On the London Riots: Langston Hughes "Harlem"


I searched long and hard for a poem that touched most directly on the mayhem afflicting the United Kingdom in the past few days. I looked into poetry written after a number of 20th century riots, but none got to the heart of what's happening in the London riots.

And, for that matter, what is happening in the London riots? People are rushing to make snap judgments before the dust settles; many commentators and journalists are going to end up with egg on their face. Socialist thinkers focus on socio-economic factors, the middle-class fixate on the complete inadequacy of policing in London, and government flaks toe the line on "these people are criminals! Criminals I tell you!"

Very few seem to be able to hold all three thoughts simultaneously in their head, which is why I have great doubt that the structural factors leading to the rioting and the looting will be adequately addressed before flare-ups happen again. Overuse of police force kicked off the riots, but inadequate police presence emboldened the looters. The fact is that the government did not have an adequate response was because they were blind-sided; they have long ignored the marginalized, and are then surprised that there's a sizeable population with no investment in "civil" society.

Langston Hughes's poem, probably his most famous, was written about the disenfranchisement of an entire population, an entire population for whom the American Dream was not just a hope, but an insidious fantasy, conspiring to keep the have-nots in their place. When you are faced with no hope and no opportunity beyond what you're experiencing at the current moment, then your entire view of the world becomes warped, your view of those more rich, more successful than you turns dark.

"Or does it explode" indeed.


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, 1951


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6 Responses to “ On the London Riots: Langston Hughes "Harlem" ”

  1. This was a great post. Very well thought out and while I'm not very knowledgable on the riots in London, I've heard about them. I also love your reference to Langston Hughes'poem. It's one of my favorites!!!

  2. It's such a dark time for London now. I didn't know about it at the outbreak but what initiated this? I was looking at a timeline and even a day is too long. People are homeless and I'm wondering about the children.

    I agree with Dawn, the poem appropriate for the topic.

    Sending prayers that way.

  3. Thanks for stopping by!

    @Totsymae The riots were kicked off by the police shooting a man in Tottenham, claiming he fired first, even though numerous witnesses saw that wasn't true. From there it spiralled.

  4. My daughter lives in London and as you can imagine, I have watched this situation very closely. I find myself so very frustrated with the people who are trying to dismiss the rioters as self serving young thugs. I'm sure some of them are. But the disenfranchisement is very real, and very wrong. It's happening all over the world (always has) but because of the economic crises, I think it's quickly becoming more widespread. And I expect we'll see a lot more of this kind of thing all over within the next couple of years.

    The unwillingness of people generally to look at the whole situation rather than just the outcome is the subject of my own blog post today - Recipe for Disaster. http://amoderndilemma.blogspot.com/2011/08/recipe-for-disaster.html

  5. Beautifully appropriate.

    There is nothing more dangerous we can do than create too many individuals who have nothing to lose, and nothing to hope for.

  6. There are always a variety of reasons and factors for anything like this. All we hear are the news reports and the government statements. It is a terrible thing for all involved, but I like that you question the reasons. Also, excellent poem choice. Haven't heard that one in a while.

    -- Peter


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