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 damage.
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.