Harlem Summary

"Harlem" is a poem by Langston Hughes that explores the cultural landscape of the United States and asks what happens when people must defer their dreams.

  • The first line of "Harlem" poses a question: "What happens to a dream deferred?" Instead of giving a direct answer, the speaker asks a series of follow-up questions, suggesting that the dream deferred dries up "like a raisin in the sun" or sags "like a heavy load."
  • The final line betrays the bitterness and anger that drives the poem. Oppression and frustration have caused the dream to "explode," hurting the speaker and, presumably, those around him.


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Line 1

The speaker of this poem, who may represent Hughes, poses a large, open question that the following sub-questions both answer and extend. This poem, and the volume in which it appears, Montage of a Dream Deferred, explore what happens to people and society when millions of individuals' dreams get deferred, or put off indefinitely.

Lines 2–3

The first image in the poem proposes that the dream dries up like a raisin. This simile likens the original dream to a grape, which is round, juicy, green and fresh. Once the dream has lain neglected for too long, it dries up. Though the dream is still sweet and edible, it has shrunken from its former state and turned black. The famous 1959 play A Raisin in the Sun, by African-American playwright Lorraine Hansberry, takes its title from this poem. The play also explores the risks and consequences for African Americans of losing sight of dreams and hope.

Lines 4–5

Where the raisin image invokes the senses of taste and sight, the simile of the sore conveys a sense of touch and bodily impact. Sores reside on one's skin, and are seen, felt, and carried around. By comparing the dream to a sore on the body, the poet suggests that unfulfilled dreams become part of us, like scars. Even if we ignore a sore, it is palpable, visible, and needs attention to heal. Neglected sores may lead to infection, even death. Hughes thus suggests that unattended dreams may not only nag one from outside, they may infect the body and the psyche and slowly kill their host. The word "fester" connotes seething decay and "run" literally refers to pus. Hughes may be punning on the word "run," suggesting that the dream may flee or may run rampant with one's sanity. With the simile of a sore, Hughes raises the stakes of ignoring dreams.

Line 6

Appealing to all of the reader's senses, the speaker suggests that a dream deferred may also stink. Unlike a sore, a stink cannot be ignored. Smells do not vanish until one gets rid of their source. With the smell of rotten meat, Hughes suggests that dreams deferred will pester one continually, making one sick until they are addressed. Like the raisin image, rotten meat stinks when it is no longer fresh. This image reinforces the idea of decay and waste. Rotten meat is also deadly to eat. Some critics suggest that Hughes uses this image because Blacks were often sold rotten meat in ghetto groceries and so were familiar with this stench, as well as the waste and injustice the stench represents.

Lines 7–8

With these lines, the poet de-escalates the disastrous results of ignoring or blocking one's dreams. A crusted, syrupy sweet will not kill people as meat or sores may, but the image again connotes waste, neglect, and decay. A sweet treat, like a dream, begins as something one yearns for and anticipates eagerly. If it sits unused too long, however, it spoils and leaves a bad taste in the mouth. As Onwuchekwa Jemie notes, the "sweet" may represent American dreams of equality and success that are denied to most African Americans. The American dream itself may have gone bad from disuse and false promises.

Lines 9–10

Lines 9-10 form the only sentence that is not a question. Hughes implies that although neglecting dreams may yield varied and unforeseeable horrors, one thing is certain: deferred dreams weigh one down physically and emotionally as heavily as a load of bricks.

Line 11

Hughes sets off and italicizes this line to emphasize the larger consequences of mass dissatisfaction. Though this line is a question like those above, here the poet implies that an explosion may occur, hurting or killing those in the vicinity of the explosion as well as the afflicted individual. Hughes is implying that whereas the dream deferred primarily weighs on, infects, bothers, and saddens the frustrated dreamer, eventually the epidemic of frustration will hurt everyone.

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