Robert A. Rees: What happens to a dream deferred?

(AP file photo) In this Aug. 28, 1963, photo, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, addresses marchers during his "I Have a Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.

“I have a dream...”

— Martin Luther King

George Floyd’s 2nd grade teacher remembers him as “a happy boy” with big dreams inspired by black Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His teacher even framed a drawing 8-year-old George drew of Marshall with the caption, When I grow up, I want to be a Supreme Court Judge.”

Put that image with the image of a policeman’s knee on George Floyd’s neck.

In his poem, “Harlem,” Langston Hughes’ asks, “What happens to a dream deferred?” It is a question that currently is being answered with increasing insistence on the streets of America and throughout the world. It is a question Black people have been living for centuries — and that White America has not yet heard or answered. Behind that question are others: “Do black dreams matter?” “Do black lives matter?”

What matters is that whites need to stop responding with defensive statements like, “all lives matter.” As a black friend said recently, “When Jesus told his disciples to feed the poor, how would he have responded if they had said, ‘Don’t you mean we should feed everyone, including the rich folks?’” Jesus did not say, “Blessed are the meek and the proud, blessed are the merciful and the unmerciful, or blessed are the peacemakers and the warmongers.”

Jesus’ words singled out those whose lives did not matter to their fellow citizens, those whose lives had been shortened, ignored, trodden down, brutalized and ended by violent means. The poor, deprived, and marginalized mattered to Jesus precisely because they did not matter to others.

I confess that they didn’t matter much to me when I came of age in the 1940s and 50s, because I grew up in a racist home, lived in a series of racist communities, attended racist schools and worshiped in a racist church. Racism was part of my cultural inheritance and upbringing. My parents taught me, as they had been taught — through language, attitude and example — that Blacks were less than we were: less intelligent, less capable, less worthy. In short, they mattered less.

Over time — through reading, contemplation, and experience — I began to be bothered by what I had been taught. I was awakened by the teachings of Jesus and by the stories of black lives I encountered in the writings of Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker and other Black authors. In those real and imagined lives I was sensitized to the colossal injustice suffered by blacks.

Shedding racism is not like taking off a coat. It lies deep in the cells of the body, the dendrites of the brain, the chambers of the heart and the dark recesses of the soul. But in the novels, plays, poems and essays of Black writers, I began to suspend my belief in the supremacy of whites and my disbelief in the humanity of Blacks.

Floyd’s dream, like those of many black children growing up in America, was not simply deferred, it was destroyed. What matters is that we recognize that we all bear responsibility for the deferred and destroyed dreams of our black brothers and sisters.

What matters is that those dreams do not continue, in the words of Hughes’ poem, “to dry up like a raisin in the sun” or fester “like a sore--/And then run,” because, as our tragic history shows, when that happens, as Hughes predicts, those dreams might “explode.”

Or, possibly, rarely — as with those who end up making the supreme sacrifice, such as George Floyd and Martin Luther King Jr. — Black dreams of a better, more equitable and just America will matter enough to the rest of us that we will work to make them come true.

Robert A. Rees, Ph.D. Visiting Professor & Director of Mormon Studies Graduate Theological Union Berkeley, Calif.

Robert A. Rees, Ph.D., is visiting professor and director of Mormon studies at the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, Calif.