Harlem Analysis

The Poem (Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Harlem” is a short, reflective poem, somber in tone, with an ominous, pointedly italicized ending. It appeared originally as the first poem in the last sequence of poems (“Lenox Avenue Mural”) in the book Montage of a Dream Deferred. Sometimes Montage of a Dream Deferred has been reprinted in its entirety (as in Hughes’s Selected Poems); sometimes “Lenox Avenue Mural” has been reprinted separately; often “Harlem” has been reprinted alone.

The poem can stand alone. Although it is part of a suite of six poems (“Lenox Avenue Mural”) and of a book of ninety-one poems (reduced to eighty-seven in Selected Poems), it is self-contained and autonomous. It consists of seven short sentences, the last six of which respond to the opening question, “What happens to a dream deferred?” Of the six responses, all but one are themselves framed as rhetorical questions. The whole of Montage of a Dream Deferred is set in Harlem, yet only two of its ninety-one poems mention Harlem in their titles (“Harlem” and “Night Funeral in Harlem”). Simply being titled “Harlem” gives this particular lyric a special recognition in the sequence.

The “dream deferred” is the long-postponed and, therefore, frustrated dream of African Americans: a dream of freedom, equality, dignity, opportunity, and success. This particular poem does not define or give examples of the dream (many other poems in Montage of a Dream Deferred do this); it concentrates, instead, on possible reactions to the deferral of a dream, ranging from the fairly mild-mannered (“Does it dry up/ like a raisin in the sun?”) to the threatening (“Or does it explode?”). The first five potential responses to frustration are essentially passive, the last one active.

Langston Hughes first made his home in Manhattan’s Harlem in 1922. He was a leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance, the 1920’s flowering of African American literature and art. Although he traveled widely and often, he kept circling back to Harlem. He lived there, on a more-or-less permanent basis, from the early 1940’s on, maintaining a home on West 127th Street for the last twenty years of his life. Montage of a Dream Deferred is a product of the late 1940’s, when Hughes had at last settled in Harlem.

The variety of responses that “Harlem” suggests as reactions to the deferring of a dream may be taken as a sort of cross-section of behavior patterns Hughes saw around him among the citizens of Harlem. The poem 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. As Arthur P. Davis wrote in a 1952 article in Phylon, “with Langston Hughes Harlem is both place and symbol. When he depicts the hopes, the aspirations, the frustrations, and the deep-seated discontent of the New York ghetto, he is expressing the feelings of Negroes in black ghettos throughout America.”

Harlem Forms and Devices (Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The most striking features of “Harlem” are the vivid, even startling, metaphors that Hughes introduces as possible answers to the poem’s opening question, “What happens to a dream deferred?” Each metaphor could be taken as suggesting a pattern of behavior. Drying “up/ like a raisin in the sun” could refer to the gradual shriveling of a dream or a person, still sweet but wrinkled, desiccated. (Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 play, A Raisin in the Sun, ruminates on this sort of response to a dream deferred—taking its title from Hughes’s poem.)

To “fester like a sore—/ And then run” suggests something considerably more unappealing—and dangerous—than drying up: a wound not healing. Eventually a limb or a life may be lost. Worse still among its implications is that it will “stink like rotten meat,” for now life is gone from the organism entirely and putrefaction has set in. “Stink” is used as an intentionally offensive, vulgar word, suitable for the occasion.

So far there has been a kind of logical progression, from dehydration to localized decay (“fester”) to wholesale decomposition, but here the poem takes a surprising turn. To “crust and sugar over—/ like a syrupy sweet” seems anticlimactic at first, after rot; “sugar” and “sweet” recall the concentrated sweetness of a raisin.

Hughes may have been thinking of a false, “syrupy sweet” form of behavior—what Paul Laurence Dunbar, in his poem, “We Wear the Mask,” called “the mask that grins and lies”—an outer “crust” that hides. The poem does not say what it hides, but one may be reminded of the narrator’s grandfather in Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man (1952), a grinning, subservient old man who, on his deathbed, “had spoken of his meekness as a dangerous activity”—who had told his grandson “to overcome ‘em with yeses, undermine ‘em with grins, agree ‘em to death and destruction, let ‘em swoller you [like too much sugar, perhaps] till they vomit or bust wide open.”

Each of the last two answers to the question “What happens to a dream deferred?” is set off from the others. Penultimately, there is the statement, “Maybe it just sags/ like a heavy load”—perhaps the saddest of the responses, suggesting depression and despair. Finally, there is the overtly warning question: “Or does it explode?” When violence broke out in America’s inner cities in the 1960’s, Hughes’s poem proved to have been prophetic.

By no means are the metaphors in “Harlem” meant to exhaust the number of possible responses to the deferring of a dream. Indeed, another poem in Montage of a Dream Deferred, “Same in Blues,” uses a repeated refrain to state that in a dream deferred there is “A certain/ amount of traveling,” “A certain/ amount of nothing,” and “A certain/ amount of impotence.” The poem notes that “There’s liable/ to be confusion/ in a dream deferred.” Even with “traveling,” “nothing,” “impotence,” and “confusion,” the list of responses is nowhere near exhausted. There may be as many dreams deferred as there are residents of Harlem or as there are African Americans.

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...

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Harlem Literary 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...

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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...

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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...

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Harlem Media Adaptations

An audio cassette titled Langston Hughes Reads is available from Audiobooks.

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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...

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Harlem Bibliography and Further Reading

Sources
Farrell, Walter C. and Patricia A. Johnson, "Poetic Interpretations of Urban Black Folk Culture: Langston Hughes and the...

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Harlem Bibliography (Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Berry, Faith. Langston Hughes: Before and Beyond Harlem. New York: Wings Books, 1995.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Langston Hughes. New York: Chelsea House, 1989.

Chinitz, David. “Rejuvenation Through Joy: Langston Hughes, Primitivism, and Jazz.” American Literary History 9 (Spring, 1997): 60-78.

Cooper, Floyd. Coming Home: From the Life of Langston Hughes. New York: Philomel Books, 1994.

Harper, Donna Sullivan. Not So Simple: The “Simple” Stories by Langston Hughes. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1995.

Haskins, James. Always Movin’ On: The Life of Langston Hughes. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 1993.

Hokanson, Robert O’Brien. “Jazzing It Up: The Be-bop Modernism of Langston Hughes.” Mosaic 31 (December, 1998): 61-82.

Leach, Laurie F. Langston Hughes: A Biography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2004.

Mullen, Edward J., ed. Critical Essays on Langston Hughes. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1986.

Ostrum, Hans A. A Langston Hughes Encyclopedia. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2002.

Rampersad, Arnold. The Life of Langston Hughes. 2 vols. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Tracy, Steven C., ed. A Historical Guide to Langston Hughes. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.