How can I relate my feelings to those expressed by Hughes in “Harlem"?

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price7781 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

“Harlem” by Langston Hughes was written in 1951 on the cusp of the Civil Rights Movement in this country.  A few short years after writing the poem, Hughes witnessed the famous Brown vs. Board of Education lawsuit go through to the Supreme Court, which declared that segregated schools were unconstitutional.  It was a victory and a dream realized for many African Americans who demanded equal opportunities in education.  However, not all dreams were fulfilled.

“Harlem” is one of my favorite poems by Langston Hughes, and although I don’t personally know you and what you have experienced in your life, I can give you some guidance on where to start.  We all have ambitions, desires, wants, and needs.  For Hughes in this poem, his desire was to fulfill a dream that he had.  That dream had to do with opportunity, success, and racial equality.  “Harlem” was just one of Hughes’ dream poems out of a series of many others.  Hughes often wrote about the American dream he wished to pursue and be entitled to have.  Unfortunately, he was denied many of the dreams other Americans had because of his race. 

I think part of the problem in writing about your dreams is that we tend to want to write about something BIG—being a movie star or professional basketball player.  However, dreams come in small packages.  In this assignment, I don’t think you necessarily have to go for a dream that is fantastic or phenomenal.  Dreams come in all sizes and shapes.  However, I think you need to go beyond hoping to achieve Level 10 in Halo or wishing for the new iPad in this writing!

The key to understanding this poem is to look at the verbs and figures of speech Hughes uses to get his ideas across.  You can also think about the dreams you have had throughout your life and if they have been defeated like Hughes suggests his have. 

In the first description, Hughes relates an unfulfilled dream to a raisin that has dried up in the sun.  He has a dream that has been put off or "deferred" for so long that it has dried up and almost ceases to exist.  All of the life has been sucked out of the dream, and it is shriveling and becoming less than what it originally was.  Do you have a dream that has felt like it has done the same?  Perhaps your dream to do or become something has run into road blocks or obstacles that have made you put off your dream.  Your will or power to achieve the dream is deflated because of expectations around you.  Think about how this idea of a dream slowly shriveling up can relate to your own life.

The second figure of speech Hughes uses seems to show anger over having to defer a dream.  The dream becomes diseased because it has not come true. The dream is in a state of decay that is like an open wound that hurts and infects the soul.  Have you had a dream in your life where the inability to accomplish something has left you mad because you have been limited by others or circumstances in some way? Does that dream still “fester” somewhere inside you to the point that whenever you think about it, you get angry? 

In the third description of Hughes’s dream deferred, he compares an unfulfilled dream to stinking, rotting meat.  Here again, his dream is in decay; it is slowly dying.  In Hughes’s circumstances, his dream probably died out of no fault of his own.  He was unable to achieve it because of the color of his skin, and so it was left rotting in his heart and mind.  Have you ever experienced something that you wanted very badly only to have it taken away by circumstances beyond your power?

If you poured syrup on a plate, it would eventually crust over on top but leave the gooey, sweet syrup underneath.  This is how Hughes is describing a dream that is still within him but has had to be put off or deferred.  It has metaphorically crusted over but still exists.  Hopefully, you can think of something in your own life that shows you have a dream that is still alive and well, but just deferred for now.

The next description to me is the most powerful.  A dream one has can become a heavy load to bear.  It is physically debilitating to the one who carries the dream.  It psychologically and physically causes depression or sadness because the dream is not met.   Sometimes it is just easier to give up a dream because it causes harm to the person who wants it.  Can you think of a time when something you wanted to achieve weighed so heavily on you that it caused your spirit and desires to “sag” like a “heavy load”?

Finally, the last description shows true anger towards not being able to accomplish one’s dream.  The dream “explodes” or disappears to no longer be felt or experienced.  The loss of this dream could also cause one’s anger to become violent and “explosive” towards those who denied the dream.   Again, think back on your life when a dream was denied you, and your anger or inability to achieve it caused it to disappear.

Hughes uses many literary devices to convey the limitations that have been put on his life because of his race.  His dreams for equality were unrecognized and perhaps lost at the time he wrote the poem. 

I hope that you can look back on the dreams you’ve had and relate your experiences to the Hughes poem.  If you think about how he so eloquently compared dreams to other things like a raisin, a sore, a heavy load, etc. perhaps you can begin to feel the same thing and write about your experiences as he did. 

Good luck!