My last semester in college, I took an Intermediate Fiction Writing course. In that course, I began this story, which I am now continuing on my own time. It is based off of Langston Hughes’ “A Dream Deferred” poem, as well as the broadway play, “A Raisin in the Sun”, written by Lorraine Hansberry in 1959. I will periodically update the story. Please read and enjoy.
Warning: For realistic purposes, there is use of profane language in this story.
A Modern Day “Raisin in the Sun”
To Whom It May Concern:
I am pleased that your eyes have found their way to my letter. The last time that I wrote anything to be shared was back in the 10th grade. I wrote a haiku for class. I put one hand in my pocket, with the other gripping the paper, leaving fingerprints of perspiration as I stood up in front of everyone to recite it:
Black people die first
These daddies won’t be daddies
Why are we so lost?
As you can guess, it wasn’t a very big hit. Every since then, I decided to keep the shit that I write to myself. I know, I know. You’re trying to figure out what the hell I’m talking about. Sorry. When I get nervous, I ramble (even in writing). Let me get to the point.
I’m not much of a writer, but I’ve tried practicing when I can. I don’t focus on capitalization because it’s the content, not the format that matters to me. I write back and forth between past and present tense because there are some moments that I re-live every day and it feels like it’s happening for the first time all over again.
This is my life. This is my story. This is my reality.
Somebody once told me that my life is a running soap opera. I laugh every time I think about that. Not because it’s one of those things that is so true that you have to be amused. I laugh because, if my life was a soap opera, I wouldn’t even be able to afford to watch it unless we found somebody to give us hot cable for the low.
I would tell you my real name, but it doesn’t even matter. Just know that, around my neighborhood, they call me “Bugsy”. I never knew if the nickname came from the mobster Bugsy Siegel or from Bugs Bunny. I could see the mob relation because of my hustle, but I could also understand the thought of Bugs Bunny, due to my overbite. To my disadvantage, I am all of the Bs that no one wants: big, black, between the ages of 21 and 29, and broke as hell. I don’t know my dad and I grew up in a single parent home with my three baby sisters. From the outside, I’m everything that you expect of a black man. But, man, I promise that I’m different.
My best friend was shot and killed last week in a drive-by. He was the only one in his gang to lose his life that day. 3 bullets to the chest and 1 to the leg. All I could think when they told me that he couldn’t run because of the bullet in the leg, was that I guess some of us go out the same way we started: trying to crawl away, gasping for air, and covered in blood. Maybe that’s why they call all of us on the corner “Baby Boy.” I’m not going out like him though. I have dreams. I’m really good with cars and I want to own my own auto shop one day. Right now I just try to get work around the neighborhood whenever I can. Somebody always has a car breaking down and I try to use it to my advantage.
I stand outside on the corner at five points throughout the day, waiting for the next drop to be made. I etch everlasting phrases that sound something like poetry into the small mental confinements that I call my brain. But there’s never time to write stuff down in the hood. That’s called a distraction. And what is the definition of a distraction? Hell if I know what Webster had to say, but I know what the streets define a distraction as: a death wish.
“You ain’t shit, Bugsy. Your daddy wasn’t shit and you ain’t gon’ be shit either.” That’s what my mom always told me. Funny how I’m nothing, yet every time the money rolls in from a deal I just made, she’s more than happy to take a cut. It’s not like we need the money for rent or the mortgage anyways. Section 8 covers all of our bills and food stamps take care of our food.
Oh, but don’t be fooled. We still ain’t got it all that good. The water heater’s been broken for 8 months now. Winter days in Texas aren’t that harsh, but they’re a lot more intense when you have no hot water. Every day that you want to bathe, you have to boil a pot of water to put in the tub. Same for washing the dishes. There are 2 bedrooms in the house. My sisters share one room and my mom has another. I sleep on the couch.
The cushions are lumpy and stained and the smell reminds me of this fat kid name Carlos I met in the 6th grade. All I remember is that he had really bad asthma and always had some white stuff crusted on his shirt everyday. He always left me wondering what he ate on his way to school every morning and why the hell he kept missing his chubby mouth. That crusty white was also the same color as the walls in the house. No real color. Just that stupid off-white with plastic plants pressed against them. My mom was too cheap to buy real decorations, but never minded spending my money on herself. This was not what I wanted for myself.
I remember reading a poem by Langston Hughes in the eighth grade once. It was called “A Dream Deferred.” After then, I always wondered about my own dreams. I remember reading it in an old book that three of us students had to share at my middle school. I folded down the corner of the page and looked at the other two kids beside me. They didn’t understand how someone like me could ever actually be interested in this poetry stuff. However, this wasn’t just poetry. This was a challenge to my life. What would be my next step, if not to chase my dreams? Would I allow my dreams to dry out like that book of poetry that had the pages ripping from the seams?
Rarely do they realize that they did this to us. “Land of the free.” It’s more like land of the “free-falling” to me. I feel as though I was set up for failure in this world. I could be the type of nigga that gets popped at the liquor store for attempted robbery or I could be the educated black male that gets popped in my neighborhood after returning from the corner store buying skittles and iced tea. Either way, I pray to God everyday that I can maintain a level head throughout this uphill battle.
“The hell you think this is? You trying to be an activist for a society that shits on you everyday?” That wasn’t my intention. I had just heard the news about a white man who was arrested for shooting a 17 year old black kid in the chest. Apparently, lil dude got hit for wearing a hoodie and looking “suspicious”. Guess he didn’t get the memo that it’s illegal to be an innocent black man. I wasn’t trying to go back to the block and get a protest started. I was just trying to educate them on what’s happening to our people. There’s one thing I’ve learned that scares boys in the hood more than even cops, and that’s education. You may be questioning yourself why that’s so, but then again, aren’t we all a bit afraid of knowing every social aspect of our society, including the nasty truths? We are scared of knowledge because, if we are “in the know”, that means that we can no longer turn a blind eye to our surroundings and base our lack of action off of ignorance.
I’ve never heard glass break harder than it just did. The window, once sprawled in shoe polish with “No Trespassing”, now only says “No passing”. The irony. It seems as if blacks got that memo a long time ago. Never pass each other. Just do enough to survive, but not enough to stand out for something positive.
I want pride for my people. I don’t like the burden that I must carry, but I love being who I am. I love that I was the design of strength. I begin writing in my notebook…
SAY IT LOUD
Our greatest fear?
Not that we are powerful beyond measure,
But that we will be born black beyond measure.
They say the blacker the berry,
The sweeter the juice.
I say the darker the flesh,
Then the deeper the roots.
Well then why do I feel so out of place?
I’m the shadow that stands out
Everywhere I go.
We shine because they hate us,
Floss ‘cuz they degrade us.
We’re trying to buy back our 40 acres.
I could drive around in a BMW,
Yet to them
I’d still be strange fruit.
We avoid the sun
For fear of becoming darker.
We avoid the dark
Because it is “evil”.
We avoid all black
Because it is a sign of robbery.
But I can’t remove my black mask.
I don’t want to.
I’ll come back next lifetime
And the time after that.
Proving my black is still
I can’t even lie though. I’m pissed too. That white man that killed the black kid went free. “Not guilty on all charges”, they said. Black. Poor. “From the streets.” Hustler. That’s the shit I’m convicted of everyday. The only thing I’ve ever been considered to be “not guilty” of was being not guilty.
The riots get out of control. I hear fire trucks. I hear cops. “We will gas you!” Why is everyone so loud? I need to get out of here. Don’t they know this isn’t helping? Don’t they know they’re only perpetrating what “the others” already think of us? My head hurts from the loudness of the chaos. My head hurts from the silence of peace. I just want to be anywhere but here.
“Bugsy, you think you too good for the hood now? You wanna go live in the white neighborhoods now? Dang, I never thought that you’d be the one to forget where you came from.” That’s what they would tell me if I tried to move forward. That’s what they would tell me if I tried to get out of the game. The Tupac lyrics repeat themselves in my head: So many questions / and they ask me if I’m still down // I moved up out of the ghetto / so I ain’t real now? All I wanted was to live a normal life. I might even go to college one day.
But how do you make something of yourself, when all your life you’ve been told that you can’t?
Everyday I tell myself that I never want to be my father. The last time I saw him I was eight years old. He would call every now and then and show his face even less. Thank God I don’t have that man’s last name. My future kids would never recognize my back before they could recognize my face.
“You gotta do what you gotta do.” That’s what everyone says and what everyone criticizes. Do what I have to do, huh? I sell drugs to make money. Not to buy a big body Benz with rims and TV’s in the headrests. I sell drugs to put away money to get out of the ghetto.
Don’t think I’m all talk. I have worked an honest job before. I worked at Wal-Mart for a year. It was pretty cool, until I got fired. In their eyes, I bet I seemed like I was just a kleptomaniac. Stealing whatever I could get my hands on for no reason at all, but there was a reason. I was taking supplies for my baby sisters. School is a lot harder when you don’t have pencils to write with or notebooks to write on. Each of my sisters is a year apart. They all go to school together and struggle with being made fun of everyday. I never had to worry about that. I was the laid back kid, that didn’t care what people had to say about me. Everybody wanted to know “Bad Boy Bugsy”. All the women wanted me and all the guys wanted to be me. It’s different for my little sisters. If their hair isn’t brushed, they get talked about. If they say a word too proper, they’re “acting white”. If their clothes aren’t the newest things out, they get bullied for not being fashionable.
I’m trying to do better, but they wonder why I do what I’m doing in the meantime. I’ve sent out hundreds of applications and I’ve only heard back from three of the jobs. Three. What am I supposed to do when they won’t even hire me on as a janitor because of the case that I caught from Wal-Mart? Do I stop doing what I’m doing now and let my little sisters suffer because my mom’s too lazy to work?
I’m supposed to make a run today. My friend Peanut set it up. He told me there’d be a lot of money in this one. I’m always nervous on days like these, but something about today feels worse. Something feels crazier than usual. It’s kind of like what happens to those deferred dreams that Langston Hughes mentioned. It’s one of those days that “stink like rotten meat”. The last time I felt this way was when my homeboy died. The time before that, I found out my girl was cheating on me. Langston talks about deferred dreams, but never addresses the fact that, in order for a dream to be put off, you must first have the audacity and tenacity to dream. They never taught us to dream in the hood.
“Boy, stop all that daydreaming and clean up this house. I been cleaning those white folks’ house all night and there’s too much to be done around here for you to be sitting around on yo ass.” Mama always let me know there was no time to step away from reality. There was always something to be fixed and always some money to be made. Despite the anxiety I feel in my heart today, I have to take care of business.
The trap house (the house where drugs are made and sold, for those of you who don’t know) is walking distance from our house. The smell there is always so poignant. It’s somewhat of a mixture between rotten eggs and decaying flesh. Dare I say it? It somewhat made me realize the “syrupy sweet” smell of forgotten hopes. Bodies are sprawled out on the floor like a lost battle. Everyone wounded. Everyone searching for their cure, which was also their poison.
“A raisin in the sun.” That phrase is as redundant as my life. A raisin has already been in the sun. I wonder why he didn’t ask about a grape in the sun. A raisin has nowhere to go once it dries further. Just like a “thug” has nowhere to go once he becomes dependent on what’s illegal.
I sit down on the couch with mismatched cushions and the lumps remind me of my mom’s house. The woman next to me moans in sensual agony. The track marks playing connect the dots on her arms make me sure that she doesn’t even know who I am. Where is Peanut? I begin doing that thing I do on the corner. I begin to etch everlasting phrases about my surroundings again. I want to get out of here as soon as possible. I hate the crunch that the dried leaves make on the front porch any time someone comes up the stairs. It scares me for some reason.
I wait exactly 3 more minutes and Peanut is finally here. He tells me where to make the drop and what it will consist of. 1 pound and 1 kilo. Once he passes me the load, my heart beats faster. It’s almost as if I can feel the pulse in my neck, slapping my veins. Sweat rolls down the creases of my face, burning my eyes and blurring my vision. They never turn the air on because they don’t want the crack heads to get too complacent. My palms are starting to sweat too, but I don’t think it’s from the heat in the room anymore. Are you also getting dizzy from the room spinning? Why are there so many leaves crunching on the porch?
“FREEZE!” they tell us. So much goddamn irony. How do you freeze a raisin in the sun? But I listen anyway. I’m not moving for some reason. I don’t even try to escape. Maybe it’s fear. Maybe it’s because I’m too tired. Tired of living my life like a deferred dream. You know, the kind that “festers like a sore—and then runs”? Windows are breaking and shots are being fired. The loud noises remind me of the time I was six and my mom locked my dad out of the house.
I remember him bursting the bedroom window, grabbing his gun, and slapping my mom around. I was young, but I tried to help. He fired one shot in the air for warning. I will never forget the loud bang it made or the drywall raining on our heads from the ceiling. Maybe that’s why I’m frozen now. Maybe that’s why my face is to the carpet that smells like rotten eggs and decaying flesh. Maybe that’s why the officer’s knee in my back hurts so badly. Same weapon, different man.
“What they get you for, Youngblood?” That’s what everyone asks me and what everyone wants to know. I always tell them “a drug bust”, but I always want to let them know about my deferred dream.
You go home at night and sleep in a bed. You know what it’s like to regularly take hot showers. You can go to the grocery store and buy food that doesn’t have the huge WIC sticker on it. You are the dream I hadn’t reached. You are the subjective American dream for a lot of us in the ghetto.
I start writing out my poetry in jail. Can you believe that? I came to jail to become a writer. I now have 2 strikes and need to stay out of trouble if I ever want to see my sisters again. My mom doesn’t let them come see me. Why? Because I ain’t shit. My daddy wasn’t shit and I ain’t gonna be shit either.
My attempts at proving that I wasn’t too good for the hood landed me here. My cellmate scratches his bearded chin that reminds me of the crunch of the leaves on the front porch and he looks like he smells like that fat kid from the sixth grade named Carlos. The grey on the wall is the kind of grey you see right before you pass out at a funeral. It’s the kind of grey that has layers of green mixed with the dark clothing worn as someone is put in the ground.
“Tell me what you write in that diary of yours.” It’s not a diary. It’s a book of my poetry. My cellmate, who I now call Carlos, wants to know this time. He sees a creased corner on one page and asks me to read him what it says. We gather around my poetry and the folded corner like I did in 8th grade with the two others. I tell him why I write.
I tell my story in hopes that it will be passed on one day and that people find the answer to Langston’s question. I hope that my story is shared. I would tell you my age or how long I’ll be here, but my story has transcended through time. Through my ancestors. I read my poem, occasionally allowing myself to get distracted by fingernail scratches on that deathly grey wall:
I stand tall upon the thighs given by my grandmother
Drenched in her sweat and tears
Making them my own
I bleed the blood of my grandfather
His body lay slain in the ditch of inequality
I dance with the feet of my mother
Trailing the unpaved roads with
Swollen and bare hymns
I ball up the fist of my father
Sharing the veins of authority
Boasting our power
I am who they are
They told me to “freeze” that day like I had another option. I was already frozen. I was already totally dried out. My mom always told me to stop daydreaming because there was always something to be done, but she never actually told me what to do. She never told me the right way to go. Everyone wants me to do what I have to do, but never like the results when it’s actually done.
“Maybe it just sags like a heavy load.” That’s what Langston had to say near the end of the poem. I remember that part vividly because when my 8th grade teacher read it, she slumped over to create a visual, leaving her breasts sagging downward. We all laughed under our breath. Freezing that day sure did feel a lot like sagging.
I’m not sure if I’ll ever reach my dreams or own that auto shop. All I know is that once I get out of here I’m going to keep trying. I’ll keep writing too. Hopefully, my poetry will land in the hands of someone like me. Someone with hopes of doing better, but doubt in his heart that he ever could. Everyone always told me what I needed to be, but that I could never actually be it. Maybe whoever reads this will learn from me what happens to a dream when it is put off too long. It doesn’t explode like Langston thought, it stares you in the face everyday. It reminds you of what could have been and forces regret upon you.
Carlos tells me he never wants me to come back here again and I don’t want to. He tells me I’m too talented of a writer to only be able to share with inmates. I won’t be back either. Dried raisins, Langston said. Not dead. Dried. Like a flower, I still have the ability to be watered by earth and return to the surface. My hope is that anyone who may find this letter tucked in the crack underneath the grey wall may find hope to.
I am the fallen dreams of my grandfather and the broken prayers of my grandmother. I am the voice that has told the timeless tale of life’s struggles in the ghetto. And maybe you won’t understand my troubles or why I have come to this, but maybe, just maybe, you’ll have sympathy for the next person you see in my situation. Maybe you’ll take the time to see what happened to the dreams that got deferred.
I write another poem on the last sheet of paper in the composition book they gave me. I write for those who couldn’t write before. I write for those who never got to share what they wanted to say for many years. For those who were fooled into thinking they were failures for not achieving the “American Dream”:
My Lies, My Eyes
I play in the wound on my Mother’s breast
Parading around in her heartland
Not twice did I ask about the bruise above her left eye or
The scab left on her right ankle
I was conceived from my Mother’s rape and
Told she was over it
I was lied to
And so were you
I was given to my stepmom before
I was considered
Through no DNA links but
Through chains of steel
My stepmother told me false accounts
Of how my Mother was over the nightmares
They deceived me
As they did you
My Mother Africa still weeps today
While Mrs. America tells me that her struggles of yesterday
Are not my own