What Is The Theme Of Dream Variations By Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes and Dream Variations

Langston Hughes (1902-1967) was an African-American writer known for his contributions to the Harlem Renaissance. He is often regarded as one of the founders of the Jazz Age and was part of the Lost Generation. His writing career spanned more than sixty years and during this time, he produced plays, essays, children’s literature, and poetry.

One of his early poems, ‘Dream Variations’ was first published in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) magazine The Crisis in the May 1917 issue. This poem is considered a milestone in Hughes’s career, and a classic of the African-American experience:

To fling my arms wide
In some place of the sun,
To whirl and to dance
Till the white day is done.
Then rest at cool evening
Beneath a tall tree
While night comes on gently,
Dark like me.

The striking imagery of the poem speaks to the common African-American experience of longing for something better, an oppressively strained vision for something different, for equality and freedom worn down to a dream-like state, with no practical fulfillment in sight.

literary scholar, Sharofatt Ali, comments on the poem’s “timelessness” as a poem written in 1917 that still captures the attention of modern readers and interpreters. He attributes this to its direct yet powerful message on current social injustice, and how poetic forms craft dialogue, but more specifically, how Hughes’s use of a single voice unifies the power of his language to convey a strong and common sentiment.

The poem begins with a cry for freedom with the speaker longing for the day and the space which will allow them to break “the restraints of day-time” and the limitations “to fly, to roam, and compare”. The idea of roaming resonates with the idea of escape, the desire to break free from the restricting “shackles of awareness” and take part in a new world, one of unrestrained and fulfilling freedom. Finally, the poem ends with the contrasting idea of night, a place where the speaker can find a sense of solace in their own skin, a concept that speaks to the idea of liberation, of being a part of something bigger than their own body and of being a part of something that gives them purpose in life.

Racial Divide

Dream Variations is Hughes’s exploration of the racial divide and its internalised impact on the lives of African-Americans. This is realized by its juxtaposition of the language of ‘night’ and ‘day’ – traditional symbols of racial oppression and liberation. By repeating this contrast, the poem conjures up a powerful and emotive contrast between the experiences of African-Americans, attempting to take part in a “white” dominated world and those who can take part in the “night”, the time in which they can find peace and solace in their own skin.

The poem further looks at Hughes’s own experience of being restricted by racism and inequality, mirrored by his dream for flying and roaming without the limits imposed by society. It explores his desire for an escape into a larger world of freedom of movement, imagination and purpose. Hughes is addressing this contrast between day and night, between the darkness of the reality of being trapped in an enduringly subjugated position and the light of the hope of eventually being liberated.

This contrast between the two worlds is further accentuated by the words used throughout the poem; the contrast between ‘fly’ and ‘rest’, ‘whirl’ and ‘stand still’. The language in the poem suggests that although people are limited by their circumstances and by the racist structures of society; they can still strive for freedom and liberation. Hughes suggests that an individual’s spirit can become strong and unbounded despite the external constraints.

Experiences of Inequality

Often described as an ‘ode to the dream’, Dream Variations is a powerful exploration of the experiences of African-Americans. Hughes examines the internal conflict and emotions of the racial divide, with his message of freedom in the face of oppression. He speaks to the need for escapism in order to find peace and solace, and the vulnerability of being African-American in a ‘white dominated’ society.

For Hughes, it was only through dreaming of a better future, of being liberated from the constrictions of a racist mindset that he was able to cope with the realities of being on the receiving end of racism and inequality. He expresses the hope that whilst an individual may not be able to fly in a literal sense, they can still reach “heights of self-realization” if they persist in dreaming, even when the reality appears insurmountable.

Dream Variations is therefore a poem of hope and endurance, of never letting go of one’s dreams even in the face of racism and inequality. It is a call to dream, even in the face of racism and a reminder of the power of dreaming as a tool for survival.

Inspiration for Change

Dream Variations is an expression of Langston Hughes’s experience of inequality and longing for equality. In this poem, he conveys a powerful message of hope and resilience in the face of adversity and discrimination. Through his use of powerful imagery, he inspires the reader to look beyond their own circumstances and to strive for a brighter future. Dream Variations encourages readers to find the strength and courage to be resilient, to dare to dream, and to never let go of their dreams, even in the face of inequality and racism.

The poem does not offer any clear answers but it does provide the reader with an inspiring message of hope and a reminder of the importance of dreaming in order to survive and to achieve freedom, equality and liberation.

Rereading `Dream Variations`

What is interesting about rereading Dream Variations today, is the new context that this poem takes on in light of the Black Lives Matter movement. The poem speaks to the lived experiences of black people in the early 20th century and today, of the longing for freedom, the need for an escape from the limitations imposed by society and the yearning for liberation and equality.

What has also changed is the way in which people are engaging in the conversation around racism and inequality. Dream Variations has inspired a new generation of writers and activists to share their voices and experiences. The poem serves as a reminder of the importance of actively seeking change and pressing for justice and accountability.

Intersection of Art and Politics

The intersection between the art of writing and the power of politics is something which Hughes explores in Dream Variations.
Through the poem he speaks to the need for change and a shift in the political landscape, a cry for liberation and an escape from the oppressive nature of racism. By using the medium of poetry and through his use of powerful imagery and metaphor, Hughes is able to express the experiences of African-Americans and is able to call for justice and equality.

Whilst Dream Variations does not provide the answers or a clear manifesto for the changes needed to create lasting equality and justice within society, it does offer an inspirational call to action and a reminder of the importance of dreaming and striving for something better in order to create lasting change.

Racial Discrimination and Resilience

Racism and racial discrimination are two issues which Hughes addresses powerfully in Dream Variations. Through the poem, he expresses the need for liberation and the resilience of the human spirit in the face of such an oppressive environment. He speaks candidly about the debilitating and dehumanising effect of racism and of its impact on the African-American experience.

The poem speaks to the need for resilience in the face of such atrocities and serves as an inspiration to never give up hope, to keep on striving and to dare to dream. It encourages its readers to take action and to seek justice in order to create lasting change and to build a better future.

Social Activism and Empowerment

The theme of Dream Variations speaks directly to the need for social change and for the empowerment of minority communities. It encourages us to find the courage to speak out against inequality and racism and to fight for justice and liberation.

Hughes calls on the readers to take action to create the change which is needed to ensure that minority groups are adequately represented and that their experience is accurately portrayed in the public consciousness. He speaks to the need to create a fair and equal society and to work towards social justice and equality.

Dream Variations is thus a powerful and inspirational call to action, a reminder of the importance of daring to dream, of hope and resilience and of never giving up hope in the face of racism and discrimination.

Dannah Hannah is an established poet and author who loves to write about the beauty and power of poetry. She has published several collections of her own works, as well as articles and reviews on poets she admires. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in English, with a specialization in poetics, from the University of Toronto. Hannah was also a panelist for the 2017 Futurepoem book Poetry + Social Justice, which aimed to bring attention to activism through poetry. She lives in Toronto, Canada, where she continues to write and explore the depths of poetry and its influence on our lives.

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