A Dream Deferred: Healing through Culture, Dialogues & Sharing Our Arts


Gary Corseri – TRANSCEND Media Service

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

Langston Hughes was 49 when he published that poem, back in the Truman (“True-Man”) era.  He’d seen some ups, and he’d seen a lot of downs; born soon after the War to End All Wars, growing up “Negro” in the Crime-Roaring Twenties, and the soul-deep Depression.  He’d seen the Labor Movement crushed by hired corporate guns and goons, and government-of-the-mighty-by-the-mighty saved by the “traitor to his class”—F.D.R.–who was no traitor to his class! …  He’d seen another “War to End All Wars” and the holocausts of Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Dachau…and the beginning of a “Cold War” that was no Cold War!

And he’d seen people put their dreams on hold.  “Negro” people, American people; and the poor and powerless and disenfranchised all over the world—war-weary, war-devastated, hard-working, peace-craving, hungry, disenchanted, confused by the cascading changes; searching, questioning, truth-seeking light in their leaders—and holding fast to their dreams: the old dreams of peace, equality of opportunity–and equality before the law; fairness!…  A New Deal, a Fair Deal; the dream of the promise of technology to eradicate poverty, to expand human horizons to the zenith of our best understanding; the dream of social progress in our families, our communities—and in our shared humanity.

We are nearly 3 generations removed from the publication of Hughes’ poem.  We’ve seen the best minds of our generation destroyed by madness, as Alan Ginsberg put it.  The madness of materialism—owning things, possessing things, caressing things in a world of shrinking resources, “peak oil,” water shortages, food riots.  We’ve seen the promise of technology pollute our rivers, our lakes–even the fathomless seas–and the air we and our children breathe.  We’ve been confused by the cascading changes, future-shocked by the rate of change—”the unbearable lightness of being,” and we wonder where to stand, and how to hold on to this fiercely spinning globe.

Yet, we hold fast to the old dreams of honor and even “noblesse oblige”; and we hold fast to the new dreams of democracy, freedom and fair play.  We seek the light of truth in our leaders; we petition; we vote—because we hold to our dreams, and we have been told, we have been taught, we have been trained—this is the way.  We are peace-craving.  We do not want conflict.  The average man and woman eschews conflict.

We petition.  We march.  We shout, “Not in our name!” “Peace Now!” “Black Lives Matter!”  And the holocaust continues.  Millions more wounded, raped, crippled, torn physically, mentally, spiritually.

“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?”

And now the waves of resistance surge again.  We gather in cities all over this land–to ponder Hughes’ mighty question—to share the burden of our dreams, to challenge our dreams: have they been beacons, or have they misled us?  This American Dream that Henry Miller back in 1945 called “an air-conditioned nightmare”—where is it taking our world—this shrinking, wounded globe we share with hungry billions—what healing vision can we offer?  We space-cadets who traveled first into a moon-lit future in 1969: “One small step for a man; one giant leap for….”  For whom?  For what?  Where did we stumble, where did we lose our way?  And can we help each other now?  Can we put aside the territoriality of ideas, the preciousness of ideology and find the thread out of the maze?

We’ve been “confined,” isolated, “locked-down,” scared witless by a viral intruder, who stalks our parents, grand-parents, murders friends and partners–over an eighth of a million in the “land of the free”—and millions more have lost their livelihoods and the meaning of their lives…and we find we are not so “brave” as we thought we were, and as we taught our children to sing.  We are “strangers in a strange land,” fearing strangers, neighbors, our families… “forever friends,” lost in foreverness.

We watch the “news” for a way out, but it’s full of political rappers who harp on the same themes and always point in the others’ direction, never acknowledge their role in creating these dead-ends.  It’s a period of confusion, antics, street theater–which the mayor of Seattle deigns a “summer of love.”  And I recall the first time I heard that phrase in 1967, when I was wide-eyed and hopeful, full of the music, love and sexual wonders, wandering towards San Francisco, with flowers in my hair because of “the gentle people there.”  And I thought of that phrase again a year later when a beautiful, pregnant young actress named Sharon Tate, and her friends and an innocent bystander, were slaughtered because a maniac named “Manson” wanted to start a “race war,” because he believed that’s what the Beatles’ were telling him to do in a song called “Helter-Skelter.”

I have not seen America so divided since the Vietnam War.  But in many ways, it is even worse now.  “Words of wisdom” and grace that led us like a divine “pillar of fire,” as we wandered in the wilderness, through the “Valley of the Shadow of Death,” are no longer credible.  First, they came for the extended family of grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins; then the nuclear family of father and mother; and then we lost our way, hitch-hiking through the Universe, alone and guideless.

The great voices are long silent now.  John F. Kennedy, who had bid us strive for the greatness of Periclean Athens; to be lambent in our cultural grandeur.  Martin Luther King, who had a dream, and a vision, and a voice to encourage, inspire and heal.

But…, where is healing and inspiration now?

“The general thesis which binds the essays together,” Bertrand Russell wrote in the preface to his 1935  “In Praise of Idleness”—the general thesis “is that the world is suffering from intolerance and bigotry, and from the belief that vigorous action is admirable even when misguided; whereas what is needed in our very complex modern society is calm consideration, with readiness to call dogmas in question and freedom of mind to do justice to the most diverse points of view.”

He was one of the honored mathematicians and one of the best thinkers of the 20th Century—a man who was leading anti-nuclear-bomb demonstrations into his 90s!

Or, lest I be accused of white-male bias, let’s hear from “the fairer sex,” too:

“Organize, agitate, educate, must be our war cry!”

That, of course, is the indomitable Susan B. Anthony, who, with shining lights like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Jane Adams led women out of their indentured-servant roles of mom, schoolmarm, housekeeper, textile-mill worker, prostitute for the cowboys.

Nowhere is it reported that any of the above salient lights ever advocated “burning down the system” if the system didn’t turn over the keys of the kingdom, and give them everything they demanded.

These are mythic times—and we have been like the explorer Theseus, wandering through the labyrinth, lost in a hall of mirrors in which we have to confront ourselves, our worst fears, our dreams distorted—dreams of comfort and ease and endless expansion on other people’s lands, using other people’s resources.

And now, even as we confront the Minotaur, we ponder the way back.  And we remember that the root of the word revolution is volvere, “to turn,” with the prefix re—”back.”  And we wonder how to get back to first, best principles—the best thoughts of our varied spiritual leaders: “Love thy neighbor as thyself”; “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” …  “Follow the golden mean.”  And we hold in our hands the secret of the way back: not a rope, or spool of thread as the mythological Theseus believed, but a chain—every single link forged with understanding, courage, creativity and action.

We have many sharp analysts on the Left and the Right– acute minds, trained in dialectic; writers and thinkers who can present well-honed arguments; people armed with information, facts and figures; and we have humanists who see the bigger picture.  We know how corporatism and militarism impact communities, and we can buttress the story with solid information to ameliorate and avoid the crises, to work towards building a new world.  But, sometimes, we lose sight of the importance of the artist in conveying the message to the people most affected by these seismic changes; conveying that message in an emotional and unforgettable way: combining the best of what we think and what we feel, so we can experience catharsis (as Aristotle recommended)—“purgation,” to purge ourselves of worn-out prejudices, to get beyond the memes and tropes indoctrinated since childhood.

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” I sang as a child.

But, “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I thought as a child, I understood as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”

“Poets,” Shelley told us, “are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”  And he meant “poets” in the sense of those who dare to dream; wordsmiths and painters, musicians and dancers, playwrights—and the man or woman working in wood, in clay, fashioning mind-heart rhythms into palpable essences, memorable, life-altering events: departures from the quotidian that make returning to our former states uncomfortable or impossible.  “You must alter your life,” Rilke tells us at the end of his “Apollo Belvedere” poem.  Creation is a constant challenge to aspire higher.

But we have been living through an Age of Brass.  The great ferment of the 60’s and early 70’s has tasted like sour wine poured from old bottles, as our artists sat back and financialized their talents.  The formulaic, the commercialized established their domains over innovation, the politically and socially questioning and challenging.  The Baby Boomers long ago boomed-out, and the generations that followed took the primrose path of co-optation, milked the golden calf long before the calf was ready, and the grants-men came, and the university sinecures were offered to the complaisant and the facile and non-threatening.

For almost forty years we have wandered in this desert of non-art: art divorced from the life and concerns of “average” men and women.  And because “artists” (artistes!  Artists manque!) have turned their backs on the life and times of the people they should serve, they have, in turn, been shunned by what Sylvia Plath called “the peanut-crunching crowd,” the pop and popcorn consumers–too tired to think, too numbed to feel.

“Those making haste, haste on decay,” Jeffers wrote, building the tower of his “Tor House” in Big Sur-edging Monterey.  And, those making haste now, hasten the decay and destruction of their best hopes…because, while they may “organize” and “agitate”—as Susan B. advised, they do not “educate” … and all is lost.

Some 60 years ago, as war-hero “Ike” was handing over keys to the Oval Office to his young successor, he warned a Cold War-weary nation about the M-I-C—the Military-Industrial-Complex.  Those “hidden persuaders” are still lurking.  But, I think, if a similar alarm were sounded today, we’d also be warned about the M-E-C-C–the Media-Education-Cultural-Complex.

How much longer can we be stampeded like lemmings over the cliffs?  How much longer can we numb ourselves to corporate crime, political malfeasance, the endless wars, the pollution of mainstream media, the theft of our ballots, the dumbing-down, the bastardization of our arts and culture, racism, sexism and all the various, partisan “isms” that confound clear thinking and muck up what could/should be a glorious world?

At the same time, we wonder how to truly honor “history”—not the “high crimes and misdemeanors,” but our own ability to learn from past mistakes; to express the best of what and who we are through dance, song, music, theater: speeches like King’s, essays like those of du Boise, plays (and movies) like Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun,” novels like Richard Wright’s and James Baldwin’s, poems like Hughes’?

At the same time, can we recognize our debts to those who preceded us—even those whom we now deem “beyond redemption?”  For they taught us!  They taught us what not to do on this small, precious, shrinking planet.  They taught us not to destroy the cultures of others, not to conquer and exploit!

And now we had better heed the best of our lessons; among them, Newton’s 3rd law of motion: for everything an equal and opposite reaction.  Do we really want to establish armed encampments on other people’s property?  Do we really want to burn down the small-business stores and restaurants of our fellow citizens—Black, White, Yellow, Brown, et. al.  Are we so far removed from the “Rainbow Coalition” that we shall suffer self-appointed “leaders” to declare: “If the System does not give us what we want, we will burn in down!”?  Have we burned the cord behind us…the one to lead us out of the Maze?

Or can we yet rise above the madness (in both senses) of these times?  Can we declare: We are not interested in whitewashing or red-painting the past.  We are not interested in the book-burnings of the “National Socialist” state of Germany (the land of Bach, Beethoven, Rilke, Goethe).  We want to understand how fevers generate in the human psyche, transform innocent babies into malicious adults.  This is our task now: to understand, and to share the understanding of ourselves and others.

We shall gather and tell our stories.  Let us recognize and lament the “cultural violence” that has desecrated the landscapes of our minds and hearts.  We no longer buy the tripe of “art for art’s sake.”  Politics is too important to be left to politicians.  New technologies can help us bridge the chasms between cultures, reveal our common humanity.  We need tear down no ancient monuments.  Let us rather build “monuments of unageing intellect” (as Yeats had it).  Let us prophesy a “brave, new world” with the best of our arts and cultures.  Let us recall: One who prophesies [or teaches] speaks unto others “to edify and exhort and comfort.”

We can explore new sounds, new ideas, new visions and new dreams together.  We can explode some old myths—and lay the foundation for deeper truths—truths we have wrestled the angel to find: the chiseled truths of intellect, the perdurable truths of the heart.

We can “exhort”—as Hughes does in his poem.  We can “edify” and “comfort” with the words of the healers and visionaries—ancient and contemporary, from all the world’s religions and traditions.  “A false balance is abomination to the Lord, but a just weight is his delight,” said one.  “Be frugal,” Lao Tzu advised, “so that you can afford to be generous….  Be gentle, so that you can be strong when most needed.  Be humble so that you can be a true leader.”

Having begun my explorations here with a timely and timeless poem by Langston Hughes, I’d like to conclude with a hopeful, luminous poem by Maya Angelou (please click):

A Brave and Startling Truth


Dr. Gary Steven Corseri is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment. He is the grandson of Ukrainian-Jewish and Sicilian-Catholic immigrants, has performed his poems at the Carter Presidential Library, and his dramas have been produced on PBS-Atlanta and in universities, high schools and Little Theaters.  He has published two novels, one full collection and one prize-winning chapbook of poems.  His poems, articles, fiction, dramas have appeared in hundreds of global publications & websites, including: Transcend Media Service, Countercurrents, Village Voice, Redbook Magazine, Miami Herald and The New York Times.  He has taught at universities in the U.S. and Japan, and in US prisons and public schools.  He has worked as a grape-picker in Australia, a gas-station attendant, and an editor. Contact: Gary_Corseri@comcast.net

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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 6 Jul 2020.

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