Langston Hughes is now most widely known in the context of Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun, which draws its title from Hughes's "Harlem." The poem asks, "What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? ... Or does it explode?"
But, as N.C. State associate professor W. Jason Miller's new book, Origins of the Dream: Hughes's Poetry and King's Rhetoric (University Press of Florida), reminds us, Hughes had a wider impact. Miller demonstrates the profound influence Hughes's poems exerted on the letters, sermons, speeches, and ideas of Martin Luther King Jr. If the influence of Mahatma Gandhi helped King shape his vision of nonviolent resistance, then Hughes's poetry helped him articulate it to the masses.
Miller, the author of a previous study of Hughes, makes this case with archival sources and analysis of King's copious writing. In a 1960 visit to Durham's White Rock Baptist Church, King drew a vivid phrase from "Harlem" to decry "the festering sore of segregation" in the state. The opening lines of Hughes's "Youth" resonate with the tone of civil rights leaders, calling for optimism amid continual struggle: "We have tomorrow/ Bright before us/ Like a flame." In a dozen years, King cited the poem nearly six dozen times.
But King didn't simply quote Hughes. Instead, he riffed, deliberately modifying the poems to suit his rhetorical situation and the political climate. As Miller puts it, King "transposes, extends, blurs, and ... recasts" his sources. Without saying it outright, the author portrays King as Hughes's protégé, which marks him as one of the most important mid-century American poets.
Hughes and King's unspoken collaboration, Miller argues, stands as "the twentieth century's most visible integration of poetry and politics." For anyone following politics today, there's no doubt that he's right. It's impossible to read the words of Hughes and King without cringing at how far politics has drifted from poetry. Is anything less imaginable in 2016—a year of insults, doggerel, and patent falsehoods—than a candidate waxing poetic?
The most powerful argument in Origins of the Dream goes unstated: political speech blossoms when it isn't simply political. Without a little poetry—which, according to Auden, "makes nothing happen"—perhaps a little too much happens.
King, cribbing Hughes, wrote, "The clock on the wall read almost midnight, but the clock in our souls revealed that it was daybreak." Between these words and Trump's recent claim to "have the best words," the border between politics and anything lyrical seems to have been sealed with a fifty-foot wall.
This article appeared in print with the headline "A Dream Conferred."