Appropriately enough, I come finally to writing this post on the public holiday designed to commemorate the life and mission of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Last semester I took a seminar with Kate Capshaw on African-American children’s literature, eventually writing an essay on contemporary illustrated books that depict the integration of baseball in order to explore how they reify or challenge the consensus memory of the civil rights movement. Along the way, however, as we all know, come the projects that one never quite pursues and for me there was a never-to-be project about early and mid-twentieth century children’s literature that considered how aspects of childhood—especially play and obedience—are differently inflected for children of color. The relevance of this for today can be seen in this piece from The Guardian about the concerns of black parents with “spirited” children.
One aspect of childhood that I want to discuss briefly here is dreaming. MLK, of course, told us that he had a dream about his and other children, but what type of dream was or could this considered to be? We can reflect on Dr. King’s words in 2016 and fear that his dream, and the American dream of opportunity for all, are merely dreams: fantasies that can never come to pass rather than boldly imaginative goals to be achieved through persistent endeavor. For Hamlet, from whom I take my post’s title, dreams were nightmares that led him to fear death and feel claustrophobic. He upbraids himself for being “like John-a-dreams” who “can say nothing.” Albus Dumbledore, that wisest of wise owls, told Harry Potter, missing his parents and besotted with their image in the Mirror of Erised, that “it does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.” Sigmund Freud used dreams to identify the repressed and infantile desires of his patients. Is the danger of dreams that they distract us from the real or that they reveal its inadequacies? As many have argued, MLK’s dream has served problematically to promote interracial amity as the solution to problems that Dr. King himself described as structural and economic.
The dreams of childhood are particularly prone to being disregarded. African-American children are often deprived of both possibility and fantasy, dreams of future greatness and dreams that take them beyond the constraints of the real: a distinction that I falter to make. The preciousness of dreams for African-American children is evoked in Langston Hughes’s collection, The Dream Keeper and Other Poems, first published in 1932. The eponymous protector asks children to bring him their dreams:
That I may wrap them
In a blue cloud-cloth
Away from the too rough fingers
Of the world.
Such dreams, in another poem, are to be held fast: children are warned that “when dreams go / Life is a barren field. These poems suggest the psychological trauma that comes to children who lose their dreams, perhaps a particularly devastating blow for African-American children. Such children, it is elsewhere implied by Hughes, become adults whose dreams—surviving as they do in warped and reduced ways—become politicized weapons.
In a later poem, “Harlem” (1951), Hughes considers the possibilities of “a dream deferred”: is it “a raisin in the sun”? Does it “fester like a sore” or “stink like rotten meat”? Is it merely “a heavy load”? The poem concludes with a question that feels more like a threat as Hughes asks if a dream deferred might “explode.” In The Dream Keeper and Other Poems, this possibility is already hinted at. In “As I Grew Older,” a wall rises between a child and his dream as he ages, as he becomes “shadow… black.” In order to reach the lost light of his dream, the persona implores his hands to “Break through the wall! … to shatter this darkness, / To smash this night.” On a day like today, it is crucial to remember the force of Martin Luther King’s dream, a dream that was an alternative to “the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.” After all, the fantastic images that came in sleep were originally believed to hold prophetic power.