In Langston Hughes's poem "Harlem," who is the speaker?

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The speaker of "Harlem" is an African American who is frustrated with having his dreams postponed and who senses a growing tension in a society that prevents the dreams of a group of its citizens.

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Given the first line of the poem—the question "What happens to a dream deferred?"—it seems that the speaker is a person who has had some dream of his (or hers) deferred. To "defer" something means to put it off, to delay or postpone it. Perhaps, then, this speaker has a dream and has been compelled for some reason to delay it, or perhaps he has not even had the choice and the dream has been held away from him, just out of reach. So he considers what happens to that dream: does it shrivel up or fester? Does it begin to stink and seem to infect the air around a person, or does it seem to crust over and become sticky and gross? Or maybe it just weighs a person down, dragging on them?

Finally, he asks if the deferred dream will, in fact, explode, like a bomb. Because the final line is the only metaphor, compared to the other five similes, because it is the only line set apart except for the first question, and because the line is italicized, I believe the speaker of the poem feels that the final comparison is the most truthful one. Because the title of the poem is "Harlem," we might assume that the speaker is black, and this individual could be suggesting that if the dream of racial equality is continually deferred by white people, then there will eventually be violent and far-reaching consequences that affect everyone. However, it could be some other kind of dream and dreamer as well, and the result is the same: if a person is denied their dream again and again, it is very possible that they will lose hope or become desperate or angry, and they might explode with rage or violence.

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It's important to consider the title of this poem when determining who the speaker of the poem is. Harlem, particularly during the historical context in which the poem was written, is a significant setting for an African American poet. As black people moved into Harlem in increasing numbers starting in the 1930s, white people were increasingly leaving. The housing situation was precarious, with high rent prevailing even in areas with inadequate facilities.

"Harlem" was published in the early 1950s, over a decade before Martin Luther King Jr. would deliver his famous "I Have a Dream" speech. The Civil Rights movement had not yet gained the steam it would need to propel changes across the country, and segregation within schools and elsewhere was still perfectly legal. "Separate but equal" was the flawed mantra that black people faced at every turn in society.

Taking all of this into context, the speaker of "Harlem" is an African American who longs for more than what America has delivered. The Declaration of Independence has sworn that all men are created equal and has guaranteed all citizens "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Yet in the early 1950s, black people were still waiting for the fruits of these promises.

The speaker of this poem senses the tension that comes from deferring the basic human dreams of people. Perhaps they dry up—but perhaps that energy is enough to create an explosion. The poem is full of questions, because the answers to societal injustice had not yet begun to be developed. American society would explode during the later 1950s and 1960s in order to begin the changes needed to answer the dreams of those like the speaker.

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In Langston Hughes' poem, "Harlem" the speaker is not necessarily a specific person—it could be Hughes, but we can also assume the speaker is any dreamer: however, with the poem's title, and the mission present in Langston Hughes' poetry (of portraying the plight of blacks in America), the piece speaks specifically to a black dreamer who has not been allowed to dream—has not been allowed to believe he has the right to dream and see his dreams come true.

The poem begins asking about the "dream deferred," alluding that for an individual, the loss of a dream—or one not realized—leads to something that describes rot or decay...

...representing the dream (or the dreamer's) fate

Hughes presents several phrases of this kind with the following imagery:

…dry up / like a raisin in the sun?…fester like a sore— / And then run?…stink like rotten meat? Or crust and sugar over— / like a syrupy sweet?

The poet offers yet another image, where the dream becomes like a burden bearing one down, to be carried around like a stone:

Maybe it just sags / like a heavy load.

With an image of the slave's lot in life—burdened and beaten under the yolk of white oppression for so long—ironically the black man, even while "free," is still carrying a heavy burden. All of the imagery in the poem so far suggests what may happen when a dream is not fulfilled.

It suggests an effect on the individual in that the images are unpleasant and repulsive, but not dramatically life-altering. However, the last line expresses a sense of violence—perhaps we can acknowledge it is even prophetic, asking what if that "dream deferred" explodes? For with an explosion, the threat is much greater, and the explosion affects more than one person.

It is suggested that this explosion is what eventually occurs when someone says, "no." The world witnessed the organized Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s when the dream promised by Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation had not been realized; the poem's image of a "dream" becomes prophetic of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s galvanizing "I Have a Dream" speech.

The poem introduces the idea of a person's dream unfulfilled. The poet ends the poem by wondering how long it can remain a quietly painful disappointment? And when will it become so heartbreaking that a person cannot hold the pain inside anymore? Ultimately, this is what happens with Rosa Parks, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, sit-in's, freedom rides, etc., and eventually the March on Washington.


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