For the songs in Margaret Bonds’s cycle Three Dream Portraits (1959), she selected poems from Langston Hughes’s collection The Dream Keepers and Other Poems: “Minstrel Man,” “Dream Variation,” and “I, Too.”
Bonds's career spans from the 1930s to the 1960s, a period in which the nation’s cultural and political landscapes were dramatically shaped by the Harlem Renaissance, the Chicago Renaissance, and the Civil Rights Movement. She had set these poems in the 1950s during which the Civil Rights Movement was just beginning to gain national attention. However, there remained much to be done, and for African Americans, equality was still very much a dream.
In the opening song, “Minstrel Man,” the irony of the speaker’s laughter prevents the (white) gaze from seeing the speaker’s inner agony. The movement gradually becomes louder, as the “Minstrel Man’s” continuous laughter, singing, and dancing only mask his increasing frustration. He finally states, “You do not know, I die.” Bonds repeats this line, and the song ends in quiet defeat.
The music of the second movement, “Dream Variation,” is infused with foreign harmonies and large vocal leaps. The music is whimsical, as if to suggest the speaker’s desire for freedom of movement: “To fling my arms wide in some place in the sun/To whirl and to dance till the white day is done.”
The music of the final movement, “I, Too” begins with a self-assured quality, more so than that of the previous two songs. The opening declamation, “I, too, sing America/I am the darker brother,” however, soon gives way to resignation by the end of the piece. While the vocal line soars, singing: “They’ll see how beautiful I am,” it quickly wanes, wistfully, on the final words of the poem “ – and be ashamed.” The piano introduction returns to close the movement, but this time, quietly.
In her works, Bonds sought to challenge negative perceptions of African American identity in favor of celebrating the beauty in blackness. As a cultural ambassador for racial uplift, she strongly believed that art should be for and of all people: "[Music] has to be human, and people have to like it; it has to move them spiritually and intellectually."