Langston Hughes is considered one of the most influential and prolific African-American poets of the twentieth century. He published poetry from the Harlem Renaissance, a period during the 1920s when African-American artists and their works flourished in Harlem, to the Civil Rights and Black Arts movements. Following the Civil Rights movement, the Black Arts movement of the 1970s combined militant Black nationalism with outspoken art and literature. Onwuchekwa Jemie, in his book Langston Hughes: An Introduction to the Poetry, interprets the poem as a militant outcry against racial injustice. Jemie argues that the images in the poem build in intensity until "the violent crescendo at the end." Jemie writes, "rotten meat is a lynched black man rotting on the tree. A sweet gone bad is all of the broken promises of Emancipation and Reconstruction, ... integration ... and Equal Opportunity. It might even be possible to identify each of the key images with a generation or historical period ..." These interpretations are not shared by many critics, but Jemie's reading is notable for its departure from the widespread Black opinion that Hughes's writing was not militant enough to remain relevant in the wake of the Black Arts movement. By finding radical implications in Hughes's earlier poetry, Jemie revives poems such as "Harlem" for politicized contemporary readers.
Commenting on the innovative musical structure of the volume in which "Harlem" is a keynote poem, many critics, including Walter Farrell and Patricia Johnson, writing in the journal MELUS, note that Hughes "breaks down the barrier between the beginning of one poem and the end of another. [The volume may be described] as a series of short poems or phrases that contribute to the making of one long poem. Each poem maintains some individual identity as a separate unit while contributing to the composite poetic message. Movement between passages is achieved by thematic or topical congruency or by interior dialogue." "Harlem" is placed toward the end of Montage and comments on the widespread despair and frustration expressed by the personas in preceding poems. Thus "Harlem" may be read as both a distinct individual poem and an outstanding note in much larger symphony.