Langston Hughes poem "Harlem" written in 1951 spoke of the frustration of the black people before the Civil Rights movement which began later in the decade. Segregation ran rampant throughout the country and metaphorically shackled the Negro with separate schools, restrooms, menial work, and despicable housing. Hughes' poetry often has the theme of disappointment in the inferior status of his people.
The poem is frank and down to earth, much like the language of Harlem in the 1950s. Hughes begins by asking the rhetorical question: "What happens to a dream deferred?" His answer mirrored the undercurrent flowing through Harlem and the rest of the country. No work, no money, no respect, no education, no comforts---these were the load that Hughes refers to at the end of his poem. The dream of freedom and equality was festering.
Maybe it just sags
Like a heavy load
or does it explode?
The last line of the poem, again a question, becomes almost a threat of what will happen if hope is not returned to the black people. If there is no hope, than there are no dreams of the future and a better life. In its eleven lines, the poem does not seem bitter; however, with words like fester, stink, rotten, crust, and sore--obviously, there rankle an embittered people.
The lyrical poem follows an irregular rhyming scheme. It does have a distinctive rhythmic and emotional quality. The poem, full of alliteration, depends on its similes and metaphors to enhance its theme: the dream. The first simile conveys the image of the unwritten grape, luscious and juicy, lying too long in the sun and drying up like a wrinkled raisin, decaying, reeking, and eventually oozing like rotten meat. Quite an image! His second simile condemns the smoothing over with sweetly coated lies of politicians or government promising that things will get better black man, just keep on working and submitting.
Hughes, metaphor insinuates that the heavy load the black people have endured for a hundred years is becoming too hard to bear. If there no change, there will be an explosion.
Verbal irony means saying one thing and meaning another. Hughes, poem is filled with irony. The dream is the dashed hopes of the black man. The poet is not speaking of the image of the actual raisin in the sun, but of the black man waiting and waiting, dreaming and hoping, until finally he stands up and bursts out from under the oppression of white society. The poem is an opus foretelling the riotous events to come.