Last Updated on July 22, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1546
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,...
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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 Hansberry, which dramatizes the deferred dream of a black family's efforts to integrate a White urban neighborhood. Also helping to carry the idea in this question is a simile, or a comparison of unlike things using words such as "like" or "as" (or "than" or "seems"). The simile here compares "it," the deferred dream of equality, with the disfigured grape drying in the harsh rays of a paralyzing sun. In the next question, the image of a sore that will not heal reminds readers that the sting of discrimination and the pain of repeatedly having the dream dashed continues to drain one of the energy needed to keep hope alive. Like the perpetual sore, the stench of inedible, diseased meat speaks to the status of a dream gone bad. The "meal" Hughes serves concludes with candy, a course that potentially might have sweetened a satisfying experience, but instead the candy, like the meat, is spoiled and indigestible. It too has lost its original character and now, it would seem, is served up as ironic counterpoint to the expectations we hold for after-dinner confectionery and, symbolically, for the bitter taste of thwarted opportunity.
The figurative language and questions of this section prepare the reader for the declarative statement that makes up the poem's next section. Images are piled into "a heavy load," and the weight of keeping one's eyes on the prize of genuine emancipation after repeated defeats causes the dream to sag and puts the prize seemingly out of reach. But before taking up the challenge of the final question, additional investigation into how Hughes creates such a heavy mood may prove helpful in our efforts both to recognize additional structural elements in the poem and to begin providing some cultural context for its construction. Hughes's biographer, Arnold Rampersad, wrote in volume one of The Life of Langston Hughes, that blues music deeply influenced the poet throughout his literary career because it "alerted him to a power and privacy of language residing in the despised race to which he belonged." Blues elements apparent in "Harlem" include the everyday language of common people and repetition, perhaps the most recognizable feature of blues compositions. Indeed, one question after another and repetition of the phrase "Does it," the word "like," and "d" and "s" sounds throughout the poem tie it to this blues convention. Hughes's stated intention of writing in order "to explain and illuminate the Negro condition in America" also connects with a thematic dimension of blues songs—the need to articulate the sometimes dreary realities of spoiled hopes and sagging spirits. The need to name and rename the traits associated with perennial disasppointment using the language of his people, as Hughes does in his creation of these powerful images, reflects the poet's deep pride in his folk heritage and his commitment to social change.
The poem's final line contrasts mightily with the tone of earlier questions. It is designed both to shock and enlighten readers as to the explosive spirit and drive fueling an American dream and a determined people. A raisin, a festering sore, rotten meat, and spoiled candy now become incendiary devices in the service of this dream that will not die. Yet for those familiar with blues tradition and the persevering spirit of a resisting people, Hughes's explosive conclusion may come as no surprise at all. As novelist and critic Ralph Ellison observed: the blues "at once express both the agony of life and the possibility of conquering it through sheer toughness of spirit." The fact that this final question is underlined suggests that the poet is drawing our attention to "possibility" and "toughness" as qualities born from the need to survive under an oppressive social, political, judicial, and economic order and the decay-ridden conditions it brings. It also underscores, emphatically, that the repressed, but still throbbing, dream of equal treatment will indeed be realized, but in unpredictable and potentially furious forms.
Historically, "Harlem" can be looked upon as a literary harbinger of the Civil Rights and Black Nationalist movements that took place during the two decades after its publication. Additionally, when we compare "Harlem" with earlier, frequently anthologized Hughes poems, such as "Dream Variations" (1924) and "I, Too" (1925), we note a shift from the confident, optimistic tones of the earlier verse to the defiant warning that may be construed from the final line of "Harlem." Literature, as many scholars suggest, is a good way to read history, and if we use these earlier and later Hughes poems as a way of assessing race relations during this quarter century, then we come to the inescapable conclusion that few gains have been achieved during this period. As we know from our study of history, social movements are often characterized by explosive, unpredictable events fueled by long years of disappointment and frustration. Indeed, as this dream continues—in the eyes of many Americans—to be deferred, we might link the final line of "Harlem" with reactions to assassinations, controversial court decisions, and to the institutional kinds of discrimination that persist in our society. And when we recall W. C. Handy's reference to Hughes's wherewithal to be brief, we note in this eleven-line poem the poet's ability to skillfully blend history and art with the politics of resistance.
Source: Harry Phillips, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1997.
Harry Phillips is a freelance writer and is currently teaching in the Department of English and Foreign Languages at Central Piedmont Community College.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1755
Montage of a Dream Deferred (1951) is more carefully orchestrated than Hughes's earlier volumes because conceived as a unity, as one continuous poem, although it is organized in sections and subtitles just like the others, and uses single poems previously published in periodicals. In Montage the days of our black lives are telescoped into one day and one night. Montage is primarily a technique of the motion picture, its camera eye sweeping swiftly from scene to scene, juxtaposing disparate scenes in rapid succession or superimposing one scene (layer of film) over another until the last fades into the next. In literature, montage provides a technical shortcut, a means of avoiding the sometimes long-winded "logical" transitions demanded by the conventional story line. Through montage, the reader/viewer is able to traverse vast spaces and times (and consciousness) in a relatively brief moment. Hughes in his prefatory note prepares the reader for this mode of seeing:
In terms of current Afro-American popular music and the sources from which it has progressed—jazz, ragtime, swing, blues, boogie-woogie, and be-bop—this poem on contemporary Harlem, like be-bop, is marked by conflicting changes, sudden nuances, sharp and impudent interjections, broken rhythms, and passages sometimes in the manner of the jam session, sometimes the popular song, punctuated by the riffs, runs, breaks, and distortions of the music of a community in transition.
The theme is the dream deferred. The vehicle is primarily be-bop but also boogie-woogie and other black music. And the mode is montage, which has its musical equivalent in be-bop and its literary equivalent in free association (stream of consciousness). Be-bop, montage, and free association parallel one another so closely in technique (rapid shifts) that the mode could be thought of as all three simultaneously. However, free association is used sparingly, as in the "Dig and Be Dug" section when talk of death leads to talk of war. (Free association will see full service in "Ask Your Mama.") Some sections open and close with the musical motif (boogie or bop), and each is sprinkled with musical references and phrases, including the "nonsense syllables" or "scat singing" ("Oop-pop-a-da! / Skee! Daddle-de-do! / Be-bop!") which especially characterized bop. In "Dive," for instance, while there is no mention of music, it is the music that is picking up rhythm "faster ... / faster," lending its speed to the nightlife on Lenox Avenue. Similarly, "Up-Beat" describes a speeding up of the beat as well as a possible metamorphosis of black youth—their emergence from the gutter, up from the dead into the quick—the kind of process by which the youngsters of "Flatted Fifths," "Jam Session," "Be-Bop Boys," and "Tag" are transformed from jailbirds into musical celebrities.
The poem could be viewed as a ritual drama, but without the stiffness that the term usually connotes. It is a vibrant seriocomic ceremony in which a community of voices is orchestrated from a multiset or multilevel stage, the speakers meanwhile engaged in their normal chores or pleasures. The setting is Harlem, with a close awareness of its connection with downtown Manhattan and its place as a magnetic mecca for refugees from the South. The time: the continuous present on which the burden of times past is heavy, with brief projections into the future. The poem opens in the morning and progresses through daytime into evening, into late night, and on to the following dawn. Harlem, a microcosm of the black presence in America, is the victim of an economic blight, relieved only sporadically by the wartime boom. This is hardly the joy-filled night-town of the 1920s. Money, or more precisely the lack of money, determines many of the human relationships presented to our view especially in the opening section. Money is the main riff, the musical current flowing steadily just below the surface and surfacing from time to time, bearing the theme of the dream deferred. A few situations transcend the terms and boundaries of the economic imperative, as in "Juke Box Love Song", where love unlocks and lets fly softness and beauty amidst the discordant, dissatisfied voices of poverty, creating a harmony that money could not by itself accomplish; in "Projection," where unity and peace are described in terms of a harmonious orchestration of disparate types; and in "College Formal," where the youthful couples, wrapped in love and melody, lend transcendence to the audience as a whole.
The deferred dream is examined through a variety of human agencies, of interlocking and recurring voices and motifs fragmented and scattered throughout the six sections of the poem. Much as in bebop, the pattern is one of constant reversals and contrasts. Frequently the poems are placed in thematic clusters, with poems within the cluster arranged in contrasting pairs. Montage does not move in a straight line; its component poems move off in invisible directions, reappear and touch, creating a complex tapestry or mosaic.
The dream theme itself is carried in the musical motifs. It is especially characterized by the rumble ("The boogie-woogie ramble / Of a dream deferred")—that rapid thumping and tumbling of notes which so powerfully drives to the bottom of the emotions, stirring feelings too deep to be touched by the normal successions of notes and common rhythms. The rumble is an atomic explosion of musical energy, an articulate confusion, a moment of epiphany, a flash of blinding light in which all things are suddenly made clear. The theme is sounded at strategic times, culminating in the final section...
The poet has taken us on a guided tour of microcosmic Harlem, day and night, past and present. And as a new day dawns and the poem moves into a summing up in the final section, he again poses the question and examines the possibilities:
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore— And then run? Does it stink like rotten meat? Or crust and sugar over— like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
The images are sensory, domestic, earthy, like blues images. The stress is on deterioration—drying, rotting, festering, souring—on loss of essential natural quality. The raisin has fallen from a fresh, juicy grape to a dehydrated but still edible raisin to a sun-baked and inedible dead bone of itself. The Afro-American is not unlike the raisin, for he is in a sense a dessicated trunk of his original African self, used and abandoned in the American wilderness with the stipulation that he rot and disappear. Like the raisin lying neglected in the scorching sun, the black man is treated as a thing of no consequence. But the raisin refuses the fate assigned to it, metamorphoses instead into a malignant living sore that will not heal or disappear. Like the raisin, a sore is but a little thing, inconsequential on the surface but in fact symptomatic of a serious disorder. Its stink is like the stink of the rotten meat sold to black folks in so many ghetto groceries; meat no longer suitable for human use, deathly. And while a syrupy sweet is not central to the diet as meat might be, still it is a rounding-off final pleasure (dessert) at the end of a meal, or a delicious surprise that a child looks forward to at Halloween or Christmas. But that final pleasure turns out to be a pain. Aged, spoiled candy leaves a sickly taste in the mouth; sweetness gone bad turns a treat into a trick.
The elements of the deferred dream are, like the raisin, sore, meat, and candy, little things of no great consequence in themselves. But their unrelieved accretion packs together considerable pressure. Their combined weight becomes too great to carry about indefinitely: not only does the weight increase from continued accumulation, but the longer it is carried the heavier it feels. The load sags from its own weight, and the carrier sags with it; and if he should drop it, it just might explode from all its strange, tortured, and compressed energies.
In short, a dream deferred can be a terrifying thing. Its greatest threat is its unpredictability, and for this reason the question format is especially fitting. Questions demand the reader's participation, corner and sweep him headlong to the final, inescapable conclusion.
Each object (raisin, sore, meat, candy, load) is seen from the outside and therefore not fully apprehended. Each conceals a mystery; each generates its own threat. The question starts with the relatively innocuous raisin and, aided by the relentless repetition of "Does it...?" intensifies until the violent crescendo at the end. With the explosion comes the ultimate epiphany: that the deadly poison of the deferred dream, which had seemed so neatly localized (the raisin drying up in a corner harmless and unnoticed; the sore that hurt only the man that had it; the rotten meat and sour candy that poisoned only those that ate it), does in fact seep into the mainstream from which the larger society drinks. The load, so characterless except for its weight, conceals sticks of dynamite whose shattering power none can escape.
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, of the Great Migration, integration and voter registration, of Black Studies and Equal Opportunity. It might even be possible to identify each of the key images with a generation or historical period, but this is not necessary: the deferred dream appears in these and similar guises in every generation and in the experience of individuals as well as of the group. The poem is the "Lenox Avenue Mural" of the closing section title, painted in bold letters up high and billboard-size for all to see. To step into or drive through Harlem is at once to be confronted with its message or question. The closing line is Hughes's final answer/threat and will return with some frequency in The Panther and the Lash.
Each of the five other poems of the final section takes the question and plays with it, incorporating variations of it from earlier sections. All sorts of things are liable to happen "when a dream gets kicked around." And, sure, they kick dreams around downtown, too, even on Wall Street, not to speak of Appalachia or the Indian Reservations. But right now, one thing at a time, first things first: "I'm talking about / Harlem to you!"
Source: Jemie, Onwuchekwa, Langston Hughes: An Introduction to the Poetry, Columbia University Press, 1976 pp. 63-5, 78-80.