Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
Although “Harlem” can stand alone, it is best understood in its original context as a key part of Montage of a Dream Deferred. Hughes conceived Montage of a Dream Deferred as a single, long poem made up of many parts, some as short as three lines (or fewer than ten words), some as long as two pages.
The word “montage” suggests analogies with a visual design consisting of many juxtaposed smaller designs or, better (since a series of poems exists in time more than in space), with a rapid sequence of related short scenes in a film. The most useful analogue of the work is, however, neither pictorial nor cinematic but musical. In a prefatory note to Montage of a Dream Deferred, Hughes wrote that “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 disc-tortions of the music of a community in transition.”
Hughes had long been interested in and knowledgeable about African American music. Beginning in the 1920’s, he wrote poems about—and sometimes in forms influenced by—the music. His first book, The Weary Blues (1926), took its title from such a poem. Bebop, the innovative jazz of the late 1940’s, with its emphasis on the successive improvisations of individual instrumental...
(The entire section is 529 words.)
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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 entire section is 1187 words.)