1. Where does the plot of Harlem take place? 2. Where is the speaker right now?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

1. During the 1920s while the South maintained its Jim Crow Laws, massive numbers of black men, women, and children migrated to the North. In fact, in the 1920s nearly 200,000 African-Americans inhabited Harlem, an area where heretofore almost no blacks had lived as it had been rich farmland and the majority of blacks were still in the South. While these African-Americans now lived in a less segregated area, and they were not still restricted from certain opportunities, in their entertainment, they were yet exploited, although in a much different way from that in the South. For, Langston Hughes, the author of the poem "Harlem," describes the era as a time when"The Negroe Was in Vogue."

It was an era in which wealthy whites, whom the blacks called "Nordics," came to nightclubs from other parts of New York, such as Manhattan, in order to listen to the new, innovative music forms, and to amuse themselves as they watched the performers and dancers. The Cotton Club was the most famous, ironically, but it was a Jim Crow club for wealthy whites and gangsters; no black patrons were allowed. Other club owners, hoping to glean some of the wealth from the Nordics, closed their audience to Negroes, but these clubs failed. Of this era, Hughes writes,

It was a period when white writers wrote about Negroes more successfully (commercially speaking) than Negroes did about themselves....some Harlemites thought the millennium had come. They thought the race problem had at last been solved through Art plus Gladys Bentley [large, masculine-appearing woman who played a large piano non-stop all night long... with a powerful, continuous "jungle rhythm," singing such songs as "The St. James Infirmary."

I don't know what made any Negroes think that--except that they were mostly intellectuals doing the thinking....Harlem was an unwilling victim of its own vogue.

Thus, the American Dream for which the African-Americans had made the long journey to Harlem, was unrealized, and they were little better off financially than in the South, except for those entertainers given celebrity among the whites, or put up in penthouses.

2. Hughes's poem "Harlem" is part of a volume entitled Montage of Dreams Deferred; relative to each other, the poems of the volume express the frustration that his people feel in the face of their social dilemmas.  Placed near the end of the volume, "Harlem" is a commentary upon the widespread frustration and hoplessness expressed in previous poems in the volume. The American Dream which drove blacks to the North, has dried up "like a raisin in the sun," and rotted like the fruits and vegetables sold in the ghetto stores. Further, Hughes writes of the dream that has been put off,

Maybe it just sags 
like a heavy load

Or does it explode?

In this extended metaphor of dreams that are postponed, there is a subtle anger here in the last line that  Onwuchekwa Jemie perceives as a "militant outcry against injustice" that presages the race riots of the Civil Rights Era.