Langston Hughes 1951
The brief poem “Harlem” introduces themes that run throughout Langston Hughes’s volume Montage of a Dream Deferred and throughout his career as a poet. This volume, published in 1951, focuses on the conditions of a people whose dreams have been limited, put off, or lost in post-World War II Harlem. Hughes claimed that ninety percent of his work attempted “to explain and illuminate the Negro condition in America.” As a result of this focus, Hughes was dubbed “the poet laureate of Harlem.” The poem “Harlem” questions the social consequences of so many deferred dreams, hinting at the resentment and racial strife that eventually erupted with the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s and continues today. Asking “what happens to a dream deferred?” the poem sketches a series of images of decay and waste, representing the dream (or the dreamer’s) fate. While many of the potential consequences affect only the individual dreamer, the ending of the poem suggests that, when despair is epidemic, it may “explode” and cause broad social and political damage.
Before Hughes wrote, many African-American artists avoided portraying lower-class black life because they believed such images fed racist stereotypes and attitudes. Hughes believed that realistic portraits of actual people would counter negative caricatures of African Americans more effectively and so wrote about and for the common person. Spoken by a variety of personas, the poems in Montage of a Dream Deferred capture the
distinct patterns and rhythms of African American folk idiom. Hughes integrated the rhythms and structures of jazz, blues, and bebop into his poetry as well, working to create a poetry which was African-American in its rhythms, techniques, images, allusions, and diction.
Hughes was born in in 1902 in Joplin, Missouri, to James Nathaniel and Carrie Mercer Langston Hughes, who separated shortly after their son’s birth. Hughes’s mother had attended college, while his father, who wanted to become a lawyer, took correspondence courses in law. Denied a chance to take the Oklahoma bar exam, Hughes’s father went first to Missouri and then, still unable to become a lawyer, left his wife and son to move first to Cuba and then to Mexico. In Mexico, he became a wealthy landowner and lawyer. Because of financial difficulties, Hughes’s mother moved frequently in search of steady work, often leaving him with her parents. His grandmother Mary Leary Langston was the first black woman to attend Oberlin College. She inspired the boy to read books and value an education. When his grandmother died in 1910, Hughes lived with family friends and various relatives in Kansas. In 1915 he joined his mother and new stepfather in Lincoln, Illinois, where he attended grammar school. The following year, the family moved to Cleveland, Ohio. There he attended Central High School, excelling in both academics and sports. Hughes also wrote poetry and short fiction for the Belfry Owl, the high school literary magazine, and edited the school yearbook. In 1920 Hughes left to visit his father in Mexico, staying in that country for a year. Returning home in 1921, he attended Columbia University for a year before dropping out. For a time he worked as a cabin boy on a merchant ship, visited Africa, and wrote poems for a number of American magazines. In 1923 and 1924 Hughes lived in Paris. He returned to the United States in 1925 and resettled with his mother and half-brother in Washington, D.C. He continued writing poetry while working menial jobs. In May and August of 1925 Hughes’s verse earned him literary prizes from both Opportunity and Crisis magazines. In December Hughes, then a busboy at a Washington, D.C., hotel, attracted the attention of poet Vachel Lindsay by placing three of his poems on Lindsay’s dinner table. Later that evening Lindsay read Hughes’s poems to an audience and announced his discovery of a “Negro busboy poet.” The next day reporters and photographers eagerly greeted Hughes at work to hear more of his compositions. He published his first collection of poetry, The Weary Blues, in 1926. Around this time Hughes became active in the Harlem Renaissance, a flowering of creativity among a group of African-American artists and writers. Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and other writers founded Fire!, a literary journal devoted to African-American culture. The venture was unsuccessful, however, and ironically a fire eventually destroyed the editorial offices. In 1932 Hughes traveled with other black writers to the Soviet Union on an ill-fated film project. His infatuation with Soviet Communism and Joseph Stalin led Hughes to write on politics throughout the 1930s. He also became involved in drama, founding several theaters. In 1938 he founded the Suitcase Theater in Harlem, in 1939 the Negro Art Theater in Los Angeles, and in 1941 the Skyloft Players in Chicago. In 1943 Hughes received an honorary Doctor of Letters from Lincoln University, and in 1946 he was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters. He continued to write poetry throughout the rest of his life, and by the 1960s he was known as the “Dean of Negro Writers.” Hughes died in New York on May 22, 1967.
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The speaker of this poem, who may represent Hughes, poses a large, open question that the following sub-questions both answer and extend. This poem, and the volume in which it appears, Montage of a Dream Deferred, explore what happens to people and society when millions of individuals’ dreams get deferred, or put off indefinitely.
The first image in the poem proposes that the dream dries up like a raisin. This simile likens the original dream to a grape, which is round, juicy, green and fresh. Once the dream has lain neglected for too long, it dries up. Though the dream is still sweet and edible, it has shrunken from its former state and turned black. The famous 1959 play A Raisin in the Sun, by African-American playwright Lorraine Hansberry, takes its title from this poem. The play also explores the risks and consequences for African Americans of losing sight of dreams and hope.
Where the raisin image invokes the senses of taste and sight, the simile of the sore conveys a sense of touch and bodily impact. Sores reside on one’s skin, and are seen, felt, and carried around. By comparing the dream to a sore on the body, the poet suggests that unfulfilled dreams become part of us, like scars. Even if we ignore a sore, it is palpable, visible, and needs attention to heal. Neglected sores may lead to infection, even death. Hughes thus suggests that unattended dreams may not only nag one from outside, they may infect the
- An audio cassette titled Langston Hughes Reads is available from Audiobooks.
body and the psyche and slowly kill their host. The word “fester” connotes seething decay and “run” literally refers to pus. Hughes may be punning on the word “run,” suggesting that the dream may flee or may run rampant with one’s sanity. With the simile of a sore, Hughes raises the stakes of ignoring dreams.
Appealing to all of the reader’s senses, the speaker suggests that a dream deferred may also stink. Unlike a sore, a stink cannot be ignored. Smells do not vanish until one gets rid of their source. With the smell of rotten meat, Hughes suggests that dreams deferred will pester one continually, making one sick until they are addressed. Like the raisin image, rotten meat stinks when it is no longer fresh. This image reinforces the idea of decay and waste. Rotten meat is also deadly to eat. Some critics suggest that Hughes uses this image because blacks were often sold rotten meat in ghetto groceries and so were familiar with this stench, as well as the waste and injustice the stench represents.
With these lines, the poet de-escalates the disastrous results of ignoring or blocking one’s dreams. A crusted, syrupy sweet will not kill people as meat or sores may, but the image again connotes waste, neglect, and decay. A sweet treat, like a dream, begins as something one yearns for and anticipates eagerly. If it sits unused too long, however, it spoils and leaves a bad taste in the mouth. As Onwuchekwa Jemie notes, the “sweet” may represent American dreams of equality and success that are denied to most African Americans. The American dream itself may have gone bad from disuse and false promises.
Lines 9-10 form the only sentence that is not a question. Hughes implies that although neglecting dreams may yield varied and unforeseeable horrors, one thing is certain: deferred dreams weigh one down physically and emotionally as heavily as a load of bricks.
Hughes sets off and italicizes this line to emphasize the larger consequences of mass dissatisfaction. Though this line is a question like those above, here the poet implies that an explosion may occur, hurting or killing those in the vicinity of the explosion as well as the afflicted individual. Hughes is implying that whereas the dream deferred primarily weighs on, infects, bothers, and saddens the frustrated dreamer, eventually the epidemic of frustration will hurt everyone.
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:
Topics for Further Study
- In this poem, Hughes asks what happens to a dream is put on hold, giving a series of possibilities. Write a poem in which you tell readers what does happen to such a dream. Use concrete imagery, as Hughes does, to speak of the dream as a real, tangible object.
- Do research on one of the race riots of the mid-1960s, such as the one in Watts (Los Angeles), Chicago and Atlanta. What was the immediate cause? What social conditions led up to the violence? Write a report that explains the situation to your class.
- Why is this poem named “Harlem”? What other locations would have had a similar meaning? Name the social events that have occurred since the poem’s publication in 1951 that you feel help prove that Hughes’s fears were realistic.
“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.”
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.
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, childlike 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 (undereducated 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.
Compare & Contrast
- 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 counties 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.
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.
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 yearlong 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.
Langston Hughes is considered one of the most influential and prolific African-American poets of the twentieth century. He published poetry from the Harlem Renaissance, a period during the 1920s when African-American artists and their works flourished in Harlem, to the Civil Rights and Black Arts movements. Following the Civil Rights movement, the Black Arts movement of the 1970s combined militant black nationalism with outspoken art and literature. Onwuchekwa Jemie, in his book Langston Hughes: An Introduction to the Poetry, interprets the poem as a militant outcry against racial injustice. Jemie argues that the images in the poem build in intensity until “the violent crescendo at the end.” Jemie writes, “rotten meat is a lynched
black man rotting on the tree. A sweet gone bad is all of the broken promises of Emancipation and Reconstruction, ... integration ... and Equal Opportunity. It might even be possible to identify each of the key images with a generation or historical period ...” These interpretations are not shared by many critics, but Jemie’s reading is notable for its departure from the widespread black opinion that Hughes’s writing was not militant enough to remain relevant in the wake of the Black Arts movement. By finding radical implications in Hughes’s earlier poetry, Jemie revives poems such as “Harlem” for politicized contemporary readers.
Commenting on the innovative musical structure of the volume in which “Harlem” is a keynote poem, many critics, including Walter Farrell and Patricia Johnson, writing in the journal MELUS, note that Hughes “breaks down the barrier between the beginning of one poem and the end of another. [The volume may be described] as a series of short poems or phrases that contribute to the making of one long poem. Each poem maintains some individual identity as a separate unit while contributing to the composite poetic message. Movement between passages is achieved by thematic or topical congruency or by interior dialogue.” “Harlem” is placed toward the end of Montage and comments on the widespread despair and frustration expressed by the personas in preceding poems. Thus “Harlem” may be read as both a distinct individual poem and an outstanding note in much larger symphony.
Harry Phillips is a freelance writer and is currently teaching in the Department of English and Foreing Languages at Central Piedmont Community College. In the following essay, Phillips examines how the negative imagery of “Harlem” and the poem’s structure of unanswered questions lead the reader to “consider the various psychological and emotional circumstances black individuals might experience in a society that continues to struggle with putting into practice its egalitarian ideals.”
Legendary blues musician W. C. Handy once remarked of one of Langston Hughes’s shorter poems that the poet had accomplished in four lines “what it would have taken Shakespeare two acts and three scenes to say.” Handy’s pithy observation hits at a central feature of much twentieth-century poetry—the poet’s ability to create a mountain of meaning from the studied arrangement of a very few words. Published in 1951, “Harlem” manages to evoke nearly a century of African-American history through a series of brief, bluesy, thought-provoking questions that aim to immerse the reader in the imagery of despair and disappointment. The spatial configuration of lines on the page suggests a way into the poem—a way to organize it and make meaning of it. Hughes begins with a central question that we might use to frame the remainder of the poem; and if we feel compelled to make an informed answer to this question at poem’s end, then the poem, and reader, will have succeeded in generating thought about what continues to be our most pressing national problem: race relations. Note that the one-and two-line questions in the next section of the poem contain earthy images of disease and spoliation. The conspicuous absence of life-affirming images in this section is the poem’s way of pushing us toward a disturbing answer to the opening question. The next section continues the “heavy,” hopeless tone, or feeling, of the poem and effectively sets up the shocking conclusion. Because the reader is encouraged to respond to the questions the poem asks, the poem adheres to “call and response” patterning; that is, the tradition in African-American culture in which the “call” of the preacher or civic leader meets with a ready “response” from an attentive congregation or community.
Nearly all critics of “Harlem” interpret the “dream” in the poem’s opening section as a symbol of African Americans’ desire for equality—social, economic, and educational—in American society. That this desire is “deferred” means that African Americans continue to endure the difficult realities of racism and limited opportunity in a presumably free society. Critic Onwuchekwa Jemie, for example, wrote that the “dream deferred” represents “all of the broken promises of Emancipation and Reconstruction, of the Great Migration, integration and voter registration, of Black Studies and Equal Opportunity.” The events the critic cites here begin at the conclusion of the Civil War in 1865 and actually extend beyond the poem’s 1951 publication date into the 1970s and 1980s when many Black Studies programs at American universities were eliminated and when reaction against Affirmative Action programs began to escalate. By inviting the reader to answer the poem’s first question, Hughes asks one to sit in the role of social commentator and critic of culture and to consider the various psychological and emotional circumstances
What Do I Read Next?
- Hughes published several volumes of autobiography in his lifetime: The Big Sea, published in 1963, covers the period in which this poem was written and the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s.
- Hughes was also the author, along with Milton Meltzer and C. Eric Lincoln, of a 1956 book titled A Pictorial History of the Negro in America that was reprinted in 1983 as A Pictorial History of Black Americans. The photos in this book give a vivid sense of the times. For instance, the reader can see separate “Colored” facilities at places such as restaurants, movie balconies, and parking lots. Hughes’s text reads like a moderate intellectual whose patience is wearing thin.
- The title of Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 award-winning play A Raisin in the Sun is of course taken from this poem. The play, which was the first by a black woman to appear on Broadway, dramatizes almost every concern of African Americans in the 1950s.
- Aldron Morris’s 1984 study The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement: Black Communities Organizing for a Change is one of the most comprehensive and thoroughly documented works about the grassroots organizations that brought black citizens together to defeat institutionalized segregation.
- The Shaping of Black America by Lerone Bennett, Jr., first published in 1975 and revised in 1991, has proven to be of lasting value as a quick yet insightful overview.
stances black individuals might experience in a society that continues to struggle with putting into practice its egalitarian ideals.
The next, longest section of “Harlem” urges us to answer “yes” to the four questions asked. Here, the poet guides us, through his use of images and similes, to a deeper acknowledgment of African Americans’ disillusionment with the American dreams of seizing opportunity, working hard, and enjoying success. A well-constructed image creates a mental picture in our imaginations and appeals to one or more of our physical senses. Often, its function is to carry or reinforce an important idea in a poem. In the first question, for example, Hughes uses the image of a dried raisin to convey the idea of shriveling and devaluation. The raisin was once a plump, moisture-laden fruit full with the promise of flavor and enjoyment. However, when the fruit, like the dream of equality, remains unharvested, it metamorphoses into something shrunken and less appealing. Interestingly, this image became the title of an award-winning play, A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry, which dramatizes the deferred dream of a black family’s efforts to integrate a white urban neighborhood. Also helping to carry the idea in this question is a simile, or a comparison of unlike things using words such as “like” or “as” (or “than” or “seems”). The simile here compares “it,” the deferred dream of equality, with the disfigured grape drying in the harsh rays of a paralyzing sun. In the next question, the image of a sore that will not heal reminds readers that the sting of discrimination and the pain of repeatedly having the dream dashed continues to drain one of the energy needed to keep hope alive. Like the perpetual sore, the stench of inedible, diseased meat speaks to the status of a dream gone bad. The “meal” Hughes serves concludes with candy, a course that potentially might have sweetened a satisfying experience, but instead the candy, like the meat, is spoiled and indigestible. It too has lost its original character and now, it would seem, is served up as ironic counterpoint to the expectations we hold for after-dinner confectionery and, symbolically, for the bitter taste of thwarted opportunity.
The figurative language and questions of this section prepare the reader for the declarative statement that makes up the poem’s next section. Images are piled into “a heavy load,” and the weight of keeping one’s eyes on the prize of genuine emancipation after repeated defeats causes the dream to sag and puts the prize seemingly out of reach. But before taking up the challenge of the final question, additional investigation into how Hughes creates such a heavy mood may prove helpful in our efforts both to recognize additional structural elements in the poem and to begin providing some cultural context for its construction. Hughes’s biographer, Arnold Rampersad, wrote in volume one of The Life of Langston Hughes, that blues music deeply influenced the poet throughout his literary career because it “alerted him to a power and privacy of language residing in the despised race to which he belonged.” Blues elements apparent in “Harlem” include the everyday language of common people and repetition, perhaps the most recognizeable feature of blues compositions. Indeed, one question after another and repetition of the phrase “Does it,” the word “like,” and “d” and “s” sounds throughout the poem tie it to this blues convention. Hughes’s stated intention of writing in order “to explain and illuminate the Negro condition in America” also connects with a thematic dimension of blues songs—the need to articulate the sometimes dreary realities of spoiled hopes and sagging spirits. The need to name and rename the traits associated with perennial disasppointment using the language of his people, as Hughes does in his creation of these powerful images, reflects the poet’s deep pride in his folk heritage and his commitment to social change.
The poem’s final line contrasts mightily with the tone of earlier questions. It is designed both to shock and enlighten readers as to the explosive spirit and drive fueling an American dream and a determined people. A raisin, a festering sore, rotten meat, and spoiled candy now become incendiary devices in the service of this dream that will not die. Yet for those familiar with blues tradition and the perservering spirit of a resisting people, Hughes’s explosive conclusion .may come as no surprise at all. As novelist and critic Ralph Ellison observed: the blues “at once express both the agony of life and the possibility of conquering it through sheer toughness of spirit.” The fact that this final question is underlined suggests that the poet is drawing our attention to “possibility” and “toughness” as qualities born from the need to survive under an oppressive social, political, judicial, and economic order and the decay-ridden conditions it brings. It also underscores, emphatically, that the repressed, but still throbbing, dream of equal treatment will indeed be realized, but in unpredictable and potentially furious forms.
Historically, “Harlem” can be looked upon as a literary harbinger of the Civil Rights and Black Nationalist movements that took place during the two decades after its publication. Additionally, when we compare “Harlem” with earlier, frequently anthologized Hughes poems, such as “Dream Variations” (1924) and “I, Too” (1925), we note a shift from the confident, optimistic tones of the earlier verse to the defiant warning that may be construed from the final line of “Harlem.” Literature, as many scholars suggest, is a good way to read history, and if we use these earlier and later Hughes poems as a way of assessing race relations during this quarter century, then we come to the inescapable conclusion that few gains have been achieved during this period. As we know from our study of history, social movements are often characterized by explosive, unpredictable events fueled by long years of disappointment and frustration. Indeed, as this dream continues—in the eyes of many Americans—to be deferred, we might link the final line of “Harlem” with reactions to assassinations, controversial court decisions, and to the institutional kinds of discrimination that persist in our society. And when we recall W. C. Handy’s reference to Hughes’s wherewithal to be brief, we note in this eleven-line poem the poet’s ability to skillfully blend history and art with the politics of resistance.
Source: Harry Phillips, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1997.
This essay discusses the uses of theme and language of Hughes poem “A Dream Deferred,” as well as the imagery and connotation of the words he chooses.
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“In short, a dream deferred can be a terrifying thing. Its greatest threat is its unpredictability, and for this reason the question format is especially fitting. Questions demand the reader’s participation, corner and sweep him headlong to the final, inescapable conclusion.”
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Source: Jemie, Onwuchekwa, Langston Hughes: An Introduction to the Poetry, Columbia University Press, 1976 pp. 63-5, 78-80.
Farrell, Walter C. and Patricia A. Johnson, “Poetic Interpretations of Urban Black Folk Culture: Langston Hughes and the ‘Bebop’ Era,” in MELUS, 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, 234 p.
Rampersad, Arnold, The Life of Langston Hughes, Volume I, 1902-1941: I, Too, Sing America, Oxford University Press, 1986.
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.”
“In the history of New York,” begins James Weldon Johnson’s authoritative 1930s history Black Manhattan, “the significance of the name Harlem has changed from Dutch to Irish to Jewish to Negro” (p. 3). Though Johnson’s historical vantage was the dawn of the twentieth century, his observation is an ideal start for locating a fluid, rather than fixed, meaning for Harlem. His words pinpoint for his contemporaries, as well as later generations, three aspects of Harlem—its meaning, its transitions, and its multiethnicity—suggesting that it be infinitely defined in a shifting matrix of politics, economy, and culture.
Nieuw Harlem, as it was named by early Dutch settlers, was a farming community in the mid-1600s. Through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Harlem belonged to the descendants of Dutch, French, and English settlers who oversaw its transition from an isolated, poor, and rural village to an upper- and upper-middle-class residential suburb. By the 1840s and 1850s, as the land’s productivity declined, many estate owners sold off or abandoned their properties. Irish immigrants arrived in Harlem as squatters, establishing shantytowns as well as a territorial claim to street and neighborhood boundaries.
With the elevated train pushing farther north between 1878 and 1881, fashionable brownstones and exclusive apartments were built to house a genteel class. By the 1890s Harlem’s brownstone aristocracy lived alongside Irish and Italian immigrants who populated low-lying spaces, marshland, and peripheral areas filled with tenement housing. German immigrants, including German Jews, joined the wealthy native American and European immigrant population. Economic success in the late 1890s also pulled upwardly mobile Eastern European Jews out of the Lower East Side as they, too, became Harlemites. Harlem was even home to a “little Russia.”
In spite of its well-known reputation as the cultural capital of black America, Harlem had few black residents until a wave of white flight produced a remarkable transition at the beginning of the twentieth century. The “great subway proposition” to extend a streetcar line to Manhattan’s upper reaches spurred wild real-estate speculation in Harlem. A bust came in 1905, however, as speculators faced an uncertain completion date for the subway. To save themselves from financial ruin, landlords were willing to rent properties to blacks. As middlemen, black real estate agents such as Philip A. Payton Jr., founder of the Afro American Realty Company, John E. Nail, and Henry C. Parker steered clients to Harlem. Whites at first resisted, though in the end, established (white) tenants and white realtors were unsuccessful against what they called a “negro invasion.” As Jervis Anderson, a cultural historian of the Harlem Renaissance era, noted: “As the community became predominantly black, the very word ‘Harlem’ seemed to lose its old meaning” (1981, p. 60).
From about 1905, then, the formation of black Harlem was located at the spatial intersection of race relations and the demographic transformation of urbanizing America. The community, which covers 3,829 acres, is surrounded on all sides by the East, Harlem, and Hudson Rivers; its official boundaries run south to north from 96th Street to 178th Street in upper Manhattan. From the start of the twentieth century, however, Harlem has existed beyond geography.
From a period that roughly spans 1919 to 1929, the cultural movement defining the neighborhood’s heyday took place: the Harlem Renaissance. Black artists and intellectuals participated jointly in the creation of a new urban collective identity. As a center of urban black America, it was home to churches, hospitals, and other important social institutions that served a segregated community in Jim Crow America. The black “city within a city” exerted a magnetic pull as Harlem loomed large as a “symbol of liberty” and a “promised land.” As “queen of the blackbelts,” Harlem was a mecca for black activists, intellectuals, painters, and musicians. Its prominent writers included Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Nella Larsen, and Zora Neale Hurston. Harlem was a stage, too, for important political spokespersons such as W. E. B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey, who used Harlem as a platform from which to challenge racist America.
Those were the years, wrote Langston Hughes, when “Harlem was in vogue” (Hughes 1986, p. 227). For white downtowners a variety of Harlem’s clubs offered a glimpse and a thrill beyond the color line. Establishments such as Connie’s Inn, the Nest, Small’s Paradise, the Capitol, the Cotton Club, the Green Cat, the Sugar Cane Club, Happy Rhones, the Hoofers Club, and the Little Savoy staged music and dance numbers and, skirting the ban of prohibition, offered booze to white “slummers” and curiosity seekers. Ironically, some of the clubs had a Jim Crow policy that allowed black performers but excluded blacks as customers.
No consensus holds about the precise end of the Harlem Renaissance. The 1929 American stock market crash and the onset of the Great Depression, coupled with the end of Prohibition in 1933, loosely mark a transition to post-Renaissance Harlem. By the time of the 1935 Harlem Riot the luster was off. In a 1948 essay titled “Harlem Is Nowhere,” Ralph Ellison equated Harlem with madness, and argued that for “over four hundred thousand Americans … overcrowded and exploited politically and economically, Harlem is the scene and symbol of the Negro’s perpetual alienation in the land of his birth” (p. 296). From the 1930s to the 1960s, Harlem’s declining social conditions gave the neighborhood a sensationalist and decidedly negative reputation.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s urban renewal turned up on Harlem’s doorstep promising a turnaround. Within the community these slum clearance policies were derisively tagged “Negro removal.” This time Harlem’s transition became a struggle over whether redevelopment and reinvestment could coexist alongside preservation of its black cultural heritage. When 1980s noises of gentrification sounded through postindustrial urban America, they could be heard knocking at Harlem’s door. With the establishment of the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone in the mid-1990s, an era of public and private investment was initiated in Harlem to offset years of decline and disinvestment. By 2000 Starbucks had arrived in Harlem, touching off complicated questions about who belongs in Harlem and to whom Harlem belongs. As far back as 1930, James Weldon Johnson had presciently asked: “Will the Negroes of Harlem be able to hold it?” (p. 158). At the dawn of the twenty-first century, gentrification offers a window into the past, present, and unknown future definition(s) of Harlem.
Anderson, Jervis. 1981. This Was Harlem: A Cultural Portrait, 1900–1950. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Ellison, Ralph.  1995. Harlem Is Nowhere. In Shadow and Act. New York: Vintage.
Hughes, Langston.  1986. The Big Sea: An Autobiography. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press.
Johnson, James Weldon. 1930. Black Manhattan. New York: Da Capo Press.
Osofsky, Gilbert. 1971. Harlem: The Making of a Ghetto. 2nd ed. New York: Harper Torchbooks.
Taylor, Monique. 2002. Harlem: Between Heaven and Hell. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Monique M. Taylor
HARLEM. The New York City neighborhood—bounded by the Harlem River to the northeast and Washington Heights to the north, and by 110th Street to the south and Morningside Heights to the southwest—that eventually became the biggest and one of the most important black communities in the United States. Harlem began as a farming village in Dutch New Amsterdam. It remained an agricultural community until after the Civil War, when rapid population growth pushed New Yorkers uptown. By 1880, elevated trains ran as far north as 129th Street, and the neighborhood attracted tens of thousands of upper-class whites, with poorer Italians and Jews settling to the east and south.
Real estate speculators turned quick profits in booming Harlem, but in 1905, the market collapsed and blacks flooded into the overdeveloped neighborhood. Black New Yorkers desperately needed a place to go at the beginning of the twentieth century. The black population was growing even faster than the rest of the city, and increasing racial violence made most neighborhoods unsafe. During the 1920s, roughly 120,000 blacks, most new arrivals from the Caribbean and the South, migrated to Harlem, and an equal number of whites moved out. At the same time, Puerto Rican immigrants established "El Barrio" in East Harlem, known today as Spanish Harlem.
At first, Harlem represented great promise for blacks. Unlike most northern ghettos, it featured beautiful new buildings on wide streets. In the 1920s, the Harlem Renaissance brought together a talented group of artists, writers, and musicians that included Aaron Douglas, Ro-mare Bearden, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, and Duke Ellington. Harlem also established itself at the center of black political culture in the United States. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the National Urban League, as well as Marcus Garvey's nationalist Universal Negro Improvement Association (see Black Nationalism) and the labor leader A. Philip Randolph's Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters maintained headquarters there. Later, Malcolm X worked primarily out of Harlem, and the community elected two of the most prominent African Americans in congressional history, Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (1944–1970) and Charles Rangel (1970–).
By the eve of the Great Depression, the huge influx of people had overwhelmed both the housing market and the job market; the latter made even tighter by racist hiring practices. Gradually, Harlem became a slum. The depression hit hard, and unemployment approached 50 percent. Despite a number of ill-conceived urban renewal efforts, Harlem has struggled with unemployment, poverty, health crises, and crime since World War II. The sweeping economic prosperity of the 1990s renewed interest in Harlem and sections of the neighborhood were rebuilt, but its core remains very poor.
Hamilton, Charles V. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.: The Political Biography of an American Dilemma. New York: Atheneum, 1991.
Markowitz, Gerald E., and David Rosner. Children, Race, and Power: Kenneth and Mamie Clark's Northside Center. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1996.
Osofsky, Gilbert. Harlem: The Making of a Ghetto: Negro New York, 1890–1930. New York: Harper and Row, 1968.
Harlem Renaissance a movement in US literature in the 1920s which centred on Harlem and was an early manifestation of black consciousness in the US.