American Illusions: The Realities of the American Dream According to Langston Hughes
Born in 1902 in Joplin, Missouri, Langston Hughes embodied the subtle status of African-American culture during his career as a novelist, poet, and scholar. Hughes was a unique poet, in that he sought to communicate the voices of black America and reflect the culture, lifestyle, and obstacles involved in black American life. Through his writing, experiences, and uncanny ability for empathy, Hughes developed a strong understanding of the American dream, and the state of the American dream in society. More specifically, Hughes was able to effectively give voice to the disenfranchised American dream belonging to black America, a dream that was far removed from the traditional American dream. Through strong portrayals of prejudice, poverty, and obscurity, Hughes tells of a downtrodden dream, a dream for those who could not even obtain rights such as liberty and equality. For these people, dreams often die, or are forgotten. However, Hughes does not declare that all hope is lost. Though the subjects of his American dreams are often bereft of possession, respect, and dignity, Hughes states that their dreams, while not realized immediately or easily, can in fact be realized with time, belief, and dedication. Through works such as “As I Grew Older,” “I, Too,” “American Heartbreak,” and “Let America be America Again,” Hughes articulates the meaning of the American dream of the disenfranchised, faces the obstacles to its achievement, and sheds light on the modern context of the American dream as it relates to society as a whole.
“As I Grew Older,” originally published in 1925, directly refers to a narrator’s dream. The poem focuses on the difficulty of facing obstacles on the path to achieving success. While the poem does not directly refer to cultural context, it is readily apparent that “As I Grew Older” centers around the particular difficulties of African-Americans in finding equality and acceptance in an indifferent world. “As I Grew Older” begins with a dream the speaker had a long time ago, a dream “Bright like the sun.” The speaker, now an old man, appears to be distraught, as this old dream of his was never fulfilled:
My dream. And then the wall rose, Rose slowly, Slowly, Between me and my dream. Rose until it touched the sky—
Throughout the poem, the nature of this wall remains undisclosed. However, the wall is described as being insurmountable, impossible to break through. The figurative language used in the poem serves to dramatize this struggle to break through the wall, and the language is further used to represent the speaker’s loss of hope, as he works futilely against terrible odds. The wall itself is given a human touch, and is personified throughout the poem. As this wall rises to the point of blocking out the sun, the world around the speaker goes dark, and the speaker lies down in the shadows. This action of “lying down” can be interpreted as symbolizing the speaker’s disownment of his dream, and his resignation to the lot life has dealt him. As he lies in the shadows, the speaker cries “my hands, my dark hands!” adding a racial element to the man’s distress. Further, the shadows can be seen as an actualization of the character’s blackness. It is now understood that the speaker represents all African Americans who were forced to relinquish their dreams in the face of discrimination and persecution. Given the speaker’s existence in the shadows, a parallel can be drawn between the speaker and the African American narrator in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. The narrator of Invisible Man meaningfully states that “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me” (Ellison, 3). This powerful description accurately summarizes the plight of the speaker in “As I Grew Older,” and enables greater understanding of the obstacles to the speaker’s dream.
Through line 23 of the poem, the speaker is listless, pessimistic, and seemingly subdued. However, beginning with line 24, the speaker demonstrates a new vigor. With a strong determination, articulated with descriptive language, the speaker sets forth to command his “dark hands” to dismantle the wall, to help him reach his dreams:
My dark hands! 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 Of sun!
Using words with strong consonant sounds such as “shatter,” “smash,” and “break,” the speaker invokes feelings of empowerment and strong desire (Morgan, 1). The poem concludes vibrantly, with imagery of the wall breaking apart, letting through the light to shine on the speaker. With the wall shattered, the speaker would be free to pursue his dreams.
“As I Grew Older” does not portray the disenfranchised American dream in a positive light. Overall, the poem paints a bleak picture of success for black Americans. Furthermore, the ending of the poem does not even result in the speaker reaching his dreams; ironically, the conclusion indicates that even being able to reach his dreams is a dream. The hypothetical shattering of the darkness and smashing of the night never actually occurs, leaving the speaker grasping for opportunity. “As I Grew Older” is thus very indicative of Langston Hughes’ opinion on the black American dream of the early 1900’s; it was not a real thing, and only through dedicated, determined pursuit could the dream be reached for black America.
Why, however, did Hughes feel this way about the state of black America? Another poem, “I Too” (also titled “I, Too, Sign America”) helps to summarize his viewpoint. In “I, Too” Hughes describes a speaker, a “darker brother” who must eat in the kitchen when friends are visiting. Pushed into the background, he is not afforded the same right to meet guests, the same right to opportunity, that the rest of the household members have. It can be said that this situation is representative of black America during Hughes’ time, as African Americans were directly denied opportunity in a variety of ways. Much like the speaker in “As I Grew Older,” the narrator in “I, Too” yearns to enter the foreground of opportunity. To achieve greater opportunity, the narrator plans to “eat well” and “grow strong.” He then expresses this aspiration through planned actions, in the lines:
Tomorrow, I’ll be at the table When company comes. Nobody’ll dare Say to me, “Eat in the kitchen,” Then. Besides, They’ll see how beautiful I am And be ashamed—
By demonstrating his “beautiful” merits, the narrator seeks to be granted opportunity and, in the context of the poem, be accepted as part of America. The fact that this acceptance is sought-after is telling. By indicating that African Americans are not even accepted in America, Hughes further pushes away the traditional American dream as a dream for black people. Further supporting the conclusion of “As I Grew Older,” Hughes suggests another step in the pursuit of the American dream, that of being able to pursue it with complete self-confidence.
It is clear that Hughes believes that there is an inherent, negative separation between being an African American and being a White American, in terms of the American dream. A third poem, “American Heartbreak,” serves to make Hughes’ intentions exceedingly clear. The short poem describes Hughes’ own position, that of an African American looking in from the outside. He is the obstacle on which freedom stubbed its toe, a paradox which America must struggle with. A common theme is now seen to tie together Hughes’ poems: double consciousness. The concept is highly present in both “American Heartbreak” and “I, Too.” The term, coined by W.E.B. Du Bois, refers to the challenge of reconciling oneself with the two cultures that compose one’s identity. Double consciousness is more specifically described as follows:
“The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife, — this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost (bold script is mine – G. Sh.). He does not wish to Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa; he does not wish to bleach his Negro blood in a flood of white Americanism, for he believes that Negro blood has yet a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without losing the opportunity of self-development.” (Gates, Jr., and McKay, p.615)
Additionally, the double consciousness theory implies a distinct separation between a person’s self and the manner by which an individual views himself. Clearly, this split would cause lowered self-perception and esteem among the victimized, disenfranchised participants in double consciousness psychology (Shaduri, p. 89).
What, however, did Hughes propose to enable black America to participate in genuine dreams? In his poem “Let America be America Again,” Hughes proposes his idea of a solution. “Let America be America Again” is a plea for a return to American ideals, while simultaneously acting as an account of the tragic realities of the American dream for those occupying the lower levels of American society. Hughes begins the poem with a summation of traditional American ideals. He speaks of a land where “opportunity is real” and “equality is in the air we breathe.” However, Hughes then writes a few eye-opening lines:
There’s never been equality for me Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”
Throughout the poem, Hughes continues to refer to “homeland of the free” in quotation marks, thus sending a powerful statement. Hughes goes on to describe various disenfranchised groups in America such as the black man “bearing slavery’s scars,” the red man “driven from his land,” and the immigrant who is “clutching” on to hope. As in many of Hughes’ poems, the end of the poem brings with it an optimistic change. Ironically, Hughes states, “Let America be America again, the land it has never been yet, and yet must be.” Indeed, the latter half of the poem serves to be a call to the disenfranchised, to actually create a homeland of the free. Hughes calls out to “Negros,” “Indians,” and “poor men” to take back America and empower themselves. Only then can the disenfranchised bring back their dreams of America, and obtain their American dream. This idea is supported further by the closing lines of the poem:
We, the people, must redeem The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers. The mountains and the endless plain— All, all the stretch of these great green states— And make America again!
In concluding “Let America be America Again,” Hughes declares his intent to empower the poor; without their action, no change is possible. The American dream, in Hughes’ eyes, is unobtainable without this intentional change.
Throughout his career, Langston Hughes was a strong proponent of change in America. He wanted change for all underprivileged residents of America, change that would bring them a step closer to being able to achieve their dreams. While Hughes believed that the American dream existed, he also held the belief that no such dream existed for the disenfranchised populations he wrote about. Essentially, his writings were a call to action for these populations. To reach their dreams, disadvantaged Americans would have to shatter through the walls stopping them, through hard work and dedication. Even to be given the opportunity to pursue their dreams and place themselves in a position to avail themselves of opportunity would require great effort. Further, it is apparent that he believed that action must come from these populations, rather than from the government, or from other, higher-rung levels of society. In the light of recent events, this view may be interpreted as outdated, but it is a view that surely sheds light on the difficulties facing disadvantaged Americans throughout much of the 20th century. However, Hughes’ writings are still relevant in a modern context; it is extremely evident that not all of us have access to the same opportunities, and the task of affording every individual the same opportunity is a daunting one.
Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. New York: Random House, 1952. Print.
Gates, Jr., Henry Louis, and McKay, Nellie Y. (1997). The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. W. W. Norton & Company. New York-London.
Morgan, Kori. “What Figurative Language Is in “As I Grew Older”?” Seattle Pi. Demand Media, 9 Aug. 2015. Web. 5 Dec. 2015.
Shaduri, George. “Double Consciousness” and the Poetry of Langston Hughes on the Example of The Weary Blues.” IBSU Scientific Journal 4.1 (2010): 89-98. Print.
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