A Dream Deferred… In The Age of Obama

What do Dr. Martin Luther King’s Dream and the American Dream mean in the Age of Barack Obama? In 2009, I set out to write a play that meditated on that question from a variety of viewpoints. What follows is one of those meditations: a lecture/sermon by one of my alter-egos, Professor Clifton East. (And yes, his resemblance to a certain famed professor is not entirely coincidental.) Keep in mind: Professor East’s is just one of many answers to this question. Needless to say, there are plenty of others.


What happens to a dream deferred, brothers and sisters? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?

That was the prophetic question posed by that brilliant brother, the poet Langston Hughes, so many years ago, the question that Sister Lorraine Hansbury later investigated in her brilliant play inspired by Brother Langston, and that folks in my generation, the civil rights generation, had to struggle with as we battled against the crippling forces of white supremacy, political injustice, social alienation, and existential despair.

What happens to a dream deferred? It’s a question that all great artists grapple with in one way or another. Whether you’re John Coltrane and your territory is the unpredictable, improvisational battleground of jazz music, or Anton Chekhov and your territory is the unpredictable, improvisational battleground of everyday life, with its countless tales of quiet desperation and broken dreams.

It was the question that Dr. King grappled with and made the unending cause of his life. He grappled with it intellectually, extending the best of the Western Socratic philosophical tradition and fusing that tradition with what he’d learned in the black church — not to mention with what he’d learned from the prophetic teachings of folks like Thoreau and Mahatma Gandhi. He grappled with it politically, taking what he’d learned from books and ideas and wedding that to an uncompromising commitment to social justice and racial equality.

And he grappled with it spiritually, because he knew that the civil rights struggle was much bigger than the struggle for racial equality here in America; that it was bigger than passing progressive legislation and electing progressive politicians, that it was bigger than Rosa Parks and Medgar Evers and Emmett Till and those four little girls who died in a church in Birmingham — that ultimately it was even bigger than him.

The civil rights struggle wasn’t a battle over America’s laws; it was a battle over America’s soul. Over whether or not this nation could live up to its own Jeffersonian ideal or continue to live in Jeffersonian denial, over whether white brothers and sisters had the moral courage and political willpower to look into the faces of their black brothers and chocolate sisters and recognize that they too sing America, that they too are America — their skin may be a little darker than mine, the cadence of their voice may be a little different from mine, their moves on the dance floor may be a little more soulful than mine — but they’re my brothers and sisters nonetheless.

Dr. King wasn’t just fighting for the souls of black folks. He was fighting for all our souls. All our dreams. That’s what his dream was all about.

And like Socrates, like Jesus, like Abraham Lincoln, like Mahatma Gandhi, like so many revolutionary freedom fighters before him, Brother Martin chose to lay his life on the line for that dream rather than defer it another day longer.

But these days, brothers and sisters, in the age of Oprah and Obama, we find ourselves asking a different question: what happens to a dream deferred when the president’s a black man?

What happens when you reach the Promised Land — or should I say, when white folks keep telling you that you’ve reached the Promised Land — and suddenly we find that America has partially delivered on the promise of its Founding Fathers by electing an undeniably talented, linguistically gifted, politically astute — if occasionally too politically centrist for my taste — brilliant African-American to the highest office of the land?

Does that mean we now live in a post-racial world where the vicious legacy of racism and white supremacy no longer holds sway on the collective postmodern American psyche?

Is Barack Obama the fulfillment of Dr. King’s dream?

Or let me rephrase the question: Is Barack Obama the fulfillment of Dr. King’s Dream or the American Dream?

Because let’s be clear about something, brothers and sisters: those are two totally, fundamentally different dreams. They may share some similarities on the surface, but they’re radically different. The first is the dream of greatness; the second is the dream of success. The first was inspired by the universal brotherhood and sisterhood of man. The second was inspired by the universal desire to be The Man.

Dr. King’s dream was aimed at the downtrodden, sustained by community, and built on love. The American Dream is advertised to the downtrodden, sustained by competition, and built on the free market.

Make no mistake, brothers and sisters: Dr. King didn’t sacrifice his life just so folks could attain the American Dream. He didn’t want you to be successful. He wanted you to be great. He wanted America to be great, to live up to its potential. And in much the same way, I want Obama to be great. But right now all he is is successful.

Now that may impress most folks. Indeed, it should impress folks. Takes a lot of talent and political genius to defeat the Clinton machine, demolish the GOP, create a national grassroots movement made up of progressives, centrists, and disaffected independents and do it as a caramel-complexioned brother with a last name that rhymes with Osama. So yes, the brother is talented. Multi-talented, without

But I know he can do better.

The Irish novelist James Joyce once wrote that history is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake. After over four hundred years, it seems America is still trying to wake up from, or rather flee away from, its own collective nightmare, the nightmare of slavery and Jim Crow and white supremacy. The nightmare of American poverty and America’s failed war on drugs and Hurricane Katrina. (Personally, I’m still trying to wake up from the nightmare of The Jonas Brothers, but that’s a different story.)

And perhaps many Americans hoped — audaciously hoped — that by electing Barack Obama as our President, we could finally lay the Ghost of America’s Pernicious Racial Past to rest, never to be disinterred or disturbed or mentioned or alluded to ever again.

Racism? “We solved it. Just look at Obama.” Systemic barriers to opportunity? “We fixed them. Just look at Obama.” Police brutality? Economic inequality? The insidious problem of the color line? “Stop complaining, black man. Just look at Obama.”

Now, as much as I love and admire Brother Barack, he ain’t Harry Potter. He’s not the Chosen One. And to all those white folks, and even some folks of color, who may believe that we now live in a post-racial utopia where everything is peaches and honey, and that we’re all just riding on one great big post-racial love train, allow me to reply with a less than intellectually rigorous yet straight-to-the-point rebuttal: bull-turkey.

We must come to realize that although we’ve made wonderful progress, tremendous progress, audacious progress when it comes to race relations in this country, despite all that, we have not yet reached the Promised Land, I’m afraid.

So when will we reach the Promised Land?

When America grows out of its perpetual adolescence and becomes a nation of adults. When each and every one of us becomes maladjusted to injustice. When we stop confusing success with greatness. When love, and not the dollar or the euro or the yen, becomes the true global currency. When we let go of our fantasies of wealth and decadence and 15-minutes of viral video fame and face our nightmares. Because as Dr. King knew, we can only reach our dreams by facing our nightmares.

And who knows — maybe we’ll never reach the Promised Land. Maybe I’m being too optimistic, too pessimistic, too unrealistic, maybe I’m simply too maladjusted to injustice and I should just stop complaining and accept the fact that what we’ve got now is probably the best we’re gonna get. Least in my lifetime.

Well, the only thing I can say to that is to quote that brilliant brother John Lennon: “You might say I’m a dreamer. But I’m not the only one.”

Arriving at the Promised Land isn’t the point. The point isn’t to live in the Promised Land. The point is to imagine the Promised Land. And to do everything you can to get there. And as long as my mind is sound, my body is strong, and my soul is lifted, I’m gonna keep on imagining, I’m gonna keep on fighting, and I’m gonna keep on dreaming. About greatness, not about success.

So what does happen to a dream deferred, brothers and sisters?

I guess it all depends on which dream we’re talking about. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

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