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
Yearning for the American dream pulses through our culture with the regularity of a ticking clock, but what is this dream and how is the dream realized? Lorraine Hansberry, American playwright of “Raisin in the Sun”, discusses the nuances of the American dream by looking closely at the dreams of one family and how those dreams changed over time.
Hansberry prefaces her play with a poem by Langston Hughes that poses a question to the reader: “What happens to a dream deferred?” Hughes has many options for the outcome of a deferred dream, but Hansberry answers Hughes with the title of her play: a dream set aside dries up like “A Raisin in the Sun”. In a week’s time a grape is transformed into a raisin, in this same time frame Hansberry illustrates how a dream can also be transformed from bountiful to restricted.
In the play, Beneatha dreams of obtaining an education, Travis dreams of a disposable income, Walter dreams of being a self-sufficient business owner, Ruth dreams of having a happy marriage, and Lena dreams of a home her family can call their own. These individual dreams come together to represent all of the traditional aspects of the American dream but there is a disharmony when all of these dreams are pursued at once. The result of the disjointed goals is a summative “drying” of the family resources that the family needs to make any of these dreams a reality. This drying up of resources forces the family to come together to form one common dream to pursue together. It is not until the family binds together that their revised collective dream can come true. Just as a grape must loose some of its content to become a raisin, a dream must also undergo revision to become a reality and that a dream is never accomplished alone. To quote one of my favorite songs by Aerosmith, one of Hansberry’s messages seems to be “dream until your dreams come true” and that the strength to make those dreams happen comes from working together.
An education is never accomplished alone, at the very least there must be a teacher and a pupil. To earn money one needs an employer. To be a business owner one needs a customer. A happy marriage takes two. And a home for the family needs more than one person to fit the definition of “family”. Even though the pursuit of the traditional “American dream” is often portrayed as an individualistic task, Hansberry reminds us that we need each other to accomplish our dreams. Even though dreams are often deferred in life, the result of the deferment is a sweeter, more concentrated version of the original. Trials and time work on dreams as the sun works on a grape – if we resist the urge to throw them away or give up, the result is sweet.
 Lorraine Hansberry, A Raisin in the Sun (New York: Vintage Books, 1994).