What are the African-American aspects that Langston Hughes' poem highlights in his poem, "Harlem?"

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booboosmoosh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Langston Hughes' poem, "Harlem," refers to "dreams deferred" in the first line:

What happens to a dream deferred?

This would apply to the African-American because of the promises made and inferred with Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation of the 1860s that had still not been delivered by the 1950s.

The image of a "raisin in the sun" may refer to slaves laboring for years without freedom, to bring wealth to others who had no regard for them, their families, etc. One researcher proposes that the image is used to suggest the grape, juicy and luscious, which dries up while left in the sun due to inattention. This could describe the lost dream, or the slave. Symbolically, it could refer to the scourge of slavery that robbed black men, women and children of all the merits of freedom, aging them quickly, separating families: sucking the vitality from these people and stripping them of hope.

The image of a festering sore may relate to the physical abuse the slaves suffered at the hands of their owners. The abuse was not limited to only the men, and did not always show itself in physical cruelty. Symbolically, the "festering sore" might be what slavery was, spreading through the "land of liberty," sordid and repulsive.

The line "stink like rotten meat" could refer to the those slaves who were beaten to death or those black men lynched by vigilantes. It is suggested that...

Hughes uses this image because blacks were often sold rotten meat in ghetto groceries…

"Or crust and sugar over—like a syrupy sweet" does not denote an immediate threat...

...but the image again connotes waste, neglect, and decay..

Sweets last a long time, like hopes and dreams, but even over time, they can change in appearance or even lose their taste—no longer something appealing. Onwuchekwa Jemie is a Nigerian poet and scholar. He sees this reference to the sweet as a representation of…

American dreams of equality and success that are denied to most African Americans.

It might be symbolic of the way that slave owners tried to cover over the shameful light that abolitionists cast over slavery. Some slave owners tried to use the Bible as a way to prove that slavery was not immoral.

The line "Maybe it just sags / like a heavy load" may not just refer to the hard work that slaves were required to do, but might also allude to the burden blacks carried even when the law said they were "free and equal." Things like the inability to vote, lynchings and violence, segregation, and the inability for "equal opportunity employment," among other things, are burdens the black race carried.

While Langston Hughes, whose poem was published in 1951, could not have known, the "explosion" mentioned in the last line of the poem is prophetic, seen with the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.