Harlem Analysis

  • Hughes's repetition of the word "like" gives "Harlem" a structural and rhetorical unity as the speaker compares the dream to various images. Each comparison both answers and expands on the initial question of what the dream is.
  • Hughes deliberately italicized the last line, "Or does it explode?" This gives the line an insidious quality, warning of the violence and bitterness that often results from oppression.
  • Hughes published "Harlem" in 1951, near the end of the Harlem Renaissance, a cultural movement promoting Black artistry and activism.


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“Harlem” is a short, reflective poem, somber in tone, with an ominous, pointedly italicized ending. It appeared originally as the first poem in the last sequence of poems (“Lenox Avenue Mural”) in the book Montage of a Dream Deferred. Sometimes Montage of a Dream Deferred has been reprinted in its entirety (as in Hughes’s Selected Poems); sometimes “Lenox Avenue Mural” has been reprinted separately; often “Harlem” has been reprinted alone.

The poem can stand alone. Although it is part of a suite of six poems (“Lenox Avenue Mural”) and of a book of ninety-one poems (reduced to eighty-seven in Selected Poems), it is self-contained and autonomous. It consists of seven short sentences, the last six of which respond to the opening question, “What happens to a dream deferred?” Of the six responses, all but one are themselves framed as rhetorical questions. The whole of Montage of a Dream Deferred is set in Harlem, yet only two of its ninety-one poems mention Harlem in their titles (“Harlem” and “Night Funeral in Harlem”). Simply being titled “Harlem” gives this particular lyric a special recognition in the sequence.

The “dream deferred” is the long-postponed and, therefore, frustrated dream of African Americans: a dream of freedom, equality, dignity, opportunity, and success. This particular poem does not define or give examples of the dream (many other poems in Montage of a Dream Deferred do this); it concentrates, instead, on possible reactions to the deferral of a dream, ranging from the fairly mild-mannered (“Does it dry up/ like a raisin in the sun?”) to the threatening (“Or does it explode?”). The first five potential responses to frustration are essentially passive, the last one active.

Langston Hughes first made his home in Manhattan’s Harlem in 1922. He was a leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance, the 1920’s flowering of African American literature and art. Although he traveled widely and often, he kept circling back to Harlem. He lived there, on a more-or-less permanent basis, from the early 1940’s on, maintaining a home on West 127th Street for the last twenty years of his life. Montage of a Dream Deferred is a product of the late 1940’s, when Hughes had at last settled in Harlem.

The variety of responses that “Harlem” suggests as reactions to the deferring of a dream may be taken as a sort of cross-section of behavior patterns Hughes saw around him among the citizens of Harlem. The poem reflects the post-World War II mood of many African Americans. The Great Depression was over, the war was over, but for African Americans the dream, whatever particular form it took, was still being deferred. As Arthur P. Davis wrote in a 1952 article in Phylon, “with Langston Hughes Harlem is both place and symbol. When he depicts the hopes, the aspirations, the frustrations, and the deep-seated discontent of the New York ghetto, he is expressing the feelings of Negroes in black ghettos throughout America.”

Forms and Devices

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The most striking features of “Harlem” are the vivid, even startling, metaphors that Hughes introduces as possible answers to the poem’s opening question, “What happens to a dream deferred?” Each metaphor could be taken as suggesting a pattern of behavior. Drying “up/ like a raisin in the sun” could refer to the gradual shriveling of a dream or a person, still sweet but wrinkled, desiccated. (Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 play, A Raisin in the Sun, ruminates on this sort of response to a dream deferred—taking its title from Hughes’s poem.)

To “fester like a sore—/ And then run” suggests something considerably more unappealing—and dangerous—than drying up: a wound not healing. Eventually a...

(This entire section contains 516 words.)

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limb or a life may be lost. Worse still among its implications is that it will “stink like rotten meat,” for now life is gone from the organism entirely and putrefaction has set in. “Stink” is used as an intentionally offensive, vulgar word, suitable for the occasion.

So far there has been a kind of logical progression, from dehydration to localized decay (“fester”) to wholesale decomposition, but here the poem takes a surprising turn. To “crust and sugar over—/ like a syrupy sweet” seems anticlimactic at first, after rot; “sugar” and “sweet” recall the concentrated sweetness of a raisin.

Hughes may have been thinking of a false, “syrupy sweet” form of behavior—what Paul Laurence Dunbar, in his poem, “We Wear the Mask,” called “the mask that grins and lies”—an outer “crust” that hides. The poem does not say what it hides, but one may be reminded of the narrator’s grandfather in Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man (1952), a grinning, subservient old man who, on his deathbed, “had spoken of his meekness as a dangerous activity”—who had told his grandson “to overcome ‘em with yeses, undermine ‘em with grins, agree ‘em to death and destruction, let ‘em swoller you [like too much sugar, perhaps] till they vomit or bust wide open.”

Each of the last two answers to the question “What happens to a dream deferred?” is set off from the others. Penultimately, there is the statement, “Maybe it just sags/ like a heavy load”—perhaps the saddest of the responses, suggesting depression and despair. Finally, there is the overtly warning question: “Or does it explode?” When violence broke out in America’s inner cities in the 1960’s, Hughes’s poem proved to have been prophetic.

By no means are the metaphors in “Harlem” meant to exhaust the number of possible responses to the deferring of a dream. Indeed, another poem in Montage of a Dream Deferred, “Same in Blues,” uses a repeated refrain to state that in a dream deferred there is “A certain/ amount of traveling,” “A certain/ amount of nothing,” and “A certain/ amount of impotence.” The poem notes that “There’s liable/ to be confusion/ in a dream deferred.” Even with “traveling,” “nothing,” “impotence,” and “confusion,” the list of responses is nowhere near exhausted. There may be as many dreams deferred as there are residents of Harlem or as there are African Americans.

Historical Context

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Harlem, of this poem's title, is a famous area of New York City that has had one of the country's largest African-American populations since the First World War. In the 1920s it was the setting of a gathering of artists and intellectuals, later known as the Harlem Renaissance because it resembled the European Renaissance's surge in artistic productivity. Key figures in the Harlem Renaissance were Claude McKay, Zora Neale Hurston, Arna Bontemps, Dr. Alain Locke, and Langston Hughes. Since then, Harlem has been a focal point for African-American culture.

In 1951, when "Harlem" was first published, race relations were much different in the United States than they are today. Racism still exists, but there are now laws that can be used to fight against discrimination. Most of these laws were enacted during a period from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s, when Blacks became impatient with deferring their dreams and Whites, especially in the Southern states, resisted the social forces that were pushing for equality. The Civil War ended in 1865, and with its end, slavery became extinct in the United States, but the freed Blacks did not receive full citizenship status. In the late 1800s, former slave states passed a series of laws known as Jim Crow laws (after a foolish, child-like Negro character in an 1832 minstrel comedy). These laws made it illegal for Blacks to vote, ride public transportation, attend schools with Whites, and other functions that would have enabled African Americans to become equal members of society. Although many citizens opposed these laws, especially in the North where there had been no slavery, the Supreme Court ruled in 1886 that they were constitutional so long as Blacks had facilities similar to those of Whites. In that case, Plessy vs. Ferguson, the court ruled that the legality of Jim Crow laws rested upon there being "separate but equal" accommodations for both races: in reality, though, Blacks were given the worst of everything. To keep Blacks from gaining political power, there were other laws that made it difficult to register to vote, requiring land ownership and passage of bogus I.Q. tests that were seldom administered to Caucasians. Many African Americans moved North, where laws did not discriminate, even though people still did. Opportunities for advancement were still scarce in the North, mainly because of the economic/educational circle (under-educated people cannot get well-paying jobs, and people with poor incomes cannot afford higher education). In the South in the first half of this century, Blacks were lynched by White supremacist organizations, such as the Ku Klux Klan.

During World War II, from 1941 to 1945, the armed forces became the most integrated organization that the United States had ever had. Although it would still be decades until Blacks were admitted to the higher ranks of officers, opportunity was, to a wide extent, equal among enlisted men. This meant that returning veterans came home with a greater sense of how racial equality was possible, raising hopes for integration in Whites as well as in Blacks. These hopes sometimes twisted into anger when Black veterans found civilian society a step backwards from their life in the army: full scale riots broke out in 1946 in Columbia, Tennessee, and Athens, Alabama, as well as lesser racial confrontations in dozens of other cities.

As the call for a new racial openness in the United States grew, though, another social force was also growing: fear of the threat of Communism. World War II had weakened or destroyed most of the powerful European nations and left the Soviet Union as the only other world power with might that could compare to the United States. The two counties had different social philosophies and each was afraid that the other would plant spies in its government or its media to cause its collapse. These techniques were tried by both sides, but not nearly to the degree that citizens feared them. In the South, the public's fear of Communism was used by some Whites to oppose integration. In the Presidential election of 1948, for example, Democrat Harry Truman and Republican Thomas Dewey were opposed by southern Senator Strom Thurmond, with the newly formed States Rights Democratic party. Thurmond claimed that regular Democrats supported civil rights due to their "Communist ideology," arguing that Democrats intended to "excite race and class hatred" and "create chaos and confusion which leads to communism." Truman just barely won the election. In 1948, by an Executive Order from the President, a commission was established to study equal treatment in the armed forces. Historians believe that the committee's recommendations would have pushed integration further if the country had not become involved in the Korean Conflict to stop the spread of Communism. As it was, proposals made in 1949 by the Truman administration regarding racial issues like lynchings and voter registration were held up in Congress until the Civil Rights Act of 1957.

Many of the legal inequalities that existed when Hughes wrote this poem were addressed in the 1950s and 1960s, often to avoid the sort of violent conflict that this poem predicts. In 1954 the Supreme Court ruled, in Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka, that it was impossible to make schools "separate but equal," so they would have to integrate: as a result, segregation could no longer be shielded by the Plessy vs. Ferguson verdict of the 1890s. In 1955, Dr. Martin Luther King gained national fame by leading a year-long boycott of the bus system of Montgomery, Alabama, which eventually changed the policy of Blacks only riding in the back seats of the busses. In 1957 the President had to send U.S. troops to guard Black children who had been admitted to a White school because the governor of Arkansas tried to have the children stopped by armed National Guardsmen. In 1961 Black and White "Freedom Riders" rode busses across the South to make sure that rest areas on interstate highways were desegregated. Civil Rights Acts passed the legislature in 1957 and 1964, making federal laws out of the nation's growing desire for integration.

Literary Style

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Hughes uses an irregular meter in the lines of "Harlem." That is, he stresses different syllables in each line and varies the length of each line. Together, the varied line lengths and meter create a sense of jagged, nervous energy that reinforces the poem's themes of increasing frustration. In the introduction to Montage, Hughes notes that he models his poetry's rhythms on musical forms such as "jazz, ragtime, swing, blues, boogie-woogie, and bebop." Like these musical genres, he explains, "[the volume] is marked by conflicting changes, sudden nuances, sharp and imprudent interjections, broken rhythms and passages ... in the manner of a jam session."

Several lines rhyme, but there is not a consistent pattern of rhyme. Rhymes occur in lines 3 and 5 (sun, run), 6 and 8 (meat, sweet), and 10 and 11 (load, explode). Hughes may use these rhymes to emphasize the irregular rhythm of the poem or to draw attention to the connections between different ideas, such as "load" and "explode."

The first and last lines are offset from the poem. In line 1, this separation introduces and emphasizes the poem's central question, which is also the volume's central question. The space between this line and the following stanza implies that the answer is unpredictable and perhaps threatening. The second stanza poses four questions in four sentences. By firing one question after another, Hughes builds tension within the poem. The final line is offset and italicized to emphasize the potentially explosive social consequences of widespread dissatisfaction

Compare and Contrast

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1951: The United States was involved in the Korean Conflict to help keep communist North Korea out of South Korea. Fighting ended in a truce in 1953 that established a De-Militarized Zone, but tensions between the two countries continue to this day.

1964-1973: U.S. troops were active in combat in South Vietnam, in an attempt to keep Communist-backed North Vietnam from overtaking the country. In 1973 the U.S. withdrew military support, and South Vietnam was conquered in 1975.

1990: Straining under the weight of an unproductive economy, the Soviet Union, the world's largest Communist country, dissolved.

Today: Communism is not considered a threat to America, with the most stable Communist countries existing being tiny Cuba and isolationist China.

1951: The first nuclear fusion reactor for providing power was built by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission.

1979: An accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, raised public fear about the safety of nuclear energy.

1986: A radiation leak at a nuclear plant in Chernobyl in the Soviet Union killed an unspecified number of workers (the number is unknown because of the government's secrecy) and made nearby land and houses uninhabitable for years.

Today: Despite the fact that no new nuclear plants have been built since 1978, America gets one fifth of its electrical energy from nuclear power.

Media Adaptations

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An audio cassette titled Langston Hughes Reads is available from Audiobooks.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Farrell, Walter C. and Patricia A. Johnson, "Poetic Interpretations of Urban Black Folk Culture: Langston Hughes and the 'Bebop' Era," in MEWS, fall, 1981, pp. 57-72.

Jemie, Onwuchekwa, "Jazz, Jive, and Jam," in Langston Hughes, introduction by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House, 1990.

Jemie, Onwuchekwa, Langston Hughes: An Introduction to the Poetry, Columbia University Press, 1976, p. 234.

Rampersad, Arnold, The Life of Langston Hughes, Volume I, 1902-1941: I, Too, Sing America, Oxford University Press, 1986.

For Further Study

Berry, Faith, Langston Hughes: Before and Beyond Harlem, Westport, CT: Lawrence Hill & Co., 1983.

A meticulously researched biography by a founding member of the Langston Hughes Society, this book is full of fascinating anecdotes.

Cashman, Sean Dennis, African-Americans and the Quest for Civil Rights 1900-1990, New York: New York University Press, 1991.

A very thorough and readable account of the growth of the Civil Rights movement.

Meier, August, and Elliot Rudwick, From Plantation to Ghetto, third edition, New York: Hill and Wang, 1976.

This book gives too little attention to the period of the late 1940s and early 1950s, but it has a large, informative section about Hughes's part in the Harlem Renaissance.

Truman, Harry S., "Civil Rights Message," in The Negro in American History, Mortimer J. Adler, gen. ed., Charles Van Doran, ed. Encyclopedia Britannica Corp., 1969.

This is the text of Truman's address to Congress on February 2, 1948, outlining the actions that the President thought should be taken in response to a report issued by the President's Committee on Civil Rights. A good indicator of the times, Truman's speech calls for the government to uphold rights that we take for granted, such as "protecting more adequately the right to vote" and "providing federal protection against lynching."


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Berry, Faith. Langston Hughes: Before and Beyond Harlem. New York: Wings Books, 1995.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Langston Hughes. New York: Chelsea House, 1989.

Chinitz, David. “Rejuvenation Through Joy: Langston Hughes, Primitivism, and Jazz.” American Literary History 9 (Spring, 1997): 60-78.

Cooper, Floyd. Coming Home: From the Life of Langston Hughes. New York: Philomel Books, 1994.

Harper, Donna Sullivan. Not So Simple: The “Simple” Stories by Langston Hughes. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1995.

Haskins, James. Always Movin’ On: The Life of Langston Hughes. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 1993.

Hokanson, Robert O’Brien. “Jazzing It Up: The Be-bop Modernism of Langston Hughes.” Mosaic 31 (December, 1998): 61-82.

Leach, Laurie F. Langston Hughes: A Biography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2004.

Mullen, Edward J., ed. Critical Essays on Langston Hughes. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1986.

Ostrum, Hans A. A Langston Hughes Encyclopedia. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2002.

Rampersad, Arnold. The Life of Langston Hughes. 2 vols. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Tracy, Steven C., ed. A Historical Guide to Langston Hughes. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.




Critical Essays