Friday, September 23, 2011

Dreams Deferred

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

Much has changed since Langston Hughes wrote that poem back in 1951. But I’m not sure that we’ve addressed the deferred dreams that he talked about for many young people.

Alex Kotlowitz uses this poem as the introduction to his book There Are No Children Here. Its the story he wrote after following the lives of Lafeyette and Pharoah Rivers, two young boys living in Henry Horner Homes, a public housing complex in Chicago.

In the preface, Kotlowitz tells the story of one of his first conversations with Lafeyette.

And then I asked Lafeyette what he wanted to be. “If I grow up, I’d like to be a bus driver,” he told me. If, not when. At the age of ten, Lafeyette wasn’t sure he’d make it to adulthood.

At such a young age, Lafeyette had been surrounded by so much violence that his dreams were not only deferred, they were close to not existing at all. That's a recipe for explosion.

Last year Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote a column in which he had the courage to talk about his own experience of what it means to grow up like this. As an adult, he almost went to blows with someone who challenged him verbally on his first gig as a contributing editor at The Atlantic. When he realized what he'd done, he was mortified...and then reflected on where it came from.

If you are a young person living in an environment where violence is frequent and random, the willingness to meet any hint of violence with yet more violence is a shield. Some people take to this lesson easier than others. As a kid, I hated fighting--not simply the incurring of pain, but the actual dishing it out... But once I learned the lesson, once I was acculturated to the notion that often the quickest way to forestall more fighting, is to fight, I was a believer. And maybe it's wrong to say this, but it made my the rest of my time in Baltimore a lot easier, because the willingness to fight isn't just about yourself, it's a signal to your peer group.

To the young people in my neighborhood, friendship was defined by having each other's back. And in that way, the personal shields, the personal willingness to meet violence with violence, combined and became a collective, neighborhood shield--a neighborhood rep. And so it was known in my time, for instance, that "North and Pulaski" or "Walbrook Junction" or "Cherry Hill" were not to be fucked with.

I think one can safely call that an element of a kind of street culture. It's also an element which--once one leaves the streets--is a great impediment. "I ain't no punk" may shield you from neighborhood violence. But it can not shield you from algebra, when your teacher tries to correct you. It can not shield you from losing hours, when your supervisor corrects your work. And it would not have shielded me from unemployment, after I cold-cocked a guy over a blog post.

I suspect that a large part of the problem, when we talk about culture, is an inability to code-switch, to understand that the language of Rohan is not the language of Mordor. I don't say this to minimize culture, to the contrary, I say it to point how difficult it is to get people to discard practices which were essential to them in one world, but hinder their advancement into another. And then there's the fear of that other world, that sense that if you discard those practices, you have discarded some of yourself, and done it in pursuit of a world, that you may not master.

The streets are like any other world--we all assume an armor, a garment to suit that world. And indeed, in every world, some people wear the armor better than others, and thus reap considerable social reward. In the main, it's been easy for me to discard the armor of West Baltimore, because I wore it so poorly. I was never, as they say, truly built for the streets. And still, even I struggled to take it off. But I know others who were masters. (My own brother, for instance.) Inducing them, and those in between, to change class, to trade their plate for robes, to trade the broad-sword for a spell-book, is the real work.

Coates knows what happens to young people who grow up with this kind of violence - and he knows how hard it is to let go of that armor that serves as a protection.

As a country, we're paying the price for ignoring all of that every day. And so the cycle repeats and feeds back on itself - to the point that today, one in three black boys will spend time in prison during their lifetime. That's the answer to Hughes question about what happens to a dream deferred.

I understood immediately what Coates is talking about because that "real work" he refers to is what I attempt to do every day in my professional life. For years we've worked with these kids trying to show them that they can take the risk of dropping that armor. It works when the adult involved understands what's at stake and is willing to stand beside them in those moments that take tremendous courage. And now we're doing what we can to spread the word to other adults in these children's lives - parents, neighbors, teachers, police officers, librarians, etc. - that they too need to understand and step in to provide alternatives rather than simply condemn and discard these children.

A few years ago I adopted a goal for our organization of changing the way this city deals with young people. It may not happen in my time, but that's what we work towards every day. Our children WILL dream again!


  1. One in three!!! If that statistic is right, it is a virtually ignored crisis.

  2. John, the statistic comes from the Children's Defense Fund report on The Cradle to Prison Pipeline - which happens at the intersection of race and poverty.

    This is the crisis that colors the views of every African American in this country. They know it because they live it.

  3. I consider myself educated, but I am really not. I am a white American male. My wife is an African American female. She must thing I am an idiot. She is kind, though. She keeps it to herself.

  4. You walk the walk, Ms. Pants.

    You walk the walk.

    John, what you present - NO, you are NOT an idiot - in terms of your marriage is jussst what I'm talking about from the perspective of arriving where it appears you'd like to be.

    I'll break it down in smaller pieces.