Although slavery had been abolished by the 13th amendment in 1864, the United States remained a deeply racist and segregated nation in the 1920's and 1930's. Most blacks in the south were little more than sharecroppers. Voting laws passed in the wake of the Plessy vs. Ferguson Supreme Court decision made it almost impossible for blacks to vote. In the north things were not much better. Popular black entertainers who performed for white audiences could not actually sit in the audience.
It wouldn't be until the 50's and 60's that the civil rights movement would get into high gear. Even today the nation feels the effects of the past as poverty and unemployment remain higher for blacks than for whites, despite the fact the nation is in the final year of the first black president's historic tenure.
Langston Hughes is considered the greatest writer of the Harlem Renaissance, a movement of black writers in New York City in the first half of the 20th century. Hughes wrote many poems about the black experience, and, not surprisingly, many of them dealt with "dreams." Four in particular deal with the hopes of blacks to one day rise above their status as second class citizens.
In "Dreams", Hughes encourages blacks to not give up and to cling to hopes for a better future. Not doing so could only end in despair and emptiness. In "Mother to Son", a mother encourages her son to keep climbing the stairs (a metaphor for economic status) even though things may be hard. She hopes she has worked hard enough for him to rise above her difficult life.
"I Too" is probably the most optimistic of Hughes's poems about dreams. The speaker thinks of the day he will not have to eat in the kitchen as a servant. He will be at the main table and those who have oppressed him will realize they were wrong, "And be ashamed".
"Harlem" or "Dream Deferred" is the most prophetic of Hughes's poems in that it predicts the violence which would erupt out of the 1960's civil rights movement. He predicts violence if the dreams and freedoms promised by the Declaration of Independence and Constitution don't become reality for blacks. Indeed, assassinations, riots and protests marked the 1960's, several years after the poem was written.
These poems certainly appealed to blacks who suffered cultural and economic repression. They dreamed of the day when a black man could be the head of a company, play professional baseball or even rise to be President of the United States.