The American Dream

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.

Grapes, photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Grapes, photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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.

Raisins, photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Raisins, photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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.

[1] Lorraine Hansberry, A Raisin in the Sun (New York: Vintage Books, 1994).

8 thoughts on “The American Dream

  1. I particularly like your imagery and analysis comparing the American Dream to a grape that becomes a raisin. I think this was an important metamorphosis for the family in the play, particularly since the play leaves off at a point where it seems like there is attainment of the dream, but in reality, the family has an uphill battle as they move into a white neighborhood that clearly does not want an African American family among them. So really, is the American Dream ever something that’s truly attainable, or do we fight our whole lives trying to fit together the pieces of one dream? Maybe the American Dream is outdated.

    1. I agree – I often find myself wondering what the “American Dream” is and who determines what we all seem to be working towards. “A Raisin In the Sun” allows readers to reflect on these questions and others concerning the quest for greatness and “American-ness” is our country. Should the “American Dream” as portrayed in the media be re-named a “White American Dream”?

      1. We actually just talked about this concept of the American Dream in Cindy’s class. We always seem to try to figure out what came first… the idea that we need to aspire towards this dream, or the dream itself? And who is defining that dream for us? If home ownership is that dream, then most people before the advent of home loans could not possibly hope to afford it….

      2. I thought it was ironic in Cindy’s class how, when discussing the American dream, many of our classmates fell into interpretations of the American Dream established through the White Ethnic Revival we discussed last week. Maybe the Dream changes, but never really leaves the purview of the majority?

    2. I also enjoyed your use of imagery, and your discussion about evolution and the negotiation process attached to realizing a dream. Perhaps the challenges the Youngers will encounter in their new community is another step in the process of making a dream a reality.

    3. I liked how you showed that the American Dream was not the process of the individual, but was dependent on the needs and wants of others, and that individual dreams can be combined into one overarching goal.

  2. I really enjoyed your suggestion that Hansberry brings to the forefront the idea of the American Dream. This is the main facet of what makes this story accessible to everyone, regardless of race and has helped this story stay applicable to further generations. I am looking forward to seeing how this story’s application will change as the idea of the American Dream changes.

    1. Has it really changed very much since the play was written? It will be really interesting to see if the transitions the nation and the world are undergoing right now have a direct impact on the idea of the American Dream.

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