjoyed “white privilege” in living. I have not had to worry about the safety of my children in the same way that I’ve heard African-American mothers lament on the evening national news. I have not had to worry about my husband being profiled. I have not had to worry about feeling “safe, walking around” my neighborhood “without my dog or another person” as Meesha Jefferson writes in a June 19 Times Republican editorial.
Open My Eyes, Lord
As I reflected, at length, on Abdul-Jabbar’s essay, I became aware of the second aspect of this truth—I have suffered unconscious bias all my adult life. My sister participated a few years ago in a workshop on this subject. I scoffed at the idea. Of course, I didn’t suffer from any bias—unconscious or conscious.
But Abdul-Jabbar’s essay causes me to rethink that response. If I were walking down a semi-dark street at night and a black man was walking toward me, how would I feel? Probably a bit frightened. When I hear an African-American speak with educated English, I note that, for I notice she is not speaking in Black English. I have noted the different build of African-American women. I notice when I see an African-American in a professional position—physician, college instructor, writer, nurse, politician. . . But prejudiced? No, not me.
The Holy Spirit has quietly, and not so quietly, been about the task of awakening my false self to truth. I admit it. Now what? I know that recognizing my bias is a first step.
For various reasons, I probably won’t march in a protest or demonstration, but I can pray for the Holy Spirit to continue in me this awakening to truth and a change of heart. This awakening involves becoming more informed of the injustices suffered by persons of color because of “white privilege.” I’ve just finished reading Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, his memoir about his legal practice “dedicated to defending the poor, the wrongly condemned, and those trapped in the furthest reaches of our criminal justice system.” Read all of these categories as people of color.
Help Me to See
I’m listening to The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. The novel tells of an 18-year-old female slave who escapes the Georgia plantation on which she was raped and severely beaten. The frightening aspect of this novel is that the attitudes illustrated in this novel have continued through time to present.
I can speak what the Holy Spirit is teaching me and not remain quiet, even though it may be scary to speak up.
I plan to continue to inform myself, to listen, to seek opportunities in which I can support people of color, to pray for attitudes to change, for I don’t think we can legalize respect for others. This must come from within.
The Declaration of Independence declares, “. . .all men are created equal.” God, forgive us. We haven’t done such a good job in living this statement.
The Church teaches God has created all persons with equal dignity. God, forgive us. We haven’t done such a good job in living this statement within the Church.
I can’t change the world, this country, the Church, or other people. But I can change me. I can be willing to change and trust in the Holy Spirit to give me power to change and to guide me in doing so.
Copyright 2020 Sharon Witty