The Poem (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
“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...
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Forms and Devices (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
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...
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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...
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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 "explode."
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...
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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...
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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.
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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.
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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. 234.
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, 1976.
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.
Truman, Harry S., "Civil Rights Message," in The...
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Bibliography (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
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...
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