Daniel J. Cleary


A Poem Un-Anthologized


Watching the 2008 Beijing Olympics, I was struck by a commercial for Nike featuring United States track star Sanya Richards.  Danny Glover narrated in a dramatic cadence and timbre, while images of young and old African American women, among them, Richards, flashed across the screen, accompanied by a sparse, pulse-like piano figure.


The ad copy consisted solely of Langston Hughes’ poem “Harlem” [sometimes entitled “Harlem: A Dream Deferred,” “Harlem (A Dream Deferred),” or simply “Dream Deferred.”]  It reads thus:




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?



I’ve always considered Hughes’ arguably most famous poem to be a cautionary tale about the dangers of postponing dreams and what that postponement can do to the dreamer.   With a title like “Harlem,” the poem can be read as a scathing indictment of the unlikelihood of dream fulfillment in Hughes’ African American experience during the first part of the twentieth century, but changing the title to “Dream Deferred” makes it more universal, warning all dreamers to beware of postponing their ambitions and goals.


The Nike ad, however, was attempting to change what I saw as the poem’s tenor and meaning.   A running sore suddenly became a running athlete.  A psychological or emotional explosion became an athletic explosion. 


I’m all for optimism, and I’m all for multiple interpretations, but, still, something about this commercial seemed wrong--I just couldn’t put my finger on it.


Since I was about to start a new semester, and I was teaching an African American literature course, I decided I would let my students decide: Is Nike exploiting the poem and warping its meaning?  Or can a poem written seemingly out of frustration become inspirational--even jingoistic—if it’s been given the proper audio-visual treatment?


So I flipped through the index of the African American literature anthology that I chose for the course, only to discover that “Harlem” was not listed.  “Oh,” I reasoned, “it must be listed under one of its many alternate titles.”  It wasn’t.


I checked the competing African American literature anthology, and it wasn’t there either.  I went to the Arts and Humanities office and scoured the indices of other American literature and composition anthologies: No luck.  Plenty of Hughes, but no “Harlem.”


“Why,” I asked myself, “is this poem no longer anthologized?  Will it forever be known as a Nike spoken-word jingle?  A call to action reduced to a pitch for pricy sneakers?”


After expressing my confusion to a colleague who teaches philosophy, he, like a philosopher, mused, “What happens to a poem un-anthologized?”  Then, unlike a philosopher, he said, “Look for it on the Web.”  It was readily available online, so I printed it and made copies for my class.


[On a side note: My colleague’s sardonic question inspired me to write the following tribute parody (if you listen carefully, you will hear a New Orleans-style dirge in the background):



Elegy for “Harlem”


What has happened to a poem no longer anthologized?


Has it become too canonical

like Shakespeare and Milton?

Or just become commonplace--

And like Paris Hilton?

Has it been published too often?

Or taken for granted--

like a fine wooden coffin?


Maybe it just sits

like a forgotten ode.


Or will Nike make it explode?



_____ ]


On the second day of class, after the first-day syllabus/policies/

administrative duties were over, we read the poem in class, wrote responses about its meaning, and discussed our interpretations.  Most students agreed with my take on the poem.


Then I showed the video of the Nike ad.  Many of my students expressed the opinion that Nike had done a good job of making Hughes’ poem inspirational.  The narration was moving, the images heartwarming, the music haunting.  Most of them liked it.  Some loved it.


Then, one of my students shrewdly asked, “What about the people who make those shoes for slave wages?  What about their dreams?”


I knew there was a reason I went into teaching.