Explain how the context of the poem "Harlem" helps to explain the poem’s title and its major concerns.

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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In his short story, "Sonny's Blues," James Baldwin writes of two brothers in the 1950s who have grown up in Harlem.  As the older brother and Sonny ride in a cab, they pass through the "vivid, killing streets" of their childhood.  Baldwin writes of the residents of Harlem,

All they really knew were two darknesses, the darkness of their lives, which was now closing in on them, and the darkness of the movies, which had blinded them to that other darkness....Those who got out always left something of themselves behind.

Much like Sonny and his brother, the speaker of Langston Hughes's poem, "Harlem" expresses his strong feelings about the danger of the environment in which he lives that causes dreams to end in darkness.  In the 1920s, Harlem was the center of black literary, musical, and cultural activity.  Black music was copied by white musicisan as far away as France, and wealthy whites flocked to the nightclubs of Harlem.  While it seemed to many African-Americamns that their time was at hand, Hughes realized that this period of racial understanding and opportunity was just a phase that would run its course like any other fashion and the dreams of many in Harlem would indeed be "deferred."

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missy575 | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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Harlem is a place, a very specific New York neighborhood. This place has housed pain and sorrow, tradition and fame. In this poem by Langston Hughes, he uses context to highlight the major concerns of the suburb Harlem.

Hughes uses contrasting rhetorical questions. These questions juxtapose a hope with a sorrow. For example, the poem opens with the question,

"What happens to a dream deferred?"

This question poses the idea that there is a great hope with the word dream. But then, the word deferred gives a negative connotation to the idea of having to wait. At this point the idea of a waiting hope is likely reflective of the people in Harlem at the time of writing. The speaker wonders how long it will take for them to have to rely on hope, without the result of the dream being actualized.

The next few lines,

Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore— And then run?

explore the pain endured while waiting. The people of Harlem may have been experiencing pain and then making the best of it like a grape lying in the sun can actually turn into a raisin, or a sore can turn into a strong callous. Next, he points out that waiting can produce either positive or negative results:
Does it stink like rotten meat? Or crust and sugar over— like a syrupy sweet?
Finally he asks the question:
Or does it explode?
I think exploding for Harlem could have two connotations. It could either mean that Harlem will forever be destroyed, or that Harlem will explode onto the scene like a new rock star. This poem was written during the Harlem Renaissance when many musicians, dancers, artists and atheletes were coming onto the national scene. Hughes work is questioning this phenomenon's ability to last. Hughes poem is most concerned with the trials of Harlem's residents during a moment in time. He wonders what will come of their various dreams and how these dreams will be achieved and received.

 

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