Langston Hughes challenged our consciousness by asking, “What happens to a dream deferred?” What results when hope, aspirations, callings, and promises are delayed, put off, postponed, or thwarted? Were they flawed expectations? Do such deferred dreams become burdensome desires that fade and never manifest, forever haunting us?
Six months after Michael Brown was fatally shot by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri—where I serve as a pastor—there are families still wrestling with the question, “What would have happened if...?”
I attended a rally last week in Athens, Georgia, expressing unity with the protestors in Ferguson after the failure to indict Darren Wilson. People gathered peacefully, even quietly, and held up signs. The protestors stood in quiet conversations, some with candles, some with children in arms, a mix of white and black and Latina/o.
The first speaker to address the crowd was Alvin Sheets, president of our local NAACP chapter. He thanked us for standing with the people of Ferguson and reminded us of the plight of black Americans, both recently and throughout U.S. history, and the great poverty that many in our own community face. As Sheets’s speech drew to a close, he turned to religion: he expressed his belief that the church needs revival.
He’d seen it all. Swathes of nothingness spun into stars, the slapping of the first fin onto land, and now these creatures, by far the cleverest and the saddest—though listing it that way felt faulty, as if all happenings unfurled inch by inch instead of blooming in one cacophony, the apple crumpling just outside the city walls.
And it wasn’t even an apple, or fig, or pomegranate glinting with infernal seeds, though he’d accommodate their legends, accept provisional truths, the same way they worked with the earth un-sphered and stilled in leaf-thin sketch. To overlook imprecision in the premises, concede to the limits of both flesh and paper, was what it meant to translate, as to love. Which struck him as strange pottery: roll everything that’s been into a coil and score it with each day; cram self into cage of clay and bone; daub their closed eyes in slip and wait for it to flake off to new sight. It seemed to take what they called a lifetime.
But they didn’t have that, not right here, beside the village known as House-of-Misery whose people rent their clothes. Before he even spoke Mary’s tears were falling warm onto his feet, carving clear trails through the coat of dust.
If you had been here. He stood enveloped in the sound of all their moans, entangled in her locks of dampening hair. If you had been here. All grief’s audacity pitched in her splintering voice, she raised her head to look at him, and in her water-darkened eyes he who’d seen all things felt this: pain’s veil dividing now from everything that is not-now. And he began to weep.
Back a week from the grave. He pecks at the food his sisters set before him. He is afraid to sleep. He imagines the eyes of everyone upon him but they are careful not to stare, a meaningless courtesy: the midday sun consumes both sight and soul. His funeral shroud is unburnt—he won’t allow it—but his sisters refuse to permit its being brought into the house. Sometimes they catch him holding it to his face and weeping into it. It smells so foully that not even the crows will approach it. He rarely speaks but sometimes talks of going away. It is almost, to their shame, to be wished for.
Perhaps you are perplexed to determine how two such disparate stories could be told about me. But the truth hides somewhere between and beyond these accounts—I was neither a poor beggar nor a wealthy intimate of God’s Son.
If in these tales I appear as a mere prop—a passive player in parables concerned with actors who wielded some form of genuine power—thus far you may credit each tale: I had no voice. Dumb from birth, the real miracle for me would have been to speak.
And yet this never seemed to me a curse or even a lack— I grew to love my silence, and in my early years I was thought to be simply shy as my maternal sisters supplied my voice in public encounters. Indeed, their ready reading of my intent was all the miracle I craved.
I neither anticipated nor needed any return from the grave—that was about his need, his purpose, not mine. And to be enfolded in the arms of Abraham like some Isaac or Ishmael, my sight simply a torment to some rich fool—what is that to me? To you?