Langston Hughes: “Montage of a Dream Deferred”

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I play it cool
And dig all jive
That’s the reason
I stay alive.
My motto
As I live and learn
Is dig and be dug in return.

So goes the poem “Motto” in Langston Hughes’s 1951 jazz collection, Montage of a Dream Deferred.

The list of my favorite Langston Hughes poem would be long indeed, but no volume of his poetry makes my heart sing like Montage of a Dream Deferred. Not only does it include justly famous poems like “Harlem” and “Theme for English B” and lesser known poems like “Motto.” But it also – taken as a whole volume as Hughes intended – provides a marvelous portrait of the African American community in post-World War II Harlem.

The story goes that Hughes wrote Montage of a Dream Deferred in a creative outburst in one week in September 1948. Hughes had just moved into his own home after being a renter his entire adult life. Writing to a friend, Hughes described Montage as “a full book-length poem in five sections,” “a precedent shattering opus—also could be known as a tour de force.” I completely concur with Hughes’s self-assessment: Montage of a Dream Deferred is very much a tour de force.

In his early work, Hughes showed how the blues as a uniquely African American musical form shaped his poetry. Some time back, I explored his landmark 1925 poem “The Weary Blues” and the way it exemplified the blues influence on Hughes’s poetry. By the 1940s, however, jazz had more than come into its own, embodying the vast creativity and artistry of African Americans.

Jazz is just right as a vehicle for Hughes’s poetry, for he can riff on a poetic theme much as a band member might riff on a musical motif set down by the leader. Jazz was, of course, a distinct creation of African American musicians. Though there were many white musicians who became interested in and mastered jazz and pushed it in new directions, jazz was largely an African American cultural phenomenon.

No volume of Hughes’s poetry illustrates his “jazz in words” approach quite like Montage of a Dream Deferred. And here it’s especially be-bop and boogie woogie that shape the volume and provide its language and syncopated rhythms. In a prefatory note to the book, Hughes writes,

[T]his poem on contemporary Harlem, like be-bop, is marked by conflicting changes, sudden nuances, sharp and impudent interjections, broken rhythms, and passages sometimes in the manner of the jam session, sometimes the popular song, punctuated by the riffs, runs, breaks, and disc-tortions of the music of a community in transition.

Right from the volume’s first poem, “Dream Boogie,” we are immersed in the “cool” language of be-bop, and we encounter our first syncopated stanza of poetry. Hughes writes:

Good morning, daddy!
Ain’t you heard?
The boogie-woogie rumble
Of a dream deferred?

Listen to it closely:
You’ll hear their feet
Beating out and beating out a –

You think
It’s a happy beat?

Now that the motif has been established – the “dream deferred” – Hughes can riff on it throughout the volume, which he stressed was to be seen as one long poem rather than a collection of 87 individual short poems. He employs different voices, takes different vantage points, takes the same words and plays them back to us in a different way.

Even a short and seemingly straightforward poem like “Harlem” (taught by many an American literature instructor and “sampled” by Lorraine Hansberry in the title of her pioneering play A Raisin in the Sun) can take on a deeper resonance when it’s set in the context of this jazz-in-words volume of poetry. Appearing about midway through the book, “Harlem” opens with one of the most well-known lines in American poetry: “What happens to a dream deferred?” That question is at the heart of this book of poems.

What exactly is the “dream deferred” that gives title and theme to this volume of poetry? Hughes had always played with the theme of “the dream,” in particular the dream of political and social justice for African Americans. “But Hughes now faced the fact,” says The Oxford Index, “that the hopes that had drawn thousands of blacks to the northern cities had led many of them to disappointment, alienation, and bitterness. Some of these poems depict blacks still able to hope and dream, but the most powerful pieces raise the specter of poverty, violence, and death.”

And finally what of the term “montage”? Usually used to name a cinematic technique, the word “montage” describes the quick cuts and splices between disparate but associated images. In this case, the montage is of Harlem just after World War II. Famous for its Renaissance in the 1920s, when African American migrants from the rural South poured into the Manhattan neighborhood and filled it with music, art, literature, rent parties, and life, Harlem by the late 1940s was in decline. The dream African Americans had sought in their own vibrant neighborhood was, indeed, drying up like a raisin in the sun. The montage Hughes gives us, says The Oxford Index, is one that pulls together “virtually every aspect of daily Harlem life, from the prosperous on Sugar Hill to the poorest folk living down below.” The book “touches on the lives of Harlem mothers, daughters, students, ministers, junkies, pimps, police, shop owners, homosexuals, landlords, and tenants; its aim is to render in verse a detailed portrait of the community, which Hughes knew extremely well.”

In his 1940 autobiography, The Big Sea, Hughes said, “I tried to write poems like the songs they sang on Seventh Street. . . . Their songs—those of Seventh Street—had the pulse beat of the people who keep on going.” Eight years later when he wrote Montage of a Dream Deferred, he succeeded magnificently in capturing that pulse beat.

To read Montage of a Dream Deferred, you’ll need to purchase The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, edited by Arnold Rampersad. It is the only place the 1951 volume is available (and except for a few individual poems, you can’t read Montage of a Dream Deferred online).

A great recording of many of Hughes’s poems, including several from Montage of a Dream Deferred, is an album by Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis. It’s available only on vinyl, but if you’ve got a turntable, you’re in for a treat.

If you want to go deeper, consider taking the Langston Hughes walking tour the next time you are in Harlem. The Big Sea: An Autobiographywill give you insights into Hughes’s life, as will Selected Letters of Langston Hughes. True aficionados will want to read Arnold Rampersad’s two-volume biography of Langston Hughes. Volume I of The Life of Langston Hughes is subtitled I, Too, Sing America and covers the years 1902-1941. Volume II is subtitled I Dream a World and covers the years 1941-1967 (the year of Hughes’s death).

Listen:Listen to Langston Hughes read “Harlem,” arguably the most important poem to come out of Montage of a Dream Deferred. You can also watch actor Danny Glover recite the poem.

Image Credit: Langston Hughes, photo by Jack Delano (from Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Reproduction #LC-USZ62-43605).