Harlem by Langston Hughes

by Langston Hughes
Table of Contents
1. Harlem: Introduction
2. Harlem: Text of the Poem
3. Harlem: Langston Hughes Biography
4. Harlem: Summary

5. Harlem: Themes
6. Harlem: Style
7. Harlem: Historical Context
8. Harlem: Critical Overview
Harlem: Essays and Criticism
¨ Psychological and Emotional Circumstances
¨ Langston Hughes: An Introduction to the Poetry
10. Harlem: Compare and Contrast
11. Harlem: Topics for Further Study
12. Harlem: Media Adaptations
13. Harlem: What Do I Read Next?
14. Harlem: Bibliography and Further Reading
15. Harlem: Pictures
16. Copyright
Harlem: Introduction
The brief poem "Harlem" introduces themes that run throughout Langston Hughes's volume Montage of a
Dream Deferred and throughout his career as a poet. This volume, published in 1951, focuses on the
conditions of a people whose dreams have been limited, put off, or lost in post-World War II Harlem. Hughes
claimed that ninety percent of his work attempted "to explain and illuminate the Negro condition in America."
As a result of this focus, Hughes was dubbed "the poet laureate of Harlem." The poem "Harlem" questions the
social consequences of so many deferred dreams, hinting at the resentment and racial strife that eventually
erupted with the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s and continues today. Asking "what happens
to a dream deferred?" the poem sketches a series of images of decay and waste, representing the dream (or the
dreamer's) fate. While many of the potential consequences affect only the individual dreamer, the ending of
the poem suggests that, when despair is epidemic, it may "explode" and cause broad social and political
Harlem 1
Before Hughes wrote, many African-American artists avoided portraying lower-class black life because they
believed such images fed racist stereotypes and attitudes. Hughes believed that realistic portraits of actual
people would counter negative caricatures of African Americans more effectively and so wrote about and for
the common person. Spoken by a variety of personas, the poems in Montage of a Dream Deferred capture the
distinct patterns and rhythms of African-American folk idiom. Hughes integrated the rhythms and structures
of jazz, blues, and bebop into his poetry as well, working to create a poetry which was African-American in
its rhythms, techniques, images, allusions, and diction.
Harlem: Text of the Poem
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?
Harlem: Langston Hughes Biography
Hughes was born in in 1902 in Joplin, Missouri, to James Nathaniel and Carrie Mercer Langston Hughes, who
separated shortly after their son's birth. Hughes's mother had attended college, while his father, who wanted to
become a lawyer, took correspondence courses in law. Denied a chance to take the Oklahoma bar exam,
Hughes's father went first to Missouri and then, still unable to become a lawyer, left his wife and son to move
first to Cuba and then to Mexico. In Mexico, he became a wealthy landowner and lawyer. Because of
financial difficulties, Hughes's mother moved frequently in search of steady work, often leaving him with her
parents. His grandmother Mary Leary Langston was the first black woman to attend Oberlin College. She
inspired the boy to read books and value an education. When his grandmother died in 1910, Hughes lived with
family friends and various relatives in Kansas. In 1915 he joined his mother and new stepfather in Lincoln,
Illinois, where he attended grammar school. The following year, the family moved to Cleveland, Ohio. There
he attended Central High School, excelling in both academics and sports. Hughes also wrote poetry and short
fiction for the Belfry Owl, the high school literary magazine, and edited the school yearbook. In 1920 Hughes
left to visit his father in Mexico, staying in that country for a year. Returning home in 1921, he attended
Columbia University for a year before dropping out. For a time he worked as a cabin boy on a merchant ship,
visited Africa, and wrote poems for a number of American magazines. In 1923 and 1924 Hughes lived in
Paris. He returned to the United States in 1925 and resettled with his mother and half-brother in Washington,
D.C. He continued writing poetry while working menial jobs. In May and August of 1925 Hughes's verse
earned him literary prizes from both Opportunity and Crisis magazines. In December Hughes, then a busboy
at a Washington, D.C, hotel, attracted the attention of poet Vachel Lindsay by placing three of his poems on
Lindsay's dinner table. Later that evening Lindsay read Hughes's poems to an audience and announced his
discovery of a "Negro busboy poet." The next day reporters and photographers eagerly greeted Hughes at
work to hear more of his compositions. He published his first collection of poetry, The Weary Blues, in 1926.
Around this time Hughes became active in the Harlem Renaissance, a flowering of creativity among a group
of African-American artists and writers. Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and other writers founded Fire!, a
literary journal devoted to African-American culture. The venture was unsuccessful, however, and ironically a
Harlem: Introduction 2
fire eventually destroyed the editorial offices. In 1932 Hughes traveled with other black writers to the Soviet
Union on an ill-fated film project. His infatuation with Soviet Communism and Joseph Stalin led Hughes to
write on politics throughout the 1930s. He also became involved in drama, founding several theaters. In 1938
he founded the Suitcase Theater in Harlem, in 1939 the Negro Art Theater in Los Angeles, and in 1941 the
Skyloft Players in Chicago. In 1943 Hughes received an honorary Doctor of Letters from Lincoln University,
and in 1946 he was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters. He continued to write poetry
throughout the rest of his life, and by the 1960s he was known as the "Dean of Negro Writers." Hughes died
in New York on May 22, 1967.
Harlem: Summary
Line 1:
The speaker of this poem, who may represent Hughes, poses a large, open question that the following
sub-questions both answer and extend. This poem, and the volume in which it appears, Montage of a Dream
Deferred, explore what happens to people and society when millions of individuals' dreams get deferred, or
put off indefinitely.
Lines 2-3:
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. Once the dream has lain neglected for too long, it
dries up. Though the dream is still sweet and edible, it has shrunken from its former state and turned black.
The famous 1959 play A Raisin in the Sun, by African-American playwright Lorraine Hansberry, takes its title
from this poem. The play also explores the risks and consequences for African Americans of losing sight of
dreams and hope.
Lines 4-5:
Where the raisin image invokes the senses of taste and sight, the simile of the sore conveys a sense of touch
and bodily impact. Sores reside on one's skin, and are seen, felt, and carried around. By comparing the dream
to a sore on the body, the poet suggests that unfulfilled dreams become part of us, like scars. Even if we
ignore a sore, it is palpable, visible, and needs attention to heal. Neglected sores may lead to infection, even
death. Hughes thus suggests that unattended dreams may not only nag one from outside, they may infect the
body and the psyche and slowly kill their host. The word "fester" connotes seething decay and "run" literally
refers to pus. Hughes may be punning on the word "run," suggesting that the dream may flee or may run
rampant with one's sanity. With the simile of a sore, Hughes raises the stakes of ignoring dreams.
Line 6:
Appealing to all of the reader's senses, the speaker suggests that a dream deferred may also stink. Unlike a
sore, a stink cannot be ignored. Smells do not vanish until one gets rid of their source. With the smell of rotten
meat, Hughes suggests that dreams deferred will pester one continually, making one sick until they are
addressed. Like the raisin image, rotten meat stinks when it is no longer fresh. This image reinforces the idea
of decay and waste. Rotten meat is also deadly to eat. Some critics suggest that Hughes uses this image
because blacks were often sold rotten meat in ghetto groceries and so were familiar with this stench, as well as
the waste and injustice the stench represents.
Lines 7-8:
With these lines, the poet de-escalates the disastrous results of ignoring or blocking one's dreams. A crusted,
syrupy sweet will not kill people as meat or sores may, but the image again connotes waste, neglect, and
decay. A sweet treat, like a dream, begins as something one yearns for and anticipates eagerly. If it sits unused
too long, however, it spoils and leaves a bad taste in the mouth. As Onwuchekwa Jemie notes, the "sweet"
may represent American dreams of equality and success that are denied to most African Americans. The
Harlem: Langston Hughes Biography 3
American dream itself may have gone bad from disuse and false promises.
Lines 9-10:
Lines 9-10 form the only sentence that is not a question. Hughes 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.
Line 11:
Hughes sets off and italicizes this line to emphasize the larger consequences of mass dissatisfaction. Though
this line is a question like those above, here the poet implies that an explosion may occur, hurting or killing
those in the vicinity of the explosion as well as the afflicted individual. Hughes is implying that whereas the
dream deferred primarily weighs on, infects, bothers, and saddens the frustrated dreamer, eventually the
epidemic of frustration will hurt everyone.
Harlem: Themes
American Dream
Since America has a capitalist economic system, "the American dream" often refers to acquiring wealth and to
the items that wealth can purchase: houses, cars, exotic foods, and servants to relieve one of the mundane and
unpleasant chores of life. This list of physical items expresses the goals of a society that sees acquisition as
unlimited and a people who feel that they can earn unlimited wealth with hard work. People often immigrate
to America from countries with closed social systems where their ability to earn or keep property had been
limited, where a lifetime of hard work could never buy one a house in a certain neighborhood, where hard
work leaves one as poor as they started: to these people, the American Dream represents freedom. The poem
"Harlem" is a response to dreams of freedom from an American who did not see this as a country where
dreams could come true, but rather as where people of African descent were denied freedom every hour.
Throughout his career, Langston Hughes frequently used the idea of "dreams" to express the idea of social
equality, possibly because the power of the word cut across racial lines and because phrasing aspirations as
"dreams" made them sound less real and thus less menacing. In 1924, when the South was tightly segregated
and hate groups killed blacks regularly, Hughes was surrounded by black intellectuals, and he expressed his
dream as one of physical motion: "To fling my arms wide / In the face of the sun, / Dance! Whirl! Whirl! /
Till the quick day is done." The 1932 poem "Dreams" is not a personal expression of his own dream but a
caution to other African Americans to hold onto their dreams, warning that when dreams die "Life is a
broken-winged bird / That cannot fly" and also "Life is a barren field / Frozen with snow." The growing
frustration that we can see in comparing these two visions was multiplied many times over by 1951's
"Harlem." The right to move freely that looked wistful in 1924 had been put off, or deferred, for so long that
Hughes could no longer, as in "Dreams," internalize his frustration as a problem for African Americans. The
poem implies that the "opportunity" promised in the American Dream can only fail so often.
Anger and Hatred
"Harlem" carefully measures out the amount of anger it reveals: although it is about the author's circumstances
and its title is the place where the author lived, the emotion explained is looked at objectively, as something
that is bound to happen in these sort of cases, not just as Hughes's own feelings. Literature by oppressed
people has always walked the narrow line between self-expression and a threatening call to rebellion: the
same piece could be interpreted in either way, depending upon the circumstances, depending upon how
vulnerable the oppressors feel. Treating blacks differently from whites was an idea that always stood on shaky
ground throughout the country's history, being directly at odds with the Declaration of Independence's credo
that "all men are created equal," and so the supporters of racial segregation could never rest securely and
always had to beware that someday liberty would come to the people they were oppressing. Works of
literature—especially those written by African Americans—that openly discussed the frustration felt by African
Harlem: Summary 4
Americans were seen as containing an implied threat. At the time Hughes wrote this poem, blacks had made
some gains, most notably in the fields of entertainment and in the integrated army of World War II. Hughes
no longer had to suppress or ignore the frustration African Americans were feeling, but, exactly because of
those gains, segregationists felt threatened. The prospect of violence is often used to justify laws that are even
more oppressive, in the name of maintaining social order. Hughes approached the growing anger of blacks
carefully, stopping short of stating directly that it would lead to violence. First, he suggested options to anger,
although to the people dealing with frustration, these were not very appealing—rather than turning to anger,
frustration could dry up, fester, stink, crust, and sugar over. Second, his tightly controlled objective tone made
it clear that this poem is not supporting violence: he could always deny that his intent was to invite people to
Civil Rights
The "dream deferred" mentioned in the poem could refer to anything, but the title's mention of the Harlem
area of New York City, famous for its African-American population, narrows the focus of this poem to racial
issues. In the 1950s, the Civil Rights movement made tremendous gains against laws that had forced blacks to
endure worse conditions than whites. Most of these gains were made without violence, especially after 1955,
when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. became a national figure by supporting peaceful ways of achieving social
change. There had been supporters of civil rights as long as the country had existed, and organizations
fighting to end unequal treatment had existed since the first slaves were brought from Africa.
"Harlem" gives us a measure of African-American frustration at this critical time in the country's history, just
prior to the Civil Rights movement's most crucial gains. The "explosion" that Hughes mentions actually did
happen, but only after the gains made in the 1950s proved to be insufficient, and they happened all over the
country in crowded urban areas just like Harlem. If this poem were a prophesy, it was proven false by the
peaceful advances made in civil rights during the following decade (although a cynic could see peaceful
means as "crusting and sugaring over" or "sagging"). Eventually, though, the road to civil rights did lead to an
explosion of violence, just as "Harlem" foretold.
Hughes uses an irregular meter in the lines of "Harlem." That is, he stresses different syllables in each line and
varies the length of each line. Together, the varied line lengths and meter create a sense of jagged, nervous
energy that reinforces the poem's themes of increasing frustration. In the introduction to Montage, Hughes
notes that he models his poetry's rhythms on musical forms such as "jazz, ragtime, swing, blues,
boogie-woogie, and bebop." Like these musical genres, he explains, "[the volume] is marked by conflicting
changes, sudden nuances, sharp and imprudent interjections, broken rhythms and passages ... in the manner of
a jam session."
Several lines rhyme, but there is not a consistent pattern of rhyme. Rhymes occur in lines 3 and 5 (sun, run), 6
and 8 (meat, sweet), and 10 and 11 (load, explode). Hughes may use these rhymes to emphasize the irregular
rhythm of the poem or to draw attention to the connections between different ideas, such as "load" and
The first and last lines are offset from the poem. In line 1, this separation introduces and emphasizes the
poem's central question, which is also the volume's central question. The space between this line and the
following stanza implies that the answer is unpredictable and perhaps threatening. The second stanza poses
four questions in four sentences. By firing one question after another, Hughes builds tension within the poem.
The final line is offset and italicized to emphasize the potentially explosive social consequences of widespread
Harlem: Themes 5
Harlem: Style
Hughes uses an irregular meter in the lines of "Harlem." That is, he stresses different syllables in each line and
varies the length of each line. Together, the varied line lengths and meter create a sense of jagged, nervous
energy that reinforces the poem's themes of increasing frustration. In the introduction to Montage, Hughes
notes that he models his poetry's rhythms on musical forms such as "jazz, ragtime, swing, blues,
boogie-woogie, and bebop." Like these musical genres, he explains, "[the volume] is marked by conflicting
changes, sudden nuances, sharp and imprudent interjections, broken rhythms and passages ... in the manner of
a jam session."
Several lines rhyme, but there is not a consistent pattern of rhyme. Rhymes occur in lines 3 and 5 (sun, run), 6
and 8 (meat, sweet), and 10 and 11 (load, explode). Hughes may use these rhymes to emphasize the irregular
rhythm of the poem or to draw attention to the connections between different ideas, such as "load" and
The first and last lines are offset from the poem. In line 1, this separation introduces and emphasizes the
poem's central question, which is also the volume's central question. The space between this line and the
following stanza implies that the answer is unpredictable and perhaps threatening. The second stanza poses
four questions in four sentences. By firing one question after another, Hughes builds tension within the poem.
The final line is offset and italicized to emphasize the potentially explosive social consequences of widespread
Harlem: Historical Context
Harlem, of this poem's title, is a famous area of New York City that has had one of the country's largest
African-American populations since the First World War. In the 1920s it was the setting of a gathering of
artists and intellectuals, later known as the Harlem Renaissance because it resembled the European
Renaissance's surge in artistic productivity. Key figures in the Harlem Renaissance were Claude McKay, Zora
Neale Hurston, Arna Bontemps, Dr. Alain Locke, and Langston Hughes. Since then, Harlem has been a focal
point for African-American culture.
In 1951, when "Harlem" was first published, race relations were much different in the United States than they
are today. Racism still exists, but there are now laws that can be used to fight against discrimination. Most of
these laws were enacted during a period from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s, when blacks became impatient
with deferring their dreams and whites, especially in the Southern states, resisted the social forces that were
pushing for equality. The Civil War ended in 1865, and with its end, slavery became extinct in the United
States, but the freed blacks did not receive full citizenship status. In the late 1800s, former slave states passed
a series of laws known as Jim Crow laws (after a foolish, child-like Negro character in an 1832 minstrel
comedy). These laws made it illegal for blacks to vote, ride public transportation, attend schools with whites,
and other functions that would have enabled African Americans to become equal members of society.
Although many citizens opposed these laws, especially in the North where there had been no slavery, the
Supreme Court ruled in 1886 that they were constitutional so long as blacks had facilities similar to those of
whites. In that case, Plessy vs. Ferguson, the court ruled that the legality of Jim Crow laws rested upon there
being "separate but equal" accommodations for both races: in reality, though, blacks were given the worst of
everything. To keep blacks from gaining political power, there were other laws that made it difficult to
register to vote, requiring land ownership and passage of bogus I.Q. tests that were seldom administered to
Caucasians. Many African Americans moved North, where laws did not discriminate, even though people still
did. Opportunities for advancement were still scarce in the North, mainly because of the economic/educational
circle (under-educated people cannot get well-paying jobs, and people with poor incomes cannot afford higher
education). In the South in the first half of this century, blacks were lynched by white supremacist
Harlem: Style 6
organizations, such as the Ku Klux Klan.
During World War II, from 1941 to 1945, the armed forces became the most integrated organization that the
United States had ever had. Although it would still be decades until blacks were admitted to the higher ranks
of officers, opportunity was, to a wide extent, equal among enlisted men. This meant that returning veterans
came home with a greater sense of how racial equality was possible, raising hopes for integration in whites as
well as in blacks. These hopes sometimes twisted into anger when black veterans found civilian society a step
backwards from their life in the army: full scale riots broke out in 1946 in Columbia, Tennessee, and Athens,
Alabama, as well as lesser racial confrontations in dozens of other cities.
As the call for a new racial openness in the United States grew, though, another social force was also growing:
fear of the threat of Communism. World War II had weakened or destroyed most of the powerful European
nations and left the Soviet Union as the only other world power with might that could compare to the United
States. The two counties had different social philosophies and each was afraid that the other would plant spies
in its government or its media to cause its collapse. These techniques were tried by both sides, but not nearly
to the degree that citizens feared them. In the South, the public's fear of Communism was used by some
whites to oppose integration. In the Presidential election of 1948, for example, Democrat Harry Truman and
Republican Thomas Dewey were opposed by southern Senator Strom Thurmond, with the newly formed
States Rights Democratic party. Thurmond claimed that regular Democrats supported civil rights due to their
"Communist ideology," arguing that Democrats intended to "excite race and class hatred" and "create chaos
and confusion which leads to communism." Truman just barely won the election. In 1948, by an Executive
Order from the President, a commission was established to study equal treatment in the armed forces.
Historians believe that the committee's recommendations would have pushed integration further if the country
had not become involved in the Korean Conflict to stop the spread of Communism. As it was, proposals made
in 1949 by the Truman administration regarding racial issues like lynchings and voter registration were held
up in Congress until the Civil Rights Act of 1957.
Many of the legal inequalities that existed when Hughes wrote this poem were addressed in the 1950s and
1960s, often to avoid the sort of violent conflict that this poem predicts. In 1954 the Supreme Court ruled, in
Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka, that it was impossible to make schools "separate but equal," so
they would have to integrate: as a result, segregation could no longer be shielded by the Plessy vs. Ferguson
verdict of the 1890s. In 1955, Dr. Martin Luther King gained national fame by leading a year-long boycott of
the bus system of Montgomery, Alabama, which eventually changed the policy of blacks only riding in the
back seats of the busses. In 1957 the President had to send U.S. troops to guard black children who had been
admitted to a white school because the governor of Arkansas tried to have the children stopped by armed
National Guardsmen. In 1961 black and white "Freedom Riders" rode busses across the South to make sure
that rest areas on interstate highways were desegregated. Civil Rights Acts passed the legislature in 1957 and
1964, making federal laws out of the nation's growing desire for integration.
Harlem: Critical Overview
Langston Hughes is considered one of the most influential and prolific African-American poets of the
twentieth century. He published poetry from the Harlem Renaissance, a period during the 1920s when
African-American artists and their works flourished in Harlem, to the Civil Rights and Black Arts movements.
Following the Civil Rights movement, the Black Arts movement of the 1970s combined militant black
nationalism with outspoken art and literature. Onwuchekwa Jemie, in his book Langston Hughes: An
Introduction to the Poetry, interprets the poem as a militant outcry against racial injustice. Jemie argues that
the images in the poem build in intensity until "the violent crescendo at the end." Jemie writes, "rotten meat is
a lynched black man rotting on the tree. A sweet gone bad is all of the broken promises of Emancipation and
Reconstruction, ... integration ... and Equal Opportunity. It might even be possible to identify each of the key
Harlem: Historical Context 7
images with a generation or historical period ..." These interpretations are not shared by many critics, but
Jemie's reading is notable for its departure from the widespread black opinion that Hughes's writing was not
militant enough to remain relevant in the wake of the Black Arts movement. By finding radical implications
in Hughes's earlier poetry, Jemie revives poems such as "Harlem" for politicized contemporary readers.
Commenting on the innovative musical structure of the volume in which "Harlem" is a keynote poem, many
critics, including Walter Farrell and Patricia Johnson, writing in the journal MELUS, note that Hughes "breaks
down the barrier between the beginning of one poem and the end of another. [The volume may be described]
as a series of short poems or phrases that contribute to the making of one long poem. Each poem maintains
some individual identity as a separate unit while contributing to the composite poetic message. Movement
between passages is achieved by thematic or topical congruency or by interior dialogue." "Harlem" is placed
toward the end of Montage and comments on the widespread despair and frustration expressed by the
personas in preceding poems. Thus "Harlem" may be read as both a distinct individual poem and an
outstanding note in much larger symphony.
Harlem: Essays and Criticism
Psychological and Emotional Circumstances
Legendary blues musician W. C. Handy once remarked of one of Langston Hughes's shorter poems that the
poet had accomplished in four lines "what it would have taken Shakespeare two acts and three scenes to say."
Handy's pithy observation hits at a central feature of much twentieth-century poetry—the poet's ability to
create a mountain of meaning from the studied arrangement of a very few words. Published in 1951, "Harlem"
manages to evoke nearly a century of African-American history through a series of brief, bluesy,
thought-provoking questions that aim to immerse the reader in the imagery of despair and disappointment.
The spatial configuration of lines on the page suggests a way into the poem—a way to organize it and make
meaning of it. Hughes begins with a central question that we might use to frame the remainder of the poem;
and if we feel compelled to make an informed answer to this question at poem's end, then the poem, and
reader, will have succeeded in generating thought about what continues to be our most pressing national
problem: race relations. Note that the one-and two-line questions in the next section of the poem contain
earthy images of disease and spoliation. The conspicuous absence of life-affirming images in this section is
the poem's way of pushing us toward a disturbing answer to the opening question. The next section continues
the "heavy," hopeless tone, or feeling, of the poem and effectively sets up the shocking conclusion. Because
the reader is encouraged to respond to the questions the poem asks, the poem adheres to "call and response"
patterning; that is, the tradition in African-American culture in which the "call" of the preacher or civic leader
meets with a ready "response" from an attentive congregation or community.
Nearly all critics of "Harlem" interpret the "dream" in the poem's opening section as a symbol of African
Americans' desire for equality—social, economic, and educational—in American society. That this desire is
"deferred" means that African Americans continue to endure the difficult realities of racism and limited
opportunity in a presumably free society. Critic Onwuchekwa Jemie, for example, wrote that the "dream
deferred" represents "all of the broken promises of Emancipation and Reconstruction, of the Great Migration,
integration and voter registration, of Black Studies and Equal Opportunity." The events the critic cites here
begin at the conclusion of the Civil War in 1865 and actually extend beyond the poem's 1951 publication date
into the 1970s and 1980s when many Black Studies programs at American universities were eliminated and
when reaction against Affirmative Action programs began to escalate. By inviting the reader to answer the
poem's first question, Hughes asks one to sit in the role of social commentator and critic of culture and to
consider the various psychological and emotional circumstances black individuals might experience in a
society that continues to struggle with putting into practice its egalitarian ideals.
Harlem: Critical Overview 8
The next, longest section of "Harlem" urges us to answer "yes" to the four questions asked. Here, the poet
guides us, through his use of images and similes, to a deeper acknowledgment of African Americans'
disillusionment with the American dreams of seizing opportunity, working hard, and enjoying success. A
well-constructed image creates a mental picture in our imaginations and appeals to one or more of our
physical senses. Often, its function is to carry or reinforce an important idea in a poem. In the first question,
for example, Hughes uses the image of a dried raisin to convey the idea of shriveling and devaluation. The
raisin was once a plump, moisture-laden fruit full with the promise of flavor and enjoyment. However, when
the fruit, like the dream of equality, remains unharvested, it metamorphoses into something shrunken and less
appealing. Interestingly, this image became the title of an award-winning play, A Raisin in the Sun by
Lorraine Hansberry, which dramatizes the deferred dream of a black family's efforts to integrate a white urban
neighborhood. Also helping to carry the idea in this question is a simile, or a comparison of unlike things
using words such as "like" or "as" (or "than" or "seems"). The simile here compares "it," the deferred dream of
equality, with the disfigured grape drying in the harsh rays of a paralyzing sun. In the next question, the image
of a sore that will not heal reminds readers that the sting of discrimination and the pain of repeatedly having
the dream dashed continues to drain one of the energy needed to keep hope alive. Like the perpetual sore, the
stench of inedible, diseased meat speaks to the status of a dream gone bad. The "meal" Hughes serves
concludes with candy, a course that potentially might have sweetened a satisfying experience, but instead the
candy, like the meat, is spoiled and indigestible. It too has lost its original character and now, it would seem,
is served up as ironic counterpoint to the expectations we hold for after-dinner confectionery and,
symbolically, for the bitter taste of thwarted opportunity.
The figurative language and questions of this section prepare the reader for the declarative statement that
makes up the poem's next section. Images are piled into "a heavy load," and the weight of keeping one's eyes
on the prize of genuine emancipation after repeated defeats causes the dream to sag and puts the prize
seemingly out of reach. But before taking up the challenge of the final question, additional investigation into
how Hughes creates such a heavy mood may prove helpful in our efforts both to recognize additional
structural elements in the poem and to begin providing some cultural context for its construction. Hughes's
biographer, Arnold Rampersad, wrote in volume one of The Life of Langston Hughes, that blues music deeply
influenced the poet throughout his literary career because it "alerted him to a power and privacy of language
residing in the despised race to which he belonged." Blues elements apparent in "Harlem" include the
everyday language of common people and repetition, perhaps the most recognizeable feature of blues
compositions. Indeed, one question after another and repetition of the phrase "Does it," the word "like," and
"d" and "s" sounds throughout the poem tie it to this blues convention. Hughes's stated intention of writing in
order "to explain and illuminate the Negro condition in America" also connects with a thematic dimension of
blues songs—the need to articulate the sometimes dreary realities of spoiled hopes and sagging spirits. The
need to name and rename the traits associated with perennial disasppointment using the language of his
people, as Hughes does in his creation of these powerful images, reflects the poet's deep pride in his folk
heritage and his commitment to social change.
The poem's final line contrasts mightily with the tone of earlier questions. It is designed both to shock and
enlighten readers as to the explosive spirit and drive fueling an American dream and a determined people. A
raisin, a festering sore, rotten meat, and spoiled candy now become incendiary devices in the service of this
dream that will not die. Yet for those familiar with blues tradition and the perservering spirit of a resisting
people, Hughes's explosive conclusion may come as no surprise at all. As novelist and critic Ralph Ellison
observed: the blues "at once express both the agony of life and the possibility of conquering it through sheer
toughness of spirit." The fact that this final question is underlined suggests that the poet is drawing our
attention to "possibility" and "toughness" as qualities born from the need to survive under an oppressive
social, political, judicial, and economic order and the decay-ridden conditions it brings. It also underscores,
emphatically, that the repressed, but still throbbing, dream of equal treatment will indeed be realized, but in
unpredictable and potentially furious forms.
Psychological and Emotional Circumstances 9
Historically, "Harlem" can be looked upon as a literary harbinger of the Civil Rights and Black Nationalist
movements that took place during the two decades after its publication. Additionally, when we compare
"Harlem" with earlier, frequently anthologized Hughes poems, such as "Dream Variations" (1924) and "I,
Too" (1925), we note a shift from the confident, optimistic tones of the earlier verse to the defiant warning
that may be construed from the final line of "Harlem." Literature, as many scholars suggest, is a good way to
read history, and if we use these earlier and later Hughes poems as a way of assessing race relations during
this quarter century, then we come to the inescapable conclusion that few gains have been achieved during
this period. As we know from our study of history, social movements are often characterized by explosive,
unpredictable events fueled by long years of disappointment and frustration. Indeed, as this dream
continues—in the eyes of many Americans—to be deferred, we might link the final line of "Harlem" with
reactions to assassinations, controversial court decisions, and to the institutional kinds of discrimination that
persist in our society. And when we recall W. C. Handy's reference to Hughes's wherewithal to be brief, we
note in this eleven-line poem the poet's ability to skillfully blend history and art with the politics of resistance.
Source: Harry Phillips, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1997.
Harry Phillips is a freelance writer and is currently teaching in the Department of English and Foreing
Languages at Central Piedmont Community College.
Langston Hughes: An Introduction to the Poetry
Montage of a Dream Deferred (1951) is more carefully orchestrated than Hughes's earlier volumes because
conceived as a unity, as one continuous poem, although it is organized in sections and subtitles just like the
others, and uses single poems previously published in periodicals. In Montage the days of our black lives are
telescoped into one day and one night. Montage is primarily a technique of the motion picture, its camera eye
sweeping swiftly from scene to scene, juxtaposing disparate scenes in rapid succession or superimposing one
scene (layer of film) over another until the last fades into the next. In literature, montage provides a technical
shortcut, a means of avoiding the sometimes long-winded "logical" transitions demanded by the conventional
story line. Through montage, the reader/viewer is able to traverse vast spaces and times (and consciousness) in
a relatively brief moment. Hughes in his prefatory note prepares the reader for this mode of seeing:
In terms of current Afro-American popular music and the sources from which it has
progressed—jazz, ragtime, swing, blues, boogie-woogie, and be-bop—this poem on
contemporary Harlem, like be-bop, is marked by conflicting changes, sudden nuances, sharp
and impudent interjections, broken rhythms, and passages sometimes in the manner of the
jam session, sometimes the popular song, punctuated by the riffs, runs, breaks, and distortions
of the music of a community in transition.
The theme is the dream deferred. The vehicle is primarily be-bop but also boogie-woogie and other black
music. And the mode is montage, which has its musical equivalent in be-bop and its literary equivalent in free
association (stream of consciousness). Be-bop, montage, and free association parallel one another so closely
in technique (rapid shifts) that the mode could be thought of as all three simultaneously. However, free
association is used sparingly, as in the "Dig and Be Dug" section when talk of death leads to talk of war. (Free
association will see full service in "Ask Your Mama.") Some sections open and close with the musical motif
(boogie or bop), and each is sprinkled with musical references and phrases, including the "nonsense syllables"
or "scat singing" ("Oop-pop-a-da! / Skee! Daddle-de-do! / Be-bop!") which especially characterized bop. In
"Dive," for instance, while there is no mention of music, it is the music that is picking up rhythm "faster ... /
faster," lending its speed to the nightlife on Lenox Avenue. Similarly, "Up-Beat" describes a speeding up of
the beat as well as a possible metamorphosis of black youth—their emergence from the gutter, up from the
dead into the quick—the kind of process by which the youngsters of "Flatted Fifths," "Jam Session," "Be-Bop
Boys," and "Tag" are transformed from jailbirds into musical celebrities.
Langston Hughes: An Introduction to the Poetry 10
The poem could be viewed as a ritual drama, but without the stiffness that the term usually connotes. It is a
vibrant seriocomic ceremony in which a community of voices is orchestrated from a multiset or multilevel
stage, the speakers meanwhile engaged in their normal chores or pleasures. The setting is Harlem, with a close
awareness of its connection with downtown Manhattan and its place as a magnetic mecca for refugees from
the South. The time: the continuous present on which the burden of times past is heavy, with brief projections
into the future. The poem opens in the morning and progresses through daytime into evening, into late night,
and on to the following dawn. Harlem, a microcosm of the black presence in America, is the victim of an
economic blight, relieved only sporadically by the wartime boom. This is hardly the joy-filled night-town of
the 1920s. Money, or more precisely the lack of money, determines many of the human relationships
presented to our view especially in the opening section. Money is the main riff, the musical current flowing
steadily just below the surface and surfacing from time to time, bearing the theme of the dream deferred. A
few situations transcend the terms and boundaries of the economic imperative, as in "Juke Box Love Song",
where love unlocks and lets fly softness and beauty amidst the discordant, dissatisfied voices of poverty,
creating a harmony that money could not by itself accomplish; in "Projection," where unity and peace are
described in terms of a harmonious orchestration of disparate types; and in "College Formal," where the
youthful couples, wrapped in love and melody, lend transcendence to the audience as a whole.
The deferred dream is examined through a variety of human agencies, of interlocking and recurring voices
and motifs fragmented and scattered throughout the six sections of the poem. Much as in bebop, the pattern is
one of constant reversals and contrasts. Frequently the poems are placed in thematic clusters, with poems
within the cluster arranged in contrasting pairs. Montage does not move in a straight line; its component
poems move off in invisible directions, reappear and touch, creating a complex tapestry or mosaic.
The dream theme itself is carried in the musical motifs. It is especially characterized by the rumble ("The
boogie-woogie ramble / Of a dream deferred")—that rapid thumping and tumbling of notes which so
powerfully drives to the bottom of the emotions, stirring feelings too deep to be touched by the normal
successions of notes and common rhythms. The rumble is an atomic explosion of musical energy, an articulate
confusion, a moment of epiphany, a flash of blinding light in which all things are suddenly made clear. The
theme is sounded at strategic times, culminating in the final section...
The poet has taken us on a guided tour of microcosmic Harlem, day and night, past and present. And as a new
day dawns and the poem moves into a summing up in the final section, he again poses the question and
examines the possibilities:
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?
The images are sensory, domestic, earthy, like blues images. The stress is on deterioration—drying, rotting,
festering, souring—on loss of essential natural quality. The raisin has fallen from a fresh, juicy grape to a
Langston Hughes: An Introduction to the Poetry 11
dehydrated but still edible raisin to a sun-baked and inedible dead bone of itself. The Afro-American is not
unlike the raisin, for he is in a sense a dessicated trunk of his original African self, used and abandoned in the
American wilderness with the stipulation that he rot and disappear. Like the raisin lying neglected in the
scorching sun, the black man is treated as a thing of no consequence. But the raisin refuses the fate assigned to
it, metamorphoses instead into a malignant living sore that will not heal or disappear. Like the raisin, a sore is
but a little thing, inconsequential on the surface but in fact symptomatic of a serious disorder. Its stink is like
the stink of the rotten meat sold to black folks in so many ghetto groceries; meat no longer suitable for human
use, deathly. And while a syrupy sweet is not central to the diet as meat might be, still it is a rounding-off final
pleasure (dessert) at the end of a meal, or a delicious surprise that a child looks forward to at Halloween or
Christmas. But that final pleasure turns out to be a pain. Aged, spoiled candy leaves a sickly taste in the
mouth; sweetness gone bad turns a treat into a trick.
The elements of the deferred dream are, like the raisin, sore, meat, and candy, little things of no great
consequence in themselves. But their unrelieved accretion packs together considerable pressure. Their
combined weight becomes too great to carry about indefinitely: not only does the weight increase from
continued accumulation, but the longer it is carried the heavier it feels. The load sags from its own weight, and
the carrier sags with it; and if he should drop it, it just might explode from all its strange, tortured, and
compressed energies.
In short, a dream deferred can be a terrifying thing. Its greatest threat is its unpredictability, and for this reason
the question format is especially fitting. Questions demand the reader's participation, corner and sweep him
headlong to the final, inescapable conclusion.
Each object (raisin, sore, meat, candy, load) is seen from the outside and therefore not fully apprehended.
Each conceals a mystery; each generates its own threat. The question starts with the relatively innocuous
raisin and, aided by the relentless repetition of "Does it...?" intensifies until the violent crescendo at the end.
With the explosion comes the ultimate epiphany: that the deadly poison of the deferred dream, which had
seemed so neatly localized (the raisin drying up in a corner harmless and unnoticed; the sore that hurt only the
man that had it; the rotten meat and sour candy that poisoned only those that ate it), does in fact seep into the
mainstream from which the larger society drinks. The load, so characterless except for its weight, conceals
sticks of dynamite whose shattering power none can escape.
Rotten meat is a lynched black man rotting on the tree. A sweet gone bad is all of the broken promises of
Emancipation and Reconstruction, of the Great Migration, integration and voter registration, of Black Studies
and Equal Opportunity. It might even be possible to identify each of the key images with a generation or
historical period, but this is not necessary: the deferred dream appears in these and similar guises in every
generation and in the experience of individuals as well as of the group. The poem is the "Lenox Avenue
Mural" of the closing section title, painted in bold letters up high and billboard-size for all to see. To step into
or drive through Harlem is at once to be confronted with its message or question. The closing line is Hughes's
final answer/threat and will return with some frequency in The Panther and the Lash.
Each of the five other poems of the final section takes the question and plays with it, incorporating variations
of it from earlier sections. All sorts of things are liable to happen "when a dream gets kicked around." And,
sure, they kick dreams around downtown, too, even on Wall Street, not to speak of Appalachia or the Indian
Reservations. But right now, one thing at a time, first things first: "I'm talking about / Harlem to you!"
Source: Jemie, Onwuchekwa, Langston Hughes: An Introduction to the Poetry, Columbia University Press,
1976 pp. 63-5, 78-80.
Langston Hughes: An Introduction to the Poetry 12
Harlem: Compare and Contrast
1951: The United States was involved in the Korean Conflict to help keep communist North Korea out of
South Korea. Fighting ended in a truce in 1953 that established a De-Militarized Zone, but tensions between
the two countries continue to this day.
1964-1973: U.S. troops were active in combat in South Vietnam, in an attempt to keep Communist-backed
North Vietnam from overtaking the country. In 1973 the U.S. withdrew military support, and South Vietnam
was conquered in 1975.
1990: Straining under the weight of an unproductive economy, the Soviet Union, the world's largest
Communist country, dissolved.
Today: Communism is not considered a threat to America, with the most stable Communist countries existing
being tiny Cuba and isolationist China.
1951: The first nuclear fusion reactor for providing power was built by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission.
1979: An accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, raised public fear
about the safety of nuclear energy.
1986: A radiation leak at a nuclear plant in Chernobyl in the Soviet Union killed an unspecified number of
workers (the number is unknown because of the government's secrecy) and made nearby land and houses
uninhabitable for years.
Today: Despite the fact that no new nuclear plants have been built since 1978, America gets one fifth of its
electrical energy from nuclear power.
Harlem: Topics for Further Study
In this poem, Hughes asks what happens to a dream is put on hold, giving a series of possibilities. Write a
poem in which you tell readers what does happen to such a dream. Use concrete imagery, as Hughes does, to
speak of the dream as a real, tangible object.
Do research on one of the race riots of the mid-1960s, such as the one in Watts (Los Angeles), Chicago and
Atlanta. What was the immediate cause? What social conditions led up to the violence? Write a report that
explains the situation to your class.
Why is this poem named "Harlem"? What other locations would have had a similar meaning? Name the social
events that have occurred since the poem's publication in 1951 that you feel help prove that Hughes's fears
were realistic.
Harlem: Media Adaptations
An audio cassette titled Langston Hughes Reads is available from Audiobooks.
Harlem: Compare and Contrast 13
Harlem: What Do I Read Next?
Hughes published several volumes of autobiography in his lifetime: The Big Sea, published in 1963, covers
the period in which this poem was written and the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s.
Hughes was also the author, along with Milton Meltzer and C. Eric Lincoln, of a 1956 book titled A Pictorial
History of the Negro in America that was reprinted in 1983 as A Pictorial History of Black Americans. The
photos in this book give a vivid sense of the times. For instance, the reader can see separate "Colored"
facilities at places such as restaurants, movie balconies, and parking lots. Hughes's text reads like a moderate
intellectual whose patience is wearing thin.
The title of Lorraine Hansberry's 1959 award-winning play A Raisin in the Sun is of course taken from this
poem. The play, which was the first by a black woman to appear on Broadway, dramatizes almost every
concern of African Americans in the 1950s.
Aldron Morris's 1984 study The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement: Black Communities Organizing for a
Change is one of the most comprehensive and thoroughly documented works about the grassroots
organizations that brought black citizens together to defeat institutionalized segregation.
The Shaping of Black America by Lerone Bennett, Jr., first published in 1975 and revised in 1991, has proven
to be of lasting value as a quick yet insightful overview.
Harlem: Bibliography and Further Reading
Farrell, Walter C. and Patricia A. Johnson, "Poetic Interpretations of Urban Black Folk Culture: Langston
Hughes and the 'Bebop' Era," in MEWS, fall, 1981, pp. 57-72.
Jemie, Onwuchekwa, "Jazz, Jive, and Jam," in Langston Hughes, introduction by Harold Bloom, Chelsea
House, 1990.
Jemie, Onwuchekwa, Langston Hughes: An Introduction to the Poetry, Columbia University Press, 1976, p.
Rampersad, Arnold, The Life of Langston Hughes, Volume I, 1902-1941: I, Too, Sing America, Oxford
University Press, 1986.
For Furtner Study
Berry, Faith, Langston Hughes: Before and Beyond Harlem, Westport, CT: Lawrence Hill & Co., 1983.
A meticulously researched biography by a founding member of the Langston Hughes Society, this book is full
of fascinating anecdotes.
Cashman, Sean Dennis, African-Americans and the Quest for Civil Rights 1900-1990, New York: New York
University Press, 1991.
A very thorough and readable account of the growth of the Civil Rights movement.
Meier, August, and Elliot Rudwick, From Plantation to Ghetto, third edition, New York: Hill and Wang,
This book gives too little attention to the period of the late 1940s and early 1950s, but it has a large,
informative section about Hughes's part in the Harlem Renaissance.
Harlem: What Do I Read Next? 14
Truman, Harry S., "Civil Rights Message," in The Negro in American History, Mortimer J. Adler, gen. ed.,
Charles Van Doran, ed. Encyclopedia Britannica Corp., 1969.
This is the text of Truman's address to Congress on February 2, 1948, outlining the actions that the President
thought should be taken in response to a report issued by the President's Committee on Civil Rights. A good
indicator of the times, Truman's speech calls for the government to uphold rights that we take for granted,
such as "protecting more adequately the right to vote" and "providing federal protection against lynching."

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