Harlem Themes

The main themes in "Harlem" are civil rights, the American dream, and anger.

  • Civil rights: "Harlem" mourns the hopes and dreams that Black Americans have had to sacrifice because of racism and discrimination.
  • American dream: The American Dream has long been a touted ideal of the United States; however, that dream is not accessible to everyone, and many Black Americans have had to defer their dreams.
  • Anger: Images such as a "raisin in the sun" or "rotten meat" evoke decay and rot, implying that the anger and resentment felt by many Black Americans has festered beneath the forces of racism and oppression.

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Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Although “Harlem” can stand alone, it is best understood in its original context as a key part of Montage of a Dream Deferred. Hughes conceived Montage of a Dream Deferred as a single, long poem made up of many parts, some as short as three lines (or fewer than ten words), some as long as two pages.

The word “montage” suggests analogies with a visual design consisting of many juxtaposed smaller designs or, better (since a series of poems exists in time more than in space), with a rapid sequence of related short scenes in a film. The most useful analogue of the work is, however, neither pictorial nor cinematic but musical. In a prefatory note to Montage of a Dream Deferred, Hughes wrote that “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.”

Hughes had long been interested in and knowledgeable about African American music. Beginning in the 1920’s, he wrote poems about—and sometimes in forms influenced by—the music. His first book, The Weary Blues (1926), took its title from such a poem. Bebop, the innovative jazz of the late 1940’s, with its emphasis on the successive improvisations of individual instrumental voices, most strongly influenced the form and the flavor of Montage of a Dream Deferred.

If the book were conceived as one long bebop tune based on chord changes on the theme of “a dream deferred,” then “Harlem,” strategically placed at the beginning of the end of the book, marks the point at which the theme is restated in preparation for the end. Dreams are mentioned in more than a dozen individual poems in the book; the phrase “dream deferred” appears in a half dozen poems prior to “Harlem” (and in three poems that follow). “Harlem” is the first poem to ask, “What happens to a dream deferred?” (The succeeding poem, “Good Morning,” repeats the question.)

The dream that “Harlem” (and Montage of a Dream Deferred, in general) asks about is the African American version of the American Dream: A “Dream within a dream,” as “Island” (the last poem in Montage of a Dream Deferred) calls it. In the course of the book, individuals imagine the dream in many different ways. Some merely dream of things (a stove, a bottle of gin, a television set, a diamond ring); other dreams also require money, but they are less specifically material (to have a nice place to live, to get an education, to be able to afford a proper funeral). Some intangible dreams require the cooperation of another person or other people (to be fed, to be appreciated, to be respected, to be loved); other intangible dreams can be solitary (to be safe, to be independent, to be happy). Whether one’s dream is as mundane as hitting the numbers or as noble as hoping to see one’s children reared properly, Langston Hughes takes them all seriously; he takes the deferral of each dream to heart.


(Poetry for Students)

American Dream

Since America has a capitalist economic system, "the American dream" often refers to acquiring wealth and to the items that wealth can purchase: houses, cars, exotic foods, and servants to relieve one of the mundane and unpleasant chores of life....

(The entire section is 1,714 words.)