The speaker wonders what happens to a deferred dream. He wonders if it dries up like a raisin in the sun, or if it oozes like a wound and then runs. It might smell like rotten meat or develop a sugary crust. It might just sag like a “heavy load,” or it might explode.
This short poem is one of Hughes’s most famous works; it is likely the most common Langston Hughes poem taught in American schools. Hughes wrote "Harlem" in 1951, and it addresses one of his most common themes - the limitations of the American Dream for African Americans. The poem has eleven short lines in four stanzas, and all but one line are questions.
Playwright Lorraine Hansbury references "Harlem" in the title of A Raisin in the Sun, her famous play about an African American family facing prejudice and economic hardship. The production debuted on Broadway in 1959, only 8 years after Hughes published "Harlem."
In the early 1950s, America was still racially segregated. African Americans were saddled with the legacy of slavery, which essentially rendered them second-class citizens in the eyes of the law, particularly in the South. Change was bubbling up, however. Hughes wrote "Harlem" only three years before the seminal Supreme Court decision in the 1954 case Brown vs. Board of Education that declared state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students top be unconstitutional. Thus, Hughes was intimately aware of the challenges he faced as a black man in America, and the tone of his work reflects his complicated experience: he can come across as sympathetic, enraged, hopeful, melancholy, or resigned.
Hughes titled this poem “Harlem” after the New York neighborhood that became the center of the Harlem Renaissance, a major creative explosion in music, literature, and art that occurred during the 1910s and 1920s. Many African American families saw Harlem as a sanctuary from the frequent discrimination they faced in other parts of the country. Unfortunately, Harlem’s glamour faded at the beginning of the 1930s when the Great Depression set in - leaving many of the African American families who had prospered in Harlem destitute once more.
The speaker muses about the fate of a “dream deferred.” It is not entirely clear who the speaker is –perhaps the poet, perhaps a professor, perhaps an undefined black man or woman. The question is a powerful one, and there is a sense of silence after it. Hughes then uses vivid analogies to evoke the image of a postponed dream. He imagines it drying up, festering, stinking, crusting over, or, finally, exploding. All of these images, while not outright violent, have a slightly dark tone to them. Each image is potent enough to make the reader smell, feel, and taste these discarded dreams. According to Langston Hughes, a discarded dream does not simply vanish, rather, it undergoes an evolution, approaching a physical state of decay.
The speaker does not refer to a specific dream. Rather, he (or she) suggests that African Americans cannot dream or aspire to great things because of the environment of oppression that surrounds them. Even if they do dare to dream - their grand plans will fester for so long that they end up rotting or even exploding. As critic Arthur P. Davis writes, "When [Hughes] 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."
Harlem: Langston Hughes - Summary and Critical AnalysisThe poem Harlem by Langston Hughes 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. 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.
Harlem simply asks, and provides a series of disturbing answer to the questions, “what happens to a dream deferred?” A closer reading reveals the essential disunity of the poem. It is a ground of unresolved conflict. Five of the six answers to the opening questions are interrogative rather than declarative sentences. The ‘dream deferred’ is the long- postponed and frustrated dream of African Americans; a dream of freedom, equality, dignity, opportunity and success. This poem concentrates, on possible reaction to the deferral of a dream.
The whole poem (Harlem) is built in the structure of rhetoric. The speaker of the poem is black poet. Black people were given the dreams of equity and equality. But these dreams never came true. Despite legal, political and social consensus to abolish the apartheid, black people could never experience the indiscriminate society. In other worlds, their dream never came true. Blacks are promised dreams of equality, justice, freedom, indiscrimination, but not fulfilled. They are delayed, deferred and postponed. Only promissory note has been given but has never been brought into reality.
Through this poem Langston Hughes examines the possible effects caused by the dream, when they are constantly deferred. When the dreams are constantly deferred, or when dreams are constantly postponed and delayed we are naturally cut between hope and hopelessness. The dreams remain in the mind like a heavy load. When these loads are extended, explosions are inevitable. The speaker rhetorically suggests that the dreams will explode and destroy all the limitations imposed upon them. After that the society of their dream will be born.
When the dream is postponed or deferred or delayed, it brings frustration, it dries up like a raisin in the sun but there is wet inside, likewise it stinks like rotten meat, it becomes fester like a sore and one day it will explode and cause larger social damages. The poem is in the form of a series of questions, a certain inhabitant of Harlem asks. The first image in the poem is “dream dries up like a raisin”. The simile likens the original dream to a grape, which is sound, juicy, green and fresh since the dream has been neglected for too long, it has probably dried up.
The next image in the poem “fester like” a sore and then run” conveys a sense of infection and pain. Comparing the dream to a sore of a body, the poet suggests that unfulfilled dreams become part of us, like a longstanding injury that has gathered pus. The word “fester” connotes something decay and “run” literally refers to pus. From this viewpoint of the speaker, this denotes to the pain that one has when one’s dreams always defers. A postponed dream is like a painful injury that begins to be infected.
The next image “Does it stink like rotten meat” intensified the sense of disgust. A dream deferred may also stink. The poet also hints at the disastrous results of ignoring or blocking people’s dreams. Summing up, ‘Harlem’ yields special insight into the African American condition in the gestation period of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.