A Dream Deferred: Activism and the Arts

       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

Langston Hughes was 49 when he published that poem, back in the True-Man era. He’d seen some ups, and he’d seen a lot of downs, born soon after the War to End All Wars, growing up “Negro” in the crime-roaring twenties, and the soul-deep Depression. He’d seen the Labor Movement crushed by hired corporate guns and goons, and government of the mighty by the mighty saved by the “traitor to his class”—who was no traitor to his class! … He’d seen another War to End All Wars and the holocausts of Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Dachau, and the beginning, of a “Cold War”–that was no Cold War!

And he’d seen a people put their dreams on hold. A “Negro” people, an American people; and the poor and powerless and disenfranchised all over the world—war-weary, war-devastated, hard-laboring, peace-craving, hungry, disenchanted, confused by the cascading changes, searching, questioning, truth-seeking light in their leaders—and holding fast to their dreams: the old dreams of peace, equality of opportunity–and equality before the law; fairness—a New Deal, a Fair Deal; the dream of the promise of technology to eradicate poverty, to expand human horizons to the zenith of our best understanding; the dream of social progress in our families, our communities—and in our shared humanity.

“What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore—and then run?”

We are nearly 3 generations removed from the publication of Hughes’ poem. We’ve had some ups—and a lot more downs. We’ve seen the best minds of our generation destroyed by madness, as Alan Ginsberg put it. The madness of materialism—owning things, possessing things, caressing things in a world of shrinking resources, “peak oil,” water shortages, food riots. We’ve seen the promise of technology pollute our rivers, our lakes, even the fathomless seas, and the air we and our children breathe. We’ve been confused by the cascading changes, future-shocked by the rate of change–the unbearable lightness of our being–and we wonder where to stand, and how to hold on to this fiercely spinning globe.

And we hold fast to the old dreams of honor and even “noblesse oblige”; and we hold fast to the new dreams of democracy, freedom and fair play. We seek the light of truth in our leaders; we petition; we vote—because we hold to our dreams, and we have been told, we have been taught, we have been trained—this is the way. We are peace-craving. We do not want conflict. The average man and woman eschews conflict.

We petition. We march. We shout, “Not in our name! Not in our name! Not in our name!” And our leader smirks, he chuckles, his shoulders shake. “Isn’t freedom wonderful?” he says. And the bombing begins. And the holocaust continues. Six years now. One million dead. Millions more wounded, raped, crippled, torn physically, mentally, spiritually.

“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?”

We gather here—and in towns and villages, suburbs and cities all over this land–to ponder Hughes’ mighty question—to share the burden of our dreams, to challenge our dreams: have they been beacons, or have they misled us? This American Dream that Henry Miller back in 1945 called “an air-conditioned nightmare”—where is it taking our world—this shrinking, wounded globe we share with hungry billions—what healing vision can we offer? We who traveled first into the future—where did we stumble, where did we lose our way? And can we help each other now? Can we put aside the territoriality of ideas, the preciousness of ideology and find the thread out of the maze?

These are mythic times—and we have been like the explorer Jason, wandering through the labyrinth, lost in a hall of mirrors in which we have had to confront ourselves, our worst fears, and, ultimately, the child-devouring demon, that half-beast, half-man Minotaur-monster that looks a little bit—bears an uncanny resemblance to–Dick Cheney! But is really much more than Dick Cheney—is really, the consummation of our dreams distorted—dreams of comfort and ease and endless expansion on other people’s lands, using other people’s resources. And now, even as we confront the Beast, we ponder the way back. And we remember that the root of the word revolution is volvere, to turn, with the prefix re—back. And so we wonder how to get back to first, best principles—the best thoughts of our spiritual leaders: “Love thy neighbor as thyself”; “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” … ; “Follow the golden mean.” And we hold in our hands the secret of the way back: not a rope, not a cord, or spool of thread as the mythological Jason, but a chain—every single link forged with understanding, courage, creativity and action.

Let us then learn from one another, for we have been Argonauts–travelers on a voyage of discovery, trying to determine our place amidst the light and the shadows. “Whence come we? What are we? Whiter are we going?” Gaugin titled one of his paintings. Let us then listen and inspire.

We have many sharp analysts on the Left,– acute minds trained in dialectic; wonderful writers and thinkers who can present well-honed arguments; people armed with information, facts and figures; and we have humanists who see the bigger picture—We know how corporatism and militarism impact communities, and we can buttress the story with solid information to ameliorate and avoid the crises, to work towards building a new world. But, sometimes, we lose sight of the importance of the artist in conveying the message to the people most affected by these seismic changes; conveying that message in an emotional and unforgettable way—combining the best of what we think and what we feel.

“Poets,” Shelley told us, “are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” And he meant “poets” in the biggest sense—those who dare to dream: wordsmiths and painters, musicians and dancers, playwrights—and the man or woman working in wood, in clay, fashioning mind-heart rhythms into palpable essences, memorable, life-altering events: departures from the quotidian that make returning to our former states uncomfortable or impossible. “You must alter your life,” Rilke tells us at the end of his Apollo Belvedere poem. Creation is a constant challenging.

But we have been living through an Age of Brass. The great ferment of the 50’s, 60’s and early 70’s has tasted like sour wine poured from old bottles, as our artists sat back and financialized their talents. The formulaic, the commercial established their domain over innovation, the politically and socially questioning and challenging. The Baby Boomers long ago boomed-out, and the generations that followed took the primrose path of co-optation, milked the golden calf long before the calf was ready, and the grantsmen came, and the university sinecures were offered to the complaisant and the facile and non-threatening.

For almost forty years we have wandered in this desert of non-art: art divorced from the life and concerns of “average” men and women. And because “artists” (artistes! Artists manque!) have turned their backs on the life and times of the people they should serve, they have, in turn, been shunned by the peanut-crunching crowd, the pop and popcorn consumers, the beer and bratwurst guzzlers, too tired to think, too numbed to feel.

But … great changes start at the edges. The first amphibian crawls out of the sea; a seed is planted, a corner-stone laid. In the fullness of time, “Gilgamesh” is written. Even today, artists are sounding the depths at the margins, going beneath the “dead zones” to where the fastest fish escape to jangle our nerves. From Java Monkey Café in Atlanta to the Cornelia Street Café and Yippie Museum in Manhattan; from slams in Chicago to private homes in D.C.; from soirees in the tony Berkeley Hills to coffee shops in Seattle, the tribes are gathering, polishing the old tales, spinning new ones.

We refuse to be quiet any longer. We refuse to numb ourselves to corporate crime, the military-industrial complex, the pollution of mainstream media, the theft of our ballots, the dumbing-down, the bastardization of our arts and culture. We are gathering and telling our stories. We are listening and painting and shaping the wood and inserting the grace notes. Poets are collaborating with composers and musicians. We no longer buy the tripe of “art for art’s sake.” We do not wait for the professors to sanction what we do. Politics is too important to be left to politicians. Politics is about power relationships and we demand to be part of the equation. Here, we are aided by new technologies: We can burn our own CD’s, we can publish our own books, market our wares on the web; and take down the Empire of greed and duplicity with every chalk drawing on the sidewalks of our cities.

We can explore new sounds, new ideas, new visions and new dreams together. We can explode some old myths—and lay the foundation for deeper truths—truths we have wrestled the angel to find: the chiseled truths of intellect, the perdurable truths of the heart.

** Welcoming remarks delivered, with some modifications, at the “Building a New World Conference” in Radford, Virginia, May 22-25 this year.

Poet-playwright-journalist-fictionist-editor-professor, Dr. Gary Corseri has published work in Dissident Voice, The New York Times, Village Voice, CommonDreams and hundreds of other publications and websites worldwide. His dramas have been produced on PBS-Atlanta, and he has performed his work at the Carter Presidential Library. Gary can be reached at gary_corseri@comcast.net. Read other articles by Gary.

8 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Don Hawkins said on May 31st, 2008 at 5:38am #

    I wanted to go to the conference but the little I can do I will keep trying. So after saying that old Bob Dylan comes to mind. “Don’t follow leaders and watch your parking meters”.

  2. Don Hawkins said on May 31st, 2008 at 5:59am #

    Gary you talked about chalk drawing on the sidewalks of our cities. I just saw a commercial new from our friends the coal and gas people. It shows kids playing and drawing with chalk on a sidewalk. The voice in the commercial is saying we need to use coal and we need more oil and gas or we can say goodbye to the American way of life. Then it shows the kids drawing goodbye on the sidewalk. The insanity and arrogance of these people is beyond words.

  3. Edward Campbell said on June 1st, 2008 at 12:12am #

    Dreams deferred, can be recurrent and finally realized, tho’ with some modifications. Perhaps a fitting sequel to the above poem by Langston Hughes would be his; “Let America be America- Again”. It did alter and
    add to this reader’s viewpoints. (That’s activism)

    A good article by Gary which could marry Art to (activism) whereby
    Senator Obama would make ‘Hughes’ vision and poem, a reality.

  4. hp said on June 1st, 2008 at 9:36am #

    In the immortal words of Stevie Wonder:
    “When you believe in things you don’t understand,
    then you suffer,
    superstition ain’t the way.”

  5. Case Wagenvoord said on June 2nd, 2008 at 3:10am #

    You point out that, “The American people do not want to acknowlege any wrong doing on the part of their government…”

    The problem is that while the truth will set you free, it first makes you miserable. Our bourgeois society doesn’t do miserable.

  6. Gary Corseri said on June 2nd, 2008 at 9:23am #


    I agree with your conclusion that “our bourgeois society “doesn’t do miserable,” but I do not see where in my article I’ve said or implied that “the American people do not want to acknowledge any wrongdoing on the part of their government.” That’s not my kind of phraseology–nor do I believe it. With 82% of Americans (according to a recent Washington Post-ABC poll) believing that our country is “on the wrong track,” it’s obvious that most of us acknowledge the grievous sins of our government and culture. The problem is that we have a Government of, by and for Elitists who don’t give a damn about the sentiment of the people they rule. This is where artists can play an essential role–helping to define and shape vague impressions and apprehensions into resonant images and words that capture the Zeitgeist–and elevate our consciousness. In the 60s and early 70s, we had “outside agitators”
    going to our Jim Crow (apartheid) South. As a nation and world, we stand in their debt, and in awe of them, today. Now we need “inside agitators”–those whose words, ideas, music, etc. reach into our minds, bellies and hearts and don’t let go. We need to re-fashion this world as we leave the era of predatory capitalism, global corporatism and Euro-American hegemony behind. How to build upon the best of the West (and the past) and integrate with the new-old currents of energy from Asia, Latin America, etc. will be one of the major challenges of our generation–and of generations to come. And this will all be hugely complicated by the ecological crises we have created. So, there is much work for artists to do, much work for all of us to do, in this Great Reformation.

  7. Case Wagenvoord said on June 3rd, 2008 at 8:25am #


    My deepest apologies. I mentioned that I had quoted your article in one of my blogs. Your article was clipped to another article I quoted from, and I lifted the quote from the second one thinking it was yours.

    I stand corrected and the next time I’ll take the damn paper clip off before I start quoting.

    One of my concerns with the Progressive liturature I’ve read is that it obsesses over symptom without delving into the systemic foundation that is the root cause of our manifold crises.

    One of the roles of the artist is to create the metaphors, in both word and image, that will shine light on this crippled foundation before it destroys us.

    We must draw our inspiration from Latin America where the “people'” are struggling to free themselves from the very same oppression that has enslaved us. The only difference is that we possess so many toys, we barely notice that we’re enslaved. Put a man behind the wheel of a BMW, with an iPod in his ear, and I will show you the most perfect of servants, the slave who thinks he’s a rebel.

  8. Rohini Hensman said on June 3rd, 2008 at 10:49am #

    Bravo, Gary! All I would like to add is that we need to link our dreams across national boundaries too. In our globalized world, it is shared dreams that have the greatest power to transform reality.