Back in 1979, a chance meeting with a stranger at a concert near Boston changed my life forever. The stranger was George Houston Bass, the executor of Langston Hughes’s estate, who soon invited me to write Langston’s biography. The Life of Langston Hughes (2 vols.) eventually appeared, along with about a dozen other works such as Hughes’s Complete Poems (1994) and Selected Letters (2015). As I pored over the thousands of documents Hughes left behind, I was soon enthralled by his genius, his exacting artistic principles, and his passion for social justice for African Americans and, indeed, for all people everywhere. Versatile as a writer, he published more than a dozen books of poetry, as well as many volumes of fiction, drama, autobiography, and other forms. Hughes embraced both the rare promise and the flawed reality of America. “Hold fast to dreams!” he urged young people in a 1920s poem, but he also asked again and again the American question of questions: “What happens to a dream deferred? / Does it dry up, like a raisin in the sun? . . Or does it explode?” Langston was an American original—endearing, touching, and often tender, but also fundamentally tough, caustic, and prophetic. To serve him as a scholar has been nothing short of a privilege.
The speaker does not refer to a specific dream. Rather, he (or she) suggests that African Americans cannot dream or aspire to great things because of the environment of oppression that surrounds them. Even if they do dare to dream - their grand plans will fester for so long that they end up rotting or even exploding. As critic Arthur P. Davis writes, "When [Hughes] depicts the hopes, the aspirations, the frustrations, and the deep-seated discontent of the New York ghetto, he is expressing the feelings of Negroes in black ghettos throughout America."
Following the war, black music, especially the blues and jazz, became increasingly popular with both black and white audiences. Europe continued his career as a successful bandleader until his untimely death in 1919. Ma Rainey and other jazz artists and blues singers began to sign recording contracts, initially with African American record companies like Black Swan Records, but very quickly with Paramount, Columbia, and other mainstream recording outlets. In Harlem, one club opened after another, each featuring jazz orchestras or blues singers. Noble Sissle, of course, was one of the team behind the production of Shuffle Along , which opened Broadway up to Chocolate Dandies and a series of other black musical comedies, featuring these new musical styles.