Langston Hughes is one of the most influential African-American poets in the history of the United States. He lived and wrote during the era of the Civil Rights Movement, an extremely difficult time to be a black writer in America. This sample essay written by a talented Ultius writer, discusses the pros and cons of segregation, highlighting the complexity of the issue through one of Hughes’s most famous works.
Segregation: the bad and the good(?)
The poetry of Langston Hughes spoke about racism and all the harm it did to his people, the extent of the trauma it inflicted on African Americans individually and as a population. In his poem, “Harlem (A Dream Deferred)”, he wrote specifically about the mounting pressure behind the Civil Rights Movement. Years later, the deferment he spoke of is evident in the continued segregation of schools. Two articles that discuss this prevailing theme of Hughes’ poem are:
- “Have Our Colleges and Universities Provided Adequately for the Special Education Needs of Blacks” by Marie D. Gadsen
- “A Dream Deferred: School Libraries and Segregation” by Juanita Warren Buddy and Merchuria Chase Williams
These articles present different views of the same problem, segregation in modern schools, but they approach it from a different perspective. It is suggested in both articles that segregation presents an opportunity to provide culturally specific education to black students that would otherwise be limited in a more diverse setting. These articles take inspiration from the imagery of Hughes’ poem, bringing them all together as a discussion of segregation that remains relevant because of its continued presence in modern society.
Action and visualization
Langston Hughes, by asking “What happens to a dream deferred?” (Hughes 1) suggests that there are alternative consequences of deferring the dream of social equality. An alternative interpretation is that it suggests a variety of processes toward the culmination of the poem:
“Maybe it just sags / Like a heavy load / Or does it explode?” (Hughes 9-11).
The internal conflict of the poem is suggestive of the entire civil rights process. Initially, this takes a variety of forms, drying up, festering, stinking, crusting over, as the dream likely would have for the many different people pursuing it. Then, offset from the first stage of deferment, the dream becomes a burden, hanging heavy and lethargic. All these cases are composed of two parts, an action and a visualization. All except for the last which is simply an action, waiting to be fulfilled by those suffering from deferment. The two articles for discussion are evident of that explosion taking form.
The persistence of segregation
Both articles acknowledge that educational discrimination in the United States and segregation in schools is alive and kicking. Gadsen expresses this as a kind of perpetual friction:
“black culture and heritage are not significant elements in U.S. educational materials or in the perceptions and attitudes of most non-black educators. Blacks know, too, the inequities which continue to require them to be twice as good to get half as far” (p. 55).
This argument is very similar to the festering or stinking mentioned by Hughes in the poem, the kind of deferment that leaves a bad taste in the mouth of anyone involved. It is the common perspective of segregation.
A complex issue
There are multiple sides to the matter, though. Its existence is not a simple case of injustice. Buddy expresses this:
“Some librarians believe parents choose the local MLK schools because their children are more comfortable with other African-American students and faculty, and parents are convinced their children perform better academically and socially in these surroundings” (p. 33).
The segregation issue seldom sees the side of black parents intentionally choosing to segregate their children, but it is real. Both explanations are relevant to the discussion.
The good in the bad of segregation
Hughes did all that he could to promote the elimination of racism, prejudice and the inequalities promoted by segregation through the gift of his writing to society. Both articles look at segregation in education as a balance of pros and cons. On one hand:
“Some writers claim that the primary special education needs of black students is the development of black awareness, of black power, in order to end the deplorable conditions in which the masses of blacks live today” (Gadsen, p. 54).
This would be best served by the kind of intentional segregation that concentrates black students in areas of black culture. Buddy is particularly attentive to this side of the matter. She quotes Wesley Jones, a former library media specialist in a predominantly black MLK school:
“At a more diverse school, students ‘would not be as exposed to African-American writers and people of importance’” (Buddy, p. 34).
Judging by the close similarity of these two arguments, it must be the only perceived advantage to segregation.
Social hindrances of segregation
Even when this effect is successful, it has disadvantages. This is yet another similarity between the two articles. Hannibal, a senior at an MLK high school expressed a desire for more integration:
“’We need a little more diversity,’ he said. ‘The cultures are not mixing. Everybody is going to get out of this school seeing the same people, thinking the same culture, and thinking the same way. Nobody is going to have any difference of opinion” (Buddy, p. 34).
The use of students and teachers is only found in Buddy’s article, but the ideas that come from those teachers like Wesley and students like Hannibal are in keeping with those of Gadsen’s article. Gadsen is more decisive about the negative aspects, however, and confirms the concerns expressed by Hannibal:
“These students appear to possess adequate fundamental skills yet lack cultural exposure and ‘educational polish’” (p. 55).
The fact that both of these articles express virtually identical assessments of the segregation situation, one of unsustainable tension, in the United States is indicative of Hughes’ imminent explosion.
There is no denying that the concept of racism evolves with culture. Langston Hughes recognized this issue and did his best to eloquently bring this problem to light. The poetry of Langston Hughes is applicable to modern conditions decades after it was written. There are undeniable parallels to be drawn between it and the scholars of today who tackle the issue segregation head-on. While there are multiple perspectives and growing philosophical diversity regarding segregation in schools, the general agreement remains that it is a detriment to black students, regardless of the advantages that are likewise agreed upon.
Buddy, Juanita Warren, and Merchuria Chase Williams. “A Dream Deferred: School Libraries and Segregation.” American libraries 36.2 (2005): 33-35. Print.
Gadsen, Marie D.. “Have Our Colleges and Universities Provided Adequately for the Special Education Needs of Blacks?” Change 9.6 (1977): 54-55. Print.
Hughes, Langston. “A Dream Deferred.” Poems, Songs & Writings. Langston Hughes Homepage. School of Performing Arts & Cinema. Virginia: Virginia Tech University. 2008 Web. 12 December, 2011.
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