Langston Hughes’ poem “Harlem” (it appears under a number of other titles, too) was indeed written a couple of decades after the Harlem Renaissance had ended and quite rightly might be taken, in part, as a comment on the failure of that artistic movement to bring about lasting change for African Americans in the first half of the twentieth century.
The Harlem Renaissance, at least in terms of its famous formulations by Alain Locke and W.E.B. Du Bois, had set out to transform the status of African Americans through intellectual and artistic achievements. The final question in Hughes’ short poem – “Or does it explode?” – may even be taken as an allusion to the Harlem Riots of 1935 and 1943. (Harlem had been dubbed the “Mecca of the New Negro” n 1925 – it was the place to be – but had turned into a slum in subsequent decades. The most devastating riot, the Harlem Riot of 1964, had not yet occurred at the time Hughes’ poem was published.)
Of course, to read Hughes’ poem only as a commentary on the failure of the Harlem Renaissance is to simplify the poem or to read it out of context. This poem appeared, with no title, as the first piece in Hughes’ Montage of a Dream Deferred (1951), which celebrates black culture and music even as it exposes continued discrimination against African Americans. Similarly, a line from this poem provides the title for Lorraine Hansberry’s excellent play A Raisin in the Sun (1959), which takes up the themes of racial discriminations, dreams, and the urban black experience in the United States.