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Langston Hughes' "Harlem"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes

Introduction and Text of "Harlem"

The title of Langston Hughes’ "Harlem" may be considered somewhat ironic. The Harlem Renaissance was a colorful, vibrant period of flourishing in the literary, musical, visual, and other forms of art. Several civil rights activists, including the excellent poet/activist James Weldon Johnson, were active contributors to this thriving movement.

The irony, however, rests in that fact that many dreams, especially of black American artists, were being realized as never before; yet, the poem engages in speculation about the events that may transpire if dreams are postponed, remaining unrealized.

Still, on the other hand, systemic racism in America was not quashed until enactment of the Civil Right Act of 1964. Thus, Hughes’ speaker was quite timely in speculation that much of the black population were still being subjected to unfavorable conditions, including having to postpone certain dreams of equality of opportunity.

Because this poem’s speaker makes no mention of anything referring to race or ethnicity, the poem’s "dream" could be any desired goal held by any member of any race or ethnic group.

The message of this poem can be applied to any "dream" or "goal" that would have to be postponed, especially if postponed by coercion. The poem’s universal message is what makes it a great poem.

Hughes’ poem, "Harlem," appears in his 1951 collection, Montage of a Dream Deferred. The theme of this poem explores the mental and emotional states that the human mind might undergo if forced to postpose or abandon one’s heartfelt dreams and life goals. The poem primarily employs similes but concludes with one explosive metaphor to convey its impact.

The speaker opens the piece questioning what happens when a dream has to be postponed. He goes on to ask four more questions, then offers a suggestion, and concludes with a startling, explosive question.

The questions in which the similes appear are all rhetorical questions, that is, they all answer themselves. No one doubts that the answer to each question is yes. They are all in fact "yes or no" questions, requiring no elaboration.

The speaker's stance on the issue is abundantly clear: he believes that a postponed dream can cause all sorts of havoc, even death!

The similes "like a raisin in the sun," "like a sore," "like rotten meat," "like a syrupy sweet," set the questioning pattern. Then the metaphor bursts forth with, "or does it explode?"—the most volatile question of all—therefore it receives added italic emphasis.

No one wants to postpone a dream, that is, a goal, regardless of whether it is to buy a new phone or start that new career. But what happens to that dream if it does have to be put off for any reason? Maybe it just languishes in the back of the mind or maybe it causes the individual to behave in a destructive manner.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

Harlem

What happens to a dream deferred?

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

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Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

Langston Hughes reading "Harlem"

Commentary

Hughes' poem features perfect rimes in "sun-run," "meat-sweet," "load-explode." The poem employs images: "raisin in the sun," "fester like a sore," "stink like rotten meat." Even the metaphor that contains no noun suggests the subliminal vision of an exploding bomb which includes all the five senses for which the imagery is employed.

First Movement: What Happens?

What happens to a dream deferred?

Most well-adjusted human beings have dreams and goals that they strive to achieve.This poem full of questions begins with a question seeking to know what a postponed dream may cause.

Although it surely must be assumed that the "dream" referred to in this poem is one vital to human nature and dignity, such as the desire for individual freedom, personal security, and individual achievement, in reality, it does not matter what the dream is, because each person reacts differently to circumstances.

Some human minds and hearts are more patient than others. What may set of a volatile reaction from one person may be well tolerated by another.

Still, dreams and goals are so important to the life of the dreamer that they occupy the dreamer's attention in the consciousness much of the time during the day and possibly even in sleep.

It is, therefore, little wonder that if the dreamer hits a roadblock that stalls his continuing on the path to fulfillment of his goal, he may become disturbed.

Second Movement: Drying Up

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?

If a dream is left to "dry up like a raisin in the sun," it will become worthless. A raisin is a delicious food, sweet and nutritious, but put it out in the sun and let become a hard, inedible dot, and it will no longer offer its useful nutrition and yummy flavor.

The life's goal of a human being performs a vital role in making that person a successful, contributing member of the human race.

But if that person is told over and over agin that he must wait for society to change its attitudes and laws before he can start a business, or become a doctor, lawyer, teacher, or artist, that individual may simply wither away or dry up, especially mentally and emotionally.

The speaker wants to bring to consciousness the notion that delaying the dreams of individuals will undoubtedly become a stultifying act. Talent must be nurtured not postponed.

Desire to grow must be nurtured not kept in the shade of indifference. The drying up of talent is a waste of human capital; thus comes the adage, "a mind is a terrible thing to waste."

Third Movement: Festering

Or fester like a sore—
And then run?

The speaker then considers another problem that might pop up from a delayed dream; instead of drying up, maybe it will run like a sore that has festered and become all pus infused. We all want our sores to dry up; we do not want them to fester and continue to run.

Restless dissatisfaction might occur if a dream festers and runs. The innocent dreamer might transform into a criminal, perpetrating criminal offenses against whom or what he believes to be standing in the way of his dreams.

Fourth Movement: Stinking

Does it stink like rotten meat?

Rotten meat gives off a definite, unpleasant odor. A dream allowed to lie untended in the mind might decay and give off the stench of unfulfilled desires. The unpleasant odor comes from the dead dream, just as the stink spreads from rotten animal flesh.

The "rotten meat" simile is particularly powerful. The stench of decayed flesh remains nearly unbearable to the human nostrils. The speaker has grown particularly suspicious that deferred dreams can ever produce anything resembling a pleasant outcome.

Fifth Movement: Crusting Over

Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?

Most of us have no doubt noticed the crusty accumulation that forms on our syrup or honey bottles that have been left unused for quite some time. Lack of use has caused that unpleasant crust.

The contents of the bottle will become unusable if left long enough, and so it becomes with dreams. Elderly folks often complain that they failed to pursue certain dreams when they were young, and now those dreams have become a bitter memory, a crusty accumulation at the top their bottle of life.

The crusted over dreams may present themselves as emotions of hatred, doubt, anger, and despair.

Sixth Movement: A Suggestion of Sagging

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

The next stanza does not ask a question; it makes the suggestion that perhaps this postponed dream just sags under the "heavy load" of deferral. The dreamer has become lethargic, clumsy, as he moves under the burden of the heavy load.

The dream still weighs on the mind of the dreamer who continues to wonder what he might have accomplished. Thus, from carrying the burden of doubt, the dreamer may become depressed even lacking the ability to be at all productive.

Seventh Movement: The Explosion

Or does it explode?

All of the possibilities heretofore mentioned in the similes, and the sagging heavy load suggestion, of suffering a dream deferred are deficient, shoddy, even possibly life-threatening. While negative in their description, all of the earlier questions imply a certain level of tolerance.

The deferral of those dreams referred to in the similes have affected mostly the dreamer. But the question metaphorically expressed in the final line becomes literally and definitely explosively life-threatening, not only to the dreamer but to his surroundings.

The speaker asks, "does it explode?" Bombs explode—as well as anything in a container in which pressure has built up to the point that the container is no longer capable of expanding to accommodate that pressure.

If the dreamer no longer harbors a shred of hope for his dreams, he may become such a container under pressure or a human bomb.

The forlorn dreamer filled with unsustainable grief, despair, and hopelessness may commit dangerous, life-threatening acts against himself and/or against the society that he blames for his unrealized life goals and dreams.

Painting of Langston Hughes

Painting of Langston Hughes

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2015 Linda Sue Grimes

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