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 voices, most strongly influenced the form and the flavor of Montage of a Dream Deferred.
If the book were conceived as one long bebop tune based on chord changes on the theme of “a dream deferred,” then “Harlem,” strategically placed at the beginning of the end of the book, marks the point at which the theme is restated in preparation for the end. Dreams are mentioned in more than a dozen individual poems in the book; the phrase “dream deferred” appears in a half dozen poems prior to “Harlem” (and in three poems that follow). “Harlem” is the first poem to ask, “What happens to a dream deferred?” (The succeeding poem, “Good Morning,” repeats the question.)
The dream that “Harlem” (and Montage of a Dream Deferred, in general) asks about is the African American version of the American Dream: A “Dream within a dream,” as “Island” (the last poem in Montage of a Dream Deferred) calls it. In the course of the book, individuals imagine the dream in many different ways. Some merely dream of things (a stove, a bottle of gin, a television set, a diamond ring); other dreams also require money, but they are less specifically material (to have a nice place to live, to get an education, to be able to afford a proper funeral). Some intangible dreams require the cooperation of another person or other people (to be fed, to be appreciated, to be respected, to be loved); other intangible dreams can be solitary (to be safe, to be independent, to be happy). Whether one’s dream is as mundane as hitting the numbers or as noble as hoping to see one’s children reared properly, Langston Hughes takes them all seriously; he takes the deferral of each dream to heart.