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Thema II: The American Dream: Langston Hughes
1. In his poem “As I grew older” Langston Hughes depicts a very negative image of the notion “American Dream”. The poet metaphorizes his own experiences of racial discrimination and thus also his experiences containing the reality of the American Dream in four steps that can be outwardly seen as four stanzas.
In the first stanza of his poem, that serves the function of an introduction, Hughes refers to his original positive image of the American Dream. Stanzas two and four deal with the reality of the American Dream, with the fact that its opposite is often the truth. The last stanza somehow rounds off Hughes’ image, it contains the attempt of trying to escape from the dark sides of the American Dream, if necessary with the help of violence, but this attempt often ends in failing and not reaching the aim or the origin of the American Dream completely.
2. The poem “As I grew older” by Langston Hughes contains many contradictions between its subject and the Declaration of Independence. One main aspect, the poet tries to deliver, is the discrimination of coloured people living in America nowadays. The Declaration of Independence offers all people living in America certain unalienable and God-given rights. Liberty and individual rights shall be guaranteed for everybody. The poem expresses the opposite. By regarding the second and the third stanza, you can easily read between the lines that all these personal rights, such as “life”, “liberty” and the “pursuit of happiness”, are not valid for all people living in America, the so-called nation of unlimited possibilities. Not all Americans live up to the law, that is also expressed in the Declaration of Independence. It seems as if Langston Hughes really had to suffer from discrimination and racism. All his hopes and his dreams have been covered by these problems, he could not really live the American Dream. This main aspect that can be found in the Declaration of Independence has also been expressed by Martin Luther King. A historical reference to Martin Luther King can be seen in the last stanza. (“My hands! Break... wall!”, ll. 26/27) Langston Hughes tries to break out of this system, he somehow tries to overcome all his problems, the nation’s problems, exactly as Martin Luther King did. The guaranteed rights of liberty and life are thus not valid for all Americans. “Pursuit of happiness” is also not fulfilled. The Declaration of Independence promises this right, but how can anybody live a happy life being discriminated by people living in his own country? The “can-do-attitude” also fades: One important aspect of the American Dream is having this pioneers’ spirit, having a very strong will to reach all imaginable aims. Sadly, this “can-do-attitude” fades if somebody isn’t even able to live up to his own nature. (ll. 15-17: “The light of... wall.”) These aspects are the reasons why Langston Hughes criticizes the American nation and thus the American Dream so heavily. He wants to be “free at last”, as Martin Luther King expressed it in his address “I have a Dream”.
3. The poem “As I grew older”, written by Langston Hughes teems with stylistic devices, such as alliterations, chiasm, comparisons, caesura, opposites, enumerations, metaphors, anaphoras, epiphoras, personal pronouns, historical references, a paratactical sentence structure and parallelism.
A very important stylistic device that can only be seen by regarding the whole poem is the paratactical sentence structure. With these easy sentences Langston Hughes tries to make his poem readable for everybody. He tries to convey his idea in a way that everybody is able to understand. This paratactical sentence structure sometimes even has elliptical references (l 21: “No longer the... me”). Maybe the poet uses these elliptical sentences to deliver the message to all the readers that something is missing in his life as an American. Thus he puts emphasis on the fact that not all Americans have the same God-given rights and that not all Americans live up to their original creed, they only claim to do so. Another very important stylistic device is the use of the personal pronouns “me” and “my”. Langston Hughes uses them to serve as an example of all coloured people living in America. This poem could be valid for all coloured Americans in the same way. Langston Hughes uses very many comparisons and metaphors to put stress on his message. For example, the use of the comparison “Bright like a sun” (l 6) shows the importance of the American Dream for the poet, not only the comparison points out this importance, but the use of the bright vowels existing in the words “bright” and “like” intensifies the urgency of his statement. The key-word “dream” metaphorizes the hope Hughes once had and the importance the American Dream still has for him. Several metaphors can be seen by reading the poem. Hughes uses the word “wall” (l. 8) as the metaphorical equivalent for hopelessness. All his hopes, he once had, finally faded and got lost behind this huge wall. Another metaphor that delivers the same message is the word “darkness” (l. 29). The use of the image of touching the sky (l. 16: “Rose until it... sky”) underlines the hopelessness of this situation, it intensifies the meaning of the metaphor “wall”. The opposite that begins in the second stanza forms another important part of the poem. The poet uses it to focus on those parts of the American Dream that have to be corrected. Langston Hughes likes using repetitions and parallelism (l. 12: “Rose slowly, slowly”; ll. 18/19: “Shadow. I am black.”; ll. 30/31: “To smash... shadow”) to put emphasis on the importance of changing something. He addresses everybody personally to undergo a change in his personal thinking. Another important stylistic device is the caesura in line 6. Langston Hughes uses it to attract the readers’ attention, he pauses to make them listen to him and also to put all emphasis on the words “My dream”, the key-words of the poem. Other important stylistic devices Hughes uses to focus on all the lacks of the American Dream are anaphora (ll. 19/20: “I am... I lie...”; ll. 25/26: My hands! My...”; ll. 30/31: “To smash... To break...”; ll. 32/33: “Into a thousand...”), epiphora (ll. 9/10: “Rose slowly, slowly”; ll. 11-15: “... my dream... my dream.”), enumerations (ll. 13/14: “Dimming, Hiding”; ll. 29-31: “Help me... of sun”) and chiasm (ll. 8/9: “... wall rose, rose slowly”). One of the most important stylistic devices is the use of the exclamations in the last stanza. Langston Hughes really wants all the American people to change something now, he wants them to demonstrate against government, he wants them to “Break through the wall” (l. 27), he wants them to find their dreams (compare l. 28). He wants all the people living in America to live up to the expressions he uses in the last stanza. As I’ve already said in number two, this last stanza is furthermore a historical reference to Martin Luther King. Hughes criticizes the same points of the American Dream as King did.
4. There are several other discrepancies between the American Dream and reality except the problem of racism and discrimination. One huge discrepancy refers to the right of liberty. I have a friend living in Florida and he told me that it is almost impossible not to go to jail once in your lifetime. The law in America is much stricter and the punishments are much more serious. The right of life is closely connected with these punishments. The government is allowed to kill people for murders or manslaughters. In my opinion this law doesn’t fit in with the right of life. By killing people for manslaughter and murder, the government puts itself on the same level with the murderers.
Another huge discrepancy is the pioneers’ spirit which is so important for the American Dream and the missing “can-do-attitude” in reality. I do not think that so many people living in America nowadays still have this strong will to reach all their aims and I can understand them, because this point is closely connected with the class-distinctions existing in America today. According to the American Dream all people shall have the same rights, they shall be equal. A certain property shall exist for everybody. But in reality, the class-distinctions in the middle and in the west of Europe are much smaller than they are in America. In America there are rich, but there are also poor states. And to escape from this situation and to climb the social ladder is really very hard for people living under bad living-conditions. In my opinion the state should invent a law to support families and people who have to suffer from unemployment and who are socially disadvantaged. With the help of such a law the social discrepancies between poor and rich people could fade slowly and the American nation would be able to finally make the American Dream come true and thus also to minimize class-distinctions.