L Langston Hughes

As I Grew Older by Langston Hughes

‘As I Grew Older’ by Langston Hughes is about breaking through the “wall” that racism constructs. The speaker, a Black man from the African American community, spends the poem discussing the light of forgotten dreams he’s newly determined to attain.

As I Grew Older by Langston Hughes Visual Representation

This highly effective and memorable poem was first published in Hughes’ most-famous collection, The Weary Blues, in 1926. ‘As I Grew Older’ is representative of Hughes’ broader contribution to American poetry during the Harlem Renaissance and can be read alongside other Hughes poems like Harlem (A Dream Deferred),’ ‘Dreams,’ and I Dream a World.’ 

As I Grew Older 
Langston Hughes

It was a long time ago.
I have almost forgotten my dream.
But it was there then,
In front of me,
Bright like a sun,—
My dream.

And then the wall rose,
Rose slowly,
Slowly,
Between me and my dream.
Rose slowly, slowly,
Dimming,
Hiding,
The light of my dream.
Rose until it touched the sky,—
The wall.

Shadow.
I am black.

I lie down in the shadow.
No longer the light of my dream before me,
Above me.
Only the thick wall.
Only the shadow.

My hands!
My dark hands!
Break through the wall!
Find my dream!
Help me to shatter this darkness,
To smash this night,
To break this shadow
Into a thousand lights of sun,
Into a thousand whirling dreams
Of sun!
As I Grew Older by Langston Hughes



Summary 

‘As I Grew Older’ by Langston Hughes is a powerful poem about dreams, racism, and a speaker’s determination to attain a brighter future. 

In the first part of this poem, the speaker begins by looking back on their life and remembering how they used to have a “dream.” Their dream was “like a sign” in front of them. It represented a hopeful future and general happiness in the speaker’s everyday life. But, a metaphorical wall slowly rises between the speaker and what he wants to achieve. 

This wall, which represents the racially discriminatory policies of Langston Hughes’s contemporary world, prevented him from achieving what he wanted most in life. The wall was so strong and tall that he forgot his dreams existed for a time. As the poem progresses, he addresses his hands, (his “dark hands”), and attempts to inspire himself to break through the wall and find his dreams. If he can get through this metaphorical wall, he believes he can break it into a ” thousand lights of sun” and into a ” thousand whirling dreams.” 

Themes

Below, readers can explore two major themes within Langston Hughes’ ‘As I Grew Older.’ 

  • Racism. Racism is one of the major themes at the heart of this poem. It is due to the racially discriminatory policies in the United States during Langston Hughes’s life and the way in which the African-American community was treated by everyday people that the speaker encountered a “wall” in front of his dreams. The community’s racism prevented him from achieving what he wanted to throughout his life. It was only as he “grew older” that he remembered his dreams and decided that enough is enough.
  • Dreams. Without a doubt, the speaker’s dreams and the broader African-American community are one of the major themes of this short poem. Throughout, the speaker only alludes to what his dreams are about. It is up to readers to interpret the kind of life the speaker wanted for himself, and how it should be contrasted with the reality he has been confronted with so far. It’s like he dreamed about a life free from prejudice and the confines of a racially discriminatory society. He wanted a life where he could pursue his personal desires and goals without a “wall” getting in the way. 


Poem Meaning 

The meaning of ‘As I Grew Older’ by Langston Hughes is that as a Black man or woman living in the early to mid-1900s in the United States, the racially discriminatory policies and feelings of everyday people stood in the way of “dreams.” The speaker chooses, partway through the poem, to break through the “wall” and reach out to reattain his dreams. It’s through personal power and strength that marginalized groups can step out of the shadow. 

Structure and Form 

‘As I Grew Older’ by Langston Hughes is a five-stanza poem delivered in the first-person perspective that is divided into uneven sets of lines. The first stanza contains six lines, the second: ten, the third: two, the fourth: five, and the fifth: ten. The poem is also written in free verse. This means that the poet does not make use of a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern.

Literary Devices 

Throughout this piece, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to: 

  • Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines seven and eight of the last stanza. 
  • Juxtaposition: can be seen in the first stanza when the poet emphasizes the “bright” sun and then the shadow in the second stanza. 
  • Alliteration: occurs when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “forgotten” in line two and “front” in line four of the first stanza as well as the repetition of “slowly” in the second stanza. 
  • Simile: the comparison between two unlike things that uses either “like” or “as.” For example, “Bright like a sun,— / My dream.”
  • Metaphor: a comparison between two unlike things that does not use “like” or “as.” Throughout this piece, Hughes makes use of an extended metaphor that compares racial discrimination to a “wall” that rose up in front of his speaker’s dreams and the dreams of other African American men and women.
  • Hyperbole: an intentionally exaggerated expression. For example, “Rose until it touched the sky” in stanza two. 
  • Anaphora: the repetition of the same word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines. For example, “My,” “Into,” and “To” which each start multiple lines in the final stanza.


Detailed Analysis

Stanza One 

It was a long time ago.
I have almost forgotten my dream.
But it was there then,
In front of me,
Bright like a sun,—
My dream.

In the first stanza of ‘As I Grew Older,’ the speaker begins by looking back on the past and considering what his “dream” used to look like. Although it was a long time ago, the speaker notes, and he has “almost forgotten” what his dream was, he can remember that at the time, it was “bright like a sun.” This is a great example of a simile. 

The poet is comparing his dream to the sun’s warmth, brightness, and symbolic qualities. His dream suggested an optimistic future in which he could be successful, provide for those he loved, and, likely, find general happiness that would make life worth living. 

Although the speaker does not describe, in detail, what his exact dream is throughout this poem, with some context and analysis, it becomes clear that a life free of discrimination, prejudice, and the horrors of racism is one major part of it.

The first stanza provides readers with a very important detail: the speaker has forgotten his dream. This adds a great deal of emotion to the first stanza, which is only further through the second, third, fourth, and fifth stanzas. The fact that the speaker has “forgotten” his dream suggests that the reality he confronted in his day-to-day life made his dream impossible. The life of freedom, happiness, and equality was not achieved and was so out of the realm of possibilities that the speaker forgot it entirely.

Stanza Two 

And then the wall rose,
Rose slowly,
Slowly,
Between me and my dream.
Rose slowly, slowly,
Dimming,
Hiding,
The light of my dream.
Rose until it touched the sky,—
The wall.

The second stanza provides readers with more details in regard to what happened to the speaker’s dream. There is a great transition between the first and second stanzas, with the second stanza beginning with the word “And.” This is an abrupt transition, one that is meant to create an effective example of juxtaposition. The poet places two contrasting images next to each other. They are the sun’s brightness, the speaker’s dream, and the darkness of the wall that rose up “slowly” between the speaker and his dream.

The creation of the wall, or its appearance, did not happen quickly or out of the blue. The fact that the wall rose “slowly” is something that the poet emphasizes, using the word “slowly” four times in the second stanza. The wall rose, “dimming” and “hiding” the light of the speaker’s dream. It was an incredibly powerful, tall, and insurmountable wall.

This stanza provides readers with an example of an extended metaphor. This is a metaphor that lasts more than one or two lines, in this case, remaining influential throughout the entire poem. The wall is a comparison, without using the words “like or “as,” that suggests that the real-world racism and discrimination the speaker met throughout his life was a “wall.” It prevented him from accessing, seeing, or even remembering his dreams. It consumed his life, boxing him into specific day-to-day challenges. 

It should also be noted that while this poem is about a very specific experience, those of African-American men and women during Langston Hughes’ lifetime (in the early to mid-1900s), the poem is still incredibly applicable today. This is regarding the lives of marginalized groups within the United States and around the world and anyone who has encountered a boundary to success due to how they look, where they’re from, their race, sexual identity, and more.

Stanza Three 

Shadow.
I am black.

The third stanza is perhaps the most memorable of the five stanza poem. Here, the poet only uses two lines, one of which is only one word long. He writes, “Shadow. / I am black.” Here, if the reader was not aware before, it becomes very clear that the “shadow” that the speaker is living in, cast by the wall and blocking out his everyday dreams, is due to his race. He’s a Black man living in a world controlled by those who have no interest in allowing an African-American man to succeed. Racism, discrimination, and general cruelty were things that African American men and women met with on a day-to-day basis (a fact that still holds true to this day). 

Stanza Four 

I lie down in the shadow.
No longer the light of my dream before me,
Above me.
Only the thick wall.
Only the shadow.

In the fourth stanza, which is only five lines long, the speaker describes the “shadow” that he’s forced to contend with due to racial segregation and discrimination. He lies down in it and can’t see the “light of [his] dream before” him. The speaker is entirely consumed by darkness (an image that should remind readers of the initial transition between the bright sun of an optimistic future or “dream” and the wall itself. 

All around the speaker is darkness, and in front of him, the “thick wall.” He’s boxed in, not by choice, but due to the world’s cruel beliefs and unwillingness to accept men and women of different skin color and backgrounds. Life, the speaker implies, did not turn out the way he was hoping. It was far more difficult to achieve the dreams he wanted due to the “wall.” 

This is a perfect moment in the poem for readers to consider the impact that such a “wall” would have in a single person’s life and how much easier a life without a “wall” would be. 

Stanza Five 

My hands!
My dark hands!
Break through the wall!
Find my dream!
Help me to shatter this darkness,
To smash this night,
To break this shadow
Into a thousand lights of sun,
Into a thousand whirling dreams
Of sun!

The next four lines of the poem all end with exclamation marks. Rather than dwell in the darkness the wall casts or throw away his dreams entirely, the speaker’s vague memory of the bright dreams he used to have inspires him to break through the wall and find his dreams in an address to himself. He uses an example of an apostrophe, speaking to his hands, his “dark hands,” and telling them to “break through the wall.” He is attempting to inspire himself and in the process, is inspiring other African-American men and women in similar situations.

In lines five through seven, the poet continues to address his hands, asking them to help him “shadow the darkness “and break out of the confines that the world has boxed him into. If he can “smash this night “and “break the shadow,” he believes the prejudices inflicted upon him will shatter into a “thousand whirling dreams / Of sun,” and his dream, and those of other men and women like him will return to prominence within their everyday lives. Rather than contending with the cruelties and constraints of racial prejudice, the men and women of the African American community will be able to pursue their dreams freely. 

FAQs 

What inspired Langston Hughes to write the poem ‘As I Grew Older?’

It is likely that Langston Hughes was inspired to write this poem from his real-life, day-to-day experience as a black man in the early 1900s in New York. He was likely speaking from his own perspective when he wrote the five stanzas of this poem. But, if not, he was likely inspired by the experiences of men and women he knew whose dreams were sidelined due to racism and racist policies. 

What is the poem ‘As I Grew Older’ about? 

The poem is about what the speaker has realized about his dreams as he’s grown older. Specifically, he’s remembered his dreams existed as a bright light prior to his being boxed in by a wall and consumed by shadow, due to the world’s discriminatory policies. 

What does the darkness represent in ‘As I Grew Older?’ 

The darkness in ‘As I Grew Older’ represents the prejudice, hatred, cruelty, and ignorance of the real world. The speaker, and the rest of the African-American community that Langston Hughes often wrote about, have to deal with these aspects of their contemporary world on a daily basis.

What do the speaker’s hands represent in ‘As I Grew Older’ by Langston Hughes? 

The speaker’s hands represent his power and his choice to take control of his own life once again. With his hands, he is going to break through the walls of prejudice and racial discrimination and find again the brightness and hope of his youthful dreams.

What are the major symbols used in ‘As I Grew Older?’ 

Throughout this poem, there are a few interesting symbols Langston Hughes uses. They are the speaker’s hands (his power and the tools he uses to fight discrimination), the wall (the discriminatory policies and beliefs that block his dreams), and the light of his dream (hope and the promise of the future). These, among others, create a moving and memorable depiction of prejudice within the everyday lives of African Americans in the early to mid-1900s.

What is the message of the poem ‘As I Grew Older?’ 

The message is that in order to retrieve one’s dreams, which have been blocked by discriminatory and racial prejudice policies, one has to use their own hands (or their own skills, tools, and power), to break down the wall and access their hopeful future.


Similar Poetry 

Readers who enjoyed this piece should also consider reading some other Langston Hughes poems. For example: 

  • Beale Street Love – a short, powerful poem that speaks on the nature of love on Beale Street, an African American cultural hub.
  • Dreams’ – focuses on the importance of dreams and how they might die. 
  • Democracy’ – is focused on the fight for equal rights under the law, including the ability to vote for African Americans

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As I Grew Older by Langston Hughes Visual Representation
Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
About
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.
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