Hughes was a Black author who wrote this poem in the early 1950s, a decade before the civil rights era gained momentum in the United States. The title places the context of the poem in a historically Black city, which is central to the meaning of the poem. Harlem had been the setting of Black Americans demanding equality and justice for several social injustices; in 1935, 1943, and 1945 the Black community demanded that their collective and individual voices be heard.
This, then, is the backdrop of "Harlem." The speaker in this poem examines the effects of deferring the dreams of people. For Black Americans at this time, those dreams included an equal education, equal employment opportunities, equal housing, equal respect, and general access to the promises of the American dream.
The speaker of "Harlem" begins by asking what happens when dreams are deferred. He has more questions than answers, and those questions escalate in intensity as the poem progresses. Perhaps they shrivel up, changing form but never disappearing. Perhaps they become infected, and that infection spreads out into the world. Perhaps they become like the stench of rotten meat, which is impossible to ignore and demands attention. Or perhaps they "crust over," forming a protective shell in order to protect the goodness underneath.
The speaker then shifts to a declarative statement, pointing out that delaying the dreams of people can become a "heavy load" for them to carry. Perhaps this burden is what creates the spark needed for the final line: an explosion. Explosions are destructive and forceful, inflicting damage on the world and people. This final line, in italics, demands visual attention as it points to the importance of the realization of dreams.
In summarizing this poem in 2–3 sentences, try to pick out the most significant aspects of these details. Your short summary might look something like this:
The speaker of "Harlem" questions the effects of denying a group of people access to their dreams. The effects are all presented in increasingly negative metaphors, and the continued use of the interrogative suggests that the speaker is uncertain about the eventual outcome. However, the final question, appearing in italics, indicates that denying people opportunities to achieve their dreams can be disastrous, much like an explosion.