Psychological and Emotional Circumstances
Legendary blues musician W. C. Handy once remarked of one of Langston Hughes's shorter poems that the poet had accomplished in four lines "what it would have taken Shakespeare two acts and three scenes to say." Handy's pithy observation hits at a central feature of much twentieth-century poetry—the poet's ability to create a mountain of meaning from the studied arrangement of a very few words. Published in 1951, "Harlem" manages to evoke nearly a century of African-American history through a series of brief, bluesy, thought-provoking questions that aim to immerse the reader in the imagery of despair and disappointment. The spatial configuration of lines on the page suggests a way into the poem—a way to organize it and make meaning of it. Hughes begins with a central question that we might use to frame the remainder of the poem; and if we feel compelled to make an informed answer to this question at poem's end, then the poem, and reader, will have succeeded in generating thought about what continues to be our most pressing national problem: race relations. Note that the one-and two-line questions in the next section of the poem contain earthy images of disease and spoliation. The conspicuous absence of life-affirming images in this section is the poem's way of pushing us toward a disturbing answer to the opening question. The next section continues the "heavy," hopeless tone, or feeling, of the poem and effectively sets up the shocking conclusion. Because the reader is encouraged to respond to the questions the poem asks, the poem adheres to "call and response" patterning; that is, the tradition in African-American culture in which the "call" of the preacher or civic leader meets with a ready "response" from an attentive congregation or community.
Nearly all critics of "Harlem" interpret the "dream" in the poem's opening section as a symbol of African Americans' desire for equality—social, economic, and educational—in American society. That this desire is "deferred" means that African Americans continue to endure the difficult realities of racism and limited opportunity in a presumably free society. Critic Onwuchekwa Jemie, for example, wrote that the "dream deferred" represents "all of the broken promises of Emancipation and Reconstruction, of the Great Migration, integration and voter registration, of Black Studies and Equal Opportunity." The events the critic cites here begin at the conclusion of the Civil War in 1865 and actually extend beyond the poem's 1951 publication date into the 1970s and 1980s when many Black Studies programs at American universities were eliminated and when reaction against Affirmative Action programs began to escalate. By inviting the reader to answer the poem's first question, Hughes asks one to sit in the role of social commentator and critic of culture and to consider the various psychological and emotional circumstances black individuals might experience in a society that continues to struggle with putting into practice its egalitarian ideals.
The next, longest section of "Harlem" urges us to answer "yes" to the four questions asked. Here, the poet guides us, through his use of images and similes, to a deeper acknowledgment of African Americans' disillusionment with the American dreams of seizing opportunity, working hard, and enjoying success. A well-constructed image creates a mental picture in our imaginations and appeals to one or more of our physical senses. Often, its function is to carry or reinforce an important idea in a poem. In the first question, for example, Hughes uses the image of a dried raisin to convey the idea of shriveling and devaluation. The raisin was once a plump, moisture-laden fruit full with the promise of flavor and enjoyment. However, when the fruit, like the dream of equality, remains unharvested, it metamorphoses into something shrunken and less appealing. Interestingly, this image became the title of an award-winning play, A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine...
(The entire section is 3,301 words.)