The Significance Of Dreams In The Harlem Renaissance

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In the early 1900s, a new wave of art acknowledged as Modernism, swept across the world bringing a whole new perspective in all art forms. Modernism represents the enlightenment of the transformations and pressures of the modern world and allowed freedom and a new interpretation of what art is. These authors and artists used history, political and social problems as irony to convey their point. During this time notable African-American authors such as Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes rose as writers of the Harlem Renaissance, a movement promoting African-American civil rights. We see a most interesting influence of works by esteemed writer Langston Hughes in the promotions and speeches by activists, one of the most notorious being Reverend Martin Luther King.

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During the times of the Harlem Renaissance author, Langston Hughes stood for civil rights where the African-American people were not pressured to “whitewash” themselves, instead they look to “folk” in forms like Southern folk songs and Jazz music. The structure and tones of this kind of music bled into many poetic works that were written in free-verse, rhythmic and prose style that often included narratives. Langston Hughes was most certainly a poster child for the Harlem Renaissance, you can explicitly see most of what was just described in many of his poems such as “Freedom,” “Mother to Son,” and “Negro Speaks of Rivers.” Hughes advocated for the historical and practical portrayal of the African-American people, whether it be the noting multiple examples of slavery throughout history in “Negro Speaks of Rivers” or shedding light and growing a closer connection through the dialect used throughout “Mother to Son.” The new age of Modernism certainly allowed artists and authors to challenge society’s way of thinking, to ultimately make them see the changes that can be made to create a more accepting future.

One of the most apparent parallels between Hughes’ works and civil rights efforts would be between Hughes’ “I Dream A World” and Martin Luther King’s speech “I Have A Dream.” From the titles alone you can see the likeness, but in reality, the influence of this poem flows deep through King’s speech from the March on Washington. As in both, the word “dream” is used repetitively to make a point and even strives for the same impact. Langston Hughes writes “I dream a world where man, No other man will scorn” (Hughes, lines 1-2) “I dream a world where all, Will know sweet freedoms way,” he effectively reminds his audience of what he is striving for and hope for the future (Hughes, lines 5-6). Similarly, King uses repetition and it is quite evident that he is trying to do the same as Hughes, “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed,” (King, p.12). Both influencers have crafted their message with care and the spirit to dream of better times.

The similarities between the speech and the poem have been a topic of discussion among critics and other authors for a while. Mick Kulikowski from North Carolina State University states that “King spoke truth to power, and part of that strategy involved riffing or sampling Hughes’ words. By channeling Hughes’ voice, he was able to elevate the subversive words of a poet that the powerful thought they had silenced” (Kulikowski, p.26). Through King’s speech, Hughes’ words were brought into the light and made more widespread than ever, even though King didn’t credit Hughes in his speech, scholars drew the connections between the two and strengthened the claim both strived to make. Hughes truly lays it all out in the line “Whatever race you be, Will share the bounties of the earth, And every man is free,” and is often used as evidence when comparing the line in King’s speech that “I have a dream that one day … little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers.” The power of both Hughes’ poem and King’s speech is immeasurable in perspective of how far we have come as a nation in terms of civil rights.

Not only in “I Have A Dream” and “I Dream A World” are there echoes of the impact that Langston Hughes had on Martin Luther King. Hughes also wrote a poem called “Harlem,” which inspired the 1959 play “A Raisin In The Sun.” Hughes’ poem is most noted for its line “What happens to a dream deferred?” Hughes writes. “Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? … Or does it explode?” Mick Kulikowski shares that just three weeks after the premiere of “A Raisin In The Sun” a speech was delivered by Martin Luther King titled “Shattered Dreams” where he directly portrays Hughes’ imagery and shares that “I [King] am personally the victim of deferred dreams.” On multiple occasions, we can see the inclusion of Hughes’ works into King’s speeches and sermons and King often requested copies of Hughes’ work and could recite from memory. Perspective sets in when thinking about relationships between influencers, instead of putting them into boxes we see how these people play off of each other’s ideas to create something that holds the reputation that they do years after their publication.

Many, including W. Jason Miller (a professor at NC State University), believe that without the influence of Langston Hughes’ poetry Martin Luther King would have never started speaking about dreams. Hughes often used dreams in his works to represent the good in what could happen, not forgetting the past, but focusing on what can make the future better. As believed, this would inspire King, create the goal of unifying and inspiring people in a way to combine the political, prophetic, and the poetic in a way, but also makes the speech completely his own. The idea effects that dreams have on the human mind is astounding, it creates an overwhelming sense in us that rallies behind the idea that we can make a change, we can be better, we can change the course of history. While Hughes may have initiated the dream King had a larger platform to portray these “dreams,” and if you ask almost any person you meet on the street they can tell you exactly who MLK is and the title of his speech. However, without a doubt in our minds, we can credit Langston Hughes with the large impact that he made not only through the Harlem Renaissance but is an integral part he played in the making of history in the civil rights movement.

07 September 2020

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