As a black writer, and precursor to Martin Luther King, Jr., Hughes's dream in the poem 'A Dream Deferred' is likely to refer to his desire for racial equality. He explores the terrible negative effects of desperately dreaming for something and not being able to achieve it.
His shocking metaphors of deferred dreams as being "like rotten meat" and festering "like a sore" show just how painful it can be not to achieve a dream. The heavy rhyme at the end between "load" and "explode" seems to show how dangerous it can be when a person has no hope of achieving their dream. He hints that violence may occur as it often does when a group of people have been oppressed.
When interpreting the denotation as well as connotation of the word dream, it is important to consider the historical context of "A Dream Deferred." For, since his poem was written in Langston Hughes's use of the word dream seems a counterpoint to the American Dream that brought many to the United States in the early 1900s. Written in the 1920s, the poem of Hughes expresses the futility of the African-American who fled from under the Jim Crow laws of the South to the North and the unstated discrimination of the North where many whites came to Harlem's nightclubs, but did not wish to be associated in any other way.
Langston Hughes attended Columbia University in 1921, but left in 1922 because he felt too much prejudice against him. Thus, his dream of success and recognition--an American Dream held by many at the time--was, for him, "deferred." With little promise of change in his social condition, he wonders in his poem what will happen to this dream, this hope of respect and recognition. Langston Hughes's "dream deferred" in the opposing concept of the American Dream. It is an ephemeral goal terminated by forces beyond his control.
What happens to a dream deferred?....
Maybe it just sags
Like a heavy load....
The word "dream" has, in the contemporary multimedia environment, become a frozen idiom, an overused metaphor for "improbable career wish" as in "It's my dream to be a pop singer". As such, the word is empty of impact in daily discourse, simply a place-holder, like "thing." It has actually lost its denotation, and resides in the language as a connotative substitute for "a world other than the world that works by the laws of physics, cause-and-effect, etc.". The non-logic of the physical dream is referred to by the word.