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.

Themes and Meanings

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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. This list of physical items expresses the goals of a society that sees acquisition as unlimited and a people who feel that they can earn unlimited wealth with hard work. People often immigrate to America from countries with closed social systems where their ability to earn or keep property had been limited, where a lifetime of hard work could never buy one a house in a certain neighborhood, where hard work leaves one as poor as they started: to these people, the American Dream represents freedom. The poem "Harlem" is a response to dreams of freedom from an American who did not see this as a country where dreams could come true, but rather as where people of African descent were denied freedom every hour. Throughout his career, Langston Hughes frequently used the idea of "dreams" to express the idea of social equality, possibly because the power of the word cut across racial lines and because phrasing aspirations as "dreams" made them sound less real and thus less menacing. In 1924, when the South was tightly segregated and hate groups killed Blacks regularly, Hughes was surrounded by Black intellectuals, and he expressed his dream as one of physical motion: "To fling my arms wide / In the face of the sun, / Dance! Whirl! Whirl! / Till the quick day is done." The 1932 poem "Dreams" is not a personal expression of his own dream but a caution to other African Americans to hold onto their dreams, warning that when dreams die "Life is a broken-winged bird / That cannot fly" and also "Life is a barren field / Frozen with snow." The growing frustration that we can see in comparing these two visions was multiplied many times over by 1951's "Harlem." The right to move freely that looked wistful in 1924 had been put off, or deferred, for so long that Hughes could no longer, as in "Dreams," internalize his frustration as a problem for African Americans. The poem implies that the "opportunity" promised in the American Dream can only fail so often.

Anger and Hatred

"Harlem" carefully measures out the amount of anger it reveals: although it is about the author's circumstances and its title is the place where the author lived, the emotion explained is looked at objectively, as something that is bound to happen in these sort of cases, not just as Hughes's own feelings. Literature by oppressed people has always walked the narrow line between self-expression and a threatening call to rebellion: the same piece could be interpreted in either way, depending upon the circumstances, depending upon how vulnerable the oppressors feel. Treating Blacks differently from Whites was an idea that always stood on shaky ground throughout the country's history, being directly at odds with the Declaration of Independence's credo that "all men are created equal," and so the supporters of racial segregation could never rest securely and always had to beware that someday liberty would come to the people they were oppressing. Works of literature—especially those written by African Americans—that openly discussed the frustration felt by African Americans were seen as containing an implied threat. At the time Hughes wrote this poem, Blacks had made some gains, most notably in the fields of entertainment and in the integrated army of World War II. Hughes no longer had to suppress or ignore the frustration African Americans were feeling, but, exactly because of those gains, segregationists felt threatened. The prospect of violence is often used to justify laws that are even more oppressive, in the name of maintaining social order. Hughes approached the growing anger of Blacks carefully, stopping short of stating directly that it would lead to violence. First, he suggested options to anger, although to the people dealing with frustration, these were not very appealing—rather than turning to anger, frustration could dry up, fester, stink, crust, and sugar over. Second, his tightly controlled objective tone made it clear that this poem is not supporting violence: he could always deny that his intent was to invite people to "explode."

Civil Rights

The "dream deferred" mentioned in the poem could refer to anything, but the title's mention of the Harlem area of New York City, famous for its African-American population, narrows the focus of this poem to racial issues. In the 1950s, the Civil Rights movement made tremendous gains against laws that had forced Blacks to endure worse conditions than Whites. Most of these gains were made without violence, especially after 1955, when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. became a national figure by supporting peaceful ways of achieving social change. There had been supporters of civil rights as long as the country had existed, and organizations fighting to end unequal treatment had existed since the first slaves were brought from Africa.

"Harlem" gives us a measure of African-American frustration at this critical time in the country's history, just prior to the Civil Rights movement's most crucial gains. The "explosion" that Hughes mentions actually did happen, but only after the gains made in the 1950s proved to be insufficient, and they happened all over the country in crowded urban areas just like Harlem. If this poem were a prophesy, it was proven false by the peaceful advances made in civil rights during the following decade (although a cynic could see peaceful means as "crusting and sugaring over" or "sagging"). Eventually, though, the road to civil rights did lead to an explosion of violence, just as "Harlem" foretold.

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.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access