Harlem by Langston Hughes: Summary and Critical Analysis

The poem Harlem by Langston Hughes reflects the post-World War II mood of many African Americans. The Great Depression was over, the war was over, but for African Americans the dream, whatever particular form it took, was still being deferred. Whether one’s dream is as mundane as hitting the numbers or as noble as hoping to see one’s children reared properly, Langston Hughes takes them all seriously; he takes the deferral of each dream to heart.

Langston Hughes (1902-1967)

In a broad term, the 'dream' in this poem refers to the Black American people's dream for the "right to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness"; for equality, liberty and fraternity; for opportunity in the land of prosperity; for a respected life and dignified ethnic identity, and so on, which America is good at promising in loud voices, if not to let them have or give. Hughes has attempted "to explain and illuminate the Negro condition in America". "Harlem" questions the social consequences of so many deferred dreams.

The first line of the poem poses a large, open question that the following sub-questions both answer and extend. The second stanza (lines 2-8) presents a series of questions as an alternative answer to what happens to a deferred (postponed) dream. The first possible answer to his own question is: "Does it dry up/ like a raisin in the sun?" This image carries the connotation that the dream was a living entity_ and now it has been dried up; a dry raisin, unlike dried of other kinds is lifeless. Besides drying must also mean shrink, become minimal. It is necessary to analyze each image in terms of the feelings of the speaker, rather than finding out the objective qualities of the image (though that is unavoidable). The first image in the poem proposes that the dream dries up like a raisin. This simile likens the original dream to a grape, which is round, juicy, green and fresh. Since the dream has been neglected for too long, it has probably dried up.

 The next simile of the sore, "Or does it fester like a soar and then run?" conveys a sense of infection and pain. Comparing the dream to a sore on the body, the poet suggests that unfulfilled dreams become part of us, like a longstanding injury that has gathered pus! Neglected injuries may lead to infection, even death. The word "fester" connotes seething decay and "run" literally refers to pus. From the viewpoint of the speaker, this denotes to the pain that one has when one's dreams always defers. A postponed dream is like a painful injury that begins to be infected.

The next question: "Does it stink like rotten meat?" intensifies the disgust. A dream deferred may also stink, with the smell of rotten meat, Hughes suggests that dreams deferred will pester one continually, making one sick until they are cared for. The poet also hints at the disastrous results of ignoring people's dreams. The fourth alternative guess about what will happen to the dream postponed is that it will "crust and sugar over'', which means that it will make a layer of covering and seem to be healed. A crusty or syrupy sweet will not kill people as meat and sores may, but the image again connotes waste, neglect, and decay. The "sweet" may represent American dreams of equality and success that are denied to most African Americans. A sweet gone bad is all of the broken promises of emancipation and reconstruction, integration, and equal opportunity.

The third paragraph forms the only sentences that is not a question. Hughes says that the deferred dream may just “sag” (bend with overload); this image implies that although neglecting dreams may yield varied and unforeseeable horrors, one thing is certain: deferred dreams weigh one down physically and emotionally as heavily as a load of bricks. From the viewpoint of the speaker (who represents the Afro-American people) this suggests that their unfulfilled dreams have been heavy on them. Hughes italicizes the last line to emphasize the larger consequences of mass dissatisfaction: "Or does it explode?" The poet implies that an explosion as well as the affiliated individual. Eventually the epidemic of frustration will hurt everyone.

The whole poem (Harlem) is built into the structure of rhetoric. The speaker of the poem is black poet. Black people were given the dreams of equity and equality. But these dreams never came true. Despite legal, political and social consensus to abolish the apartheid, black people could never experience the indiscriminate society. In other worlds, their dream never came true. Blacks are promised dreams of equality, justice, freedom, indiscrimination, but not fulfilled. They are delayed, deferred and postponed. Only promissory note has been given, but has never been brought into reality.

Through this poem Langston Hughes examines the possible effects caused by the dream, when they are constantly deferred. When the dreams are constantly deferred, or when dreams are constantly postponed and delayed, we are naturally cut between hope and hopelessness. The dreams remain in the mind like a heavy load. When these loads are extended, explosions are inevitable. The speaker rhetorically suggests that the dreams will explode and destroy all the limitations imposed upon them. After that the society of their dream will be born.

 The poem is in the form of a series of questions a certain inhabitant of Harlem asks (to himself or to someone listening to him): "What happens to a dream deferred?" He does try to answer tentatively, but his questions are more telling than the attempt at an answer. The poem develops a series of images of decay and waste, representing the dream (or the dreamer's) predicament. While many of the possible consequences affect only the individual dreamer, the end of the poem suggests that, when despair is widely prevalent it may “explode" and cause larger social damages.

The form of the poem is highly functional and so it needs a careful analysis. The line lengths and meter create a sense of jagged, nervous energy that reinforces the poem's themes of increasing frustration. Several lines rhyme, but there is not a consistent pattern of rhyme. Summing up, ‘Harlem’ yields special insight into the African American condition in the gestation period of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

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Sharma, K.N. "Harlem by Langston Hughes: Summary and Critical Analysis." BachelorandMaster, 12 Nov. 2013, bachelorandmaster.com/britishandamericanpoetry/harlem.html.