How does Langston Hughes's poem "Harlem" compare and contrast with Wendi Kaufman's short story "Helen on Eighty-sixth Street"?

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Tamara K. H. | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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Both Langston Hughes's poem "Harlem" and Wendi Kaufman's short story "Helen on Eighty-sixth Street" concern lost dreams. Hughes asks us, "What happens to a dream deferred?," meaning a dream delayed or withheld, whereas Kaufman writes about a girl in the sixth grade who dreams about beauty, being somebody, and, most importantly, having her father back.

One similarity between Hughes's poem and Kaufman's short story is that both, in a way, ask Hughes's final question in the poem, does a dream deferred "explode?" By the end of Kaufman's short story, the protagonist Vita has had most of her dreams fulfilled: She has won the part of Helen, and her mother has broken up with Old Farfel. The only dream she does not have fulfilled is seeing her father again. Nevertheless, by the end of the story, it's quite clear she is ready to move on with her life, as evidenced in her dramatic delivery of her final line on stage, "And to say goodbye," a line the reader knows she is truly directing towards her absent father. Regardless, her dream of reuniting with her father doesn't just shrivel up and die, as Hughes's poem questions; instead, it "explodes" in Vita's newfound acceptance of herself. The explosion is captured in Vita's audience breaking out into applause that she describes as a noise that "surrounds [her], filling [her]."  It can be said that Vita is hearing the explosion of applause not just in response to the lines she has just delivered but in response to her decision to say goodbye to her longing for her father. Hence, even though her dream of seeing her father is not fulfilled, her dream has exploded in the realization that it's really no longer important; she can continue without it.

One point of difference between the poem and the short story is that the story is more uplifting in portraying Vita's dreams being fulfilled. In contrast, Hughes uses a lot of sorrowful imagery and diction to ask us what happens to our dreams when they are not fulfilled. Yet, again, his final question at the end of the poem, "Or does it explode?," ends the poem on a positive, powerful note as the reader is compelled to think of the dreams of African Americans exploding in the Civil Rights Movement.

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