The poem "Harlem" by Langston Hughes is one of my all-time favorites. I can remember the first time as a little one, learning about the Harlem Renaissance. I was so intrigued. So enamored with the people, artists, culture, and time. My highly visualized mind instantly transported me to this world, where I could see Ella Fitzergerald and Louie Armstrong singing in a dimly lit jazz club with African American men and women dressed to the nines. The melodious, syncopated tunes of Duke Ellington. I imagined being in rooms where Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston and other prominent black writers of the time came together in a fellowship of words, exchanging thoughts and astute observations on the state of blackness in America and the larger world. I could vividly picture fabulous parties and gatherings--in attendance were the likes of W.E.B. DuBois, Booker T. Washington, Aimé Césaire and Léopold Senghor. What a time to be alive!
When I got a little older, in 8th grade or maybe high school I read the play "A Raisin in the Sun" for the first time. The play written by the exceptionally talented, gifted, and black female playwright, Lorraine Hansberry, opens with the poem "Harlem." This is done intentionally as the poem becomes the bedrock for readers' understanding of the family and their overall struggles, but particularly for the play's main character Walter Lee Younger. Walter Lee is a man with a dream of creating a better life for his family, who live in a cramped, somewhat decrepit apartment in a tenement building on the southside of Chicago. Set in the late 1950's, the play explores the harsh realities of growing up black in a white world. Of the effects of dreams deferred and black manhood. Of assimilationism and acceptance of black beauty and hair. Of reconnecting to our African roots. Of matriarchy. So many wonderful and gripping, and complex issues to deconstruct and analyze.
The play speaks of dreams--realized and forgotten, within reach and lost forever.
Undergirding it all, however is the presence of dream killers. Dream killers can be people, they can be entities: governments, systems, societal structures, etc. Whatever the form of the dream killer, they all have one thing in common--to cause one to believe that their dream is impossible and thus breaking the human spirit.
When I was a little girl, I had dreams of being a writer. The world that existed between my thoughts, pen and page was where I felt most in control.
Where I could let my guard down and let go of all defenses.
Where I could truly be myself.
It was where I went to feel free.
And then one day, I shared my dream with my big brother. I loved him, looked up to him and valued his opinion--so of course, I couldn't wait to share this new, brilliant idea. It presented me with an opportunity for him to be proud of me. But...it didn't exactly go how I expected.
Instead of hopefulness and pride about my prospects as a budding writer, sharing my dream with him left me feeling deflated. I remember his response, delivered with all the sage and wisdom of a middle-aged man, while in reality being a normal, high-school, teenage boy: "that's not a real job." "Writing is a good fall-back plan," he said. "Something you can do on the side...but you should get a real degree."
All the zeal, hope, and promise I had felt just moments earlier had all dissipated. My dream was killed--death by impracticality. I felt it shatter into a million tiny pieces on the floor of my heart.
That day, my relationship with writing changed. The same passion and desire was no longer present because a seed had been planted. A seed of doubt. A seed of failure. A seed of crippling impracticability. A seed of trivial pursuit, of childish imaginings and naïveté.
He had unconsciously planted the seed, and now there I was watering it with my thoughts. Maybe he's right, that was probably a dumb idea. I should focus on something that could land me a "real job" after college. I need to do something that will guarantee a steady income. Something my parents and siblings could be proud of.
Et voila! Houston, the dream of being a writer has officially left the building!
That's how easy it is for our dreams to die. How easy it is for young people to doubt a gift or deny a possible calling over their lives because they shared it with another person in confidence and received insight--while though being well-intentioned, worked to the detriment of their future success and achievement in the very area they were meant to excel in.
To be clear, I do not blame my brother. I think all the advice he shared came from a genuine place of wanting to point me in the right direction because he truly wanted what was best for me. As my big brother and someone who I had always gone to as a sort of mentor, I think he understood this role and in fact, took it quite seriously. With that in mind, it is important to point out that the words of wisdom he shared with me that day likely did not originate from the inner workings of his own mind, but in fact were a regurgitation of what I am sure he had been taught by my parents, mentors, and other adults or important figures that he had grown to respect over the course of his own life. I have no doubt that these voices and influences helped him to reach his own places and positions of success and achievement, so in his perspective, I was simply being let in on trade secrets. He was giving me the recipe for success--a seemingly foolproof strategy that would help me to find my place in the world, while also garnering financial stability and greater quality of life. Simply put, he was doing his job, leading the way for his baby sister.
However, the tragedy in so many families and especially black families, is that there is a tendency to remain mainstream and follow the status quo, in the name of socioeconomic stability and advancement. In my Haitian household (and many households of those hailing from African and Caribbean descent), children are primed to be at the top of the class in school and to pursue areas of higher education that will produce MD's, engineering degrees or JD's. Those letters ascribed to the front or back end of ones's name are the premiere markers of success. Becoming a doctor, lawyer or engineer means that you have in fact made it. You can become the child they brag about to family overseas and the one that will forever bring pride and honor to the family name. No pressure, right!
Taking all this into consideration, you can imagine why my brother would advise me to "get a real job" or something that would lead to a "real degree." So I took his advice, but I can remember distinct moments throughout my life where that notion stood in tension with what I was learning and seeing for myself. Though I had essentially given up on my dreams of ever becoming a writer, I still had a love and passion for words and literature. I always did well in my English, History and anything humanities-based courses. As I began to look into the lives of some of my favorite writers, I noticed that they oftentimes did not fit the mold of having a "real degree." In fact, many of them did not have any degrees at all. They did what they did because they had a love, passion and desire to do it. A true calling. What they were clearly put on this earth to do.
Most notably, the incomparable James Baldwin fits this bill. From the first book of his that I picked up-- which was, "Go Tell it On the Mountain,"-- I was hooked. His descriptions and his way with language was captivating. I was in love. Entranced by the beauty of his mastery with words. I became a little obsessed with him honestly. I wanted to know everything about him; his family, upbringing, struggles, secrets, pain points, dreams--you name it, I wanted to know it. As I peeled back the veil and began to see what lie in the background of this extremely accomplished essayist, novelist, scholar, activist, and playwright, I found that he hailed from a similar background. Like me, Baldwin was a PK--a pastor's kid. He was a preacher for a small period of time at a small revivalist church in his hometown of Harlem, NYC. He had many siblings and growing up, spent lots of his time in the church. After graduating from high school, Baldwin did not attend college. He worked several different jobs before landing a literary apprenticeship, and the rest as they say, is history.
Baldwin--and many others, offer us a different side of the story. In my family, growing up, I always enjoyed being the dissenting voice. In school, I was the kid who chose to argue the side of the debate that no one wanted to--basically, the harder side--namely because I wanted to sharpen my argumentative skills. I knew the best debaters were ones savvy at arguing either side. So now, I offer another dissent:
Instead of giving advice to others (especially young people) that aligns with what is practical and has a visible sort of formula for success, support their dreams no matter how big, impractical, or outlandish they might seem.
Caveat here-- obviously, I am not saying if it something that would lead to their own or others harm, or something illegal that you should support it. In that case, absolutely, yes--shut it down and bring them back to earth.
But, if we're honest, most times when a young person shares their dream, its really not that outlandish--its just that the adult or older person they are speaking to has been through their own set of experiences in life that can harden their hearts to the possibility of more. We should never let our own short comings or misadventures be the compass with which we help guide others in finding their own path. The point is that it is their path to walk. The best thing we can do as supporters--whether as a parent, grandparent, mentor, teacher, trusted adult, or otherwise-- is realize that we need to let the children have their own experiences. Let them dream and boldly chase after those dreams. Give them direction, yes--but not in a way that chokes out the very life of the dream itself. Because when it comes down to it, this is about liberation.
When we allow others to pursue the things that they are meant to, whether or not we see the same vision or if we agree with it, we allow them to fly free. True and enduring love, passion, desire, motivation, drive, stamina and the like are found in liberation. Let's not be the ones who when young people look back, they remember as the those who contributed to the stifling of their dream.
Encourage. Uplift. Steward well. But from a place of clear understanding and acknowledgement of your role to be a helper on the way, not The Waymaker. If our career goals come at the expense of our freedom of true expression, then that is not really your dream--and I would add, not something that we should put any time investing in.
So support the dreams and the dreamers, don't kill them.