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.