Houston Graduate School of Theology

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A Dream Deferred

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By Fred Smith, PhD, Director of Advancement and Director of the Center for Leadership in Public Theology, Professor of Public Theology What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up Like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore-- And then run? Does it stink like rotten meat? Or crust and sugar over-- like a syrupy sweet? Maybe it just sags like a heavy load. Or does it explode?     --Langston Hughes

In Spring 1986, I participated in a research project for the Center for Research in Faith and Moral Development of Candler School of Theology at a middle school in Orlando, Florida. A team of graduate students, led by Dr. James Fowler, had been charged with the task of developing a character education curriculum for middle schools in the Orange County Public School District. During our visit, I received a call from my wife, who told me that my nephew Hasaan had been found shot three times in the back of his head in his hometown, Oakland, California.

Hasaan was found three blocks from my mother's home in front of a store where, when I was his age, I bought comic books and candy. The police alleged that a few days before his death, Hasaan had driven up to Stockton, California, with an accomplice and blew away (shot) another child over drug money. His cousin said he had been hiding out, trying to make his way to me in Atlanta. At his funeral, his friends talked of a new (at least to me) philosophy of life: “Live fast, die young, and have a pretty corpse.” As Hasaan's casket was lowered into the grave, Hasaan’s “boys from the hood” (friends) threw money on it instead of flowers.

My mind was full of these images as I observed classes at the recently integrated middle school.[1] One morning, we met in the school’s conference room with the group of teachers whose classes we would observe that day. All of these veteran teachers were white. I vividly recall their laments over their inability to meet new challenges they experienced in teaching “all these new students.” These new students were African-American youth, the majority of whom were from single family homes in the government housing projects not far from the school building. They made up one third of the school’s enrollment—a number which would continue to increase.

That day happened to be Career Day. People from various occupations had been invited to visit each classroom to engage the students in discussions about career choices. The first class I observed was a special education class comprised of 80% African-American males. When asked what they wanted to be when they grew up, these special education students named things like astronaut, engineer, mechanic, doctor, and electrician.

I next visited a college prep class that was 90% white with a few African-American girls who sat quietly in the rear of the class. When asked what they wanted to be, they said things like astronaut, nuclear engineer, plastic surgeon, and electronics specialist. The college prep class aspirations differed from the special education class aspirations only in their specificity and their teacher’s expectations of them. Students in both classes desired the same things, but an overview of the effects of the school tracking system and low teacher expectations insured that the likelihood of these special education students achieving their desires (dreams) were small.

Still later, in a geography class, the teacher that we had met earlier that morning asked for a show of hands of all students who were from housing projects. This question had nothing to do with lesson of the day. Its purpose was clearly to demonstrate to the team of observers the point he had made in our early morning discussion about the new challenges that integration had unfairly placed on him and his fellow instructors. Three quarters of the class responded by raising their hands. Next, he asked for a show of hands of how many had no father in the home.  Again, nearly the whole class responded. He looked at us (I was the only black on the team and apparently invisible to the white teacher) in what I perceived to be a knowing smile as they (the children) voiced what seemed to him unrealistic aspirations for future careers.

I stood in the back of the classroom stunned:  Hasaan lived in a government housing project. His father was not in the home. What drove Hasaan to sell drugs? How could my little bright-eyed nephew become a killer? Why did he have to die so young? What is the relationship of violence and a dream deferred? That afternoon, I began to ask the questions that culminated in this present study for the sake Hasaan and the students in that class. These questions eventually led me to an exploration of the theoretical basis for an educational praxis capable of addressing the violence among African-American youth who, like Hasaan, have deferred dreams.

This quest has led me to establish a practical, theological framework for a religious, educational praxis. I now work—through the Center for Leadership in Public Theology and through focused courses at Houston Graduate School of Theology—to add to the development of the “Beloved Community” as a way of addressing violence as a religious and public health problem. I do this to keep the memory of Hasaan and others like him alive—so their deaths will not have been in vain.

    [1]Research team used ethnographic methodology that included classroom participant observation.