illustrated portrait of American poet and author Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes

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In the poem, "As I Grew Older", by Langston Hughes, where is symbolism in it, and what did he symbolize?

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The symbolism in "As I Grew Older" is robust and center-stage in the poem. Indeed, the poem is structured entirely around two key images, which are repeated for emphasis.

The first symbol is that of the speaker's "dream," which appears "bright like a sun." The dream is symbolically associated with brightness ("the light of my dream") and draws upon the fact that "light" in Western literature and culture tends to represent the positive and the uplifting.

The second symbol, that of the wall which "rose" between the speaker and his dream, is accordingly associated with "shadow" and darkness. The "thick wall" casts a shadow and blocks out the light of the dream. Notably, the speaker declares, "I am black," drawing an association between his own blackness and the fact that he is forced to "lie down in the shadow" rather than pursue his dreams. This forces the reader to interrogate the symbolic associations of blackness with negative elements, and lightness, or whiteness, with the positive.

Ultimately, the speaker refuses to accept these associations. It is with his "dark hands" that he breaks through the wall that has separated him from his dreams. His own blackness will not hold him back from smashing "this night," breaking "this shadow / Into a thousand lights of sun." In using the imagery of "dark hands" dismantling the wall of shadow that holds him back from his dream, Hughes is questioning and subverting the lazy use of symbolism wherein all that is black is bad.

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Langston Hughes uses two symbols in the poem, “As I Grew Older”, with his imagery of a sun that represents his dreams and a wall that keeps him from obtaining them.  The sun in the poem symbolizes Hughes’ dream for equality and acceptance in a racist society that keeps him from achieving success or opportunities. He had dreams once, but a wall was erected keeping him from finding them.  The wall symbolizes discrimination, prejudice, and racism in a society who doesn’t see him as a human being.  The wall keeps Hughes in the “shadows” of society unable to get up and out of his predicament of simply being black. 

The poem is a call for help to society to stop keeping those disenfranchised or discriminated against unable to achieve their dreams. Hughes wants to break down the wall of hatred and racism (symbolized by the night and shadow) and have the same possibilities as anyone in the United States.   Equal opportunity will grant thousands of dreams and bring hope (the sun) to those unable to accomplish their dreams.

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