Harlem Questions and Answers
by Langston Hughes

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In the poem "Harlem," what is the main theme?  

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Felicita Burton eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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The theme of “Harlem” is provided in the opening question, as the speaker asks the reader to consider the effects of putting off fulfilling one’s dream. The theme is the choice between optimism and pessimism.

The reader does not necessarily have to choose any of the options; in fact, the speaker offers mainly offers more questions, not answers, and the one statement provided is qualified with “maybe.” Only one of the options sounds remotely positive, in being “sweet,” but it is an overdone kind of sweetness, “crusty” and “syrupy.”

Overall, the speaker suggests that deferring a dream will not have good consequences. As “explode” is the last option given, it seems likely that is the one the speaker believes will result, but the choice is left to the reader.

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The poem “Harlem” by Langston Hughes, is one of many poems he wrote about fulfilling one's dreams. Written primarily for the African American community, this poem addresses the idea of what happens when you don’t go after your dreams and you put them off or “defer” them to later.  Hughes uses symbols and imagery to explain what can happen if you don’t move forward and accomplish your dreams.  He suggests that if you put off your dreams they will “dry up,” “fester like a sore,” begin to “stink like rotten meat,” or “crust over.” More importantly, they may become like a “heavy load,” or they will simply “explode.”  These are all descriptions of the psychological consequences of not following your dreams.  Unfulfilled dreams will eventually cause one to give up or let their dreams go. 

Hughes’ series of dream poems are meant to encourage and convince others that dreams are obtainable and necessary to survive. I’ve included another short poem by Hughes to show the similarity of this recurring theme.

Dreams by Langston Hughes


Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow. 

 

 

 

 

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