Harlem by Langston Hughes

Harlem by Langston Hughes

Harlem by Langston Hughes


by Langston Hughes

Harlem by Langston Hughes


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?


Maybe it just sags

like a heavy load.


Or does it explode?

About the Poet

harlem poem

Langston Hughes was a central figure in the Harlem Renaissance, the flowering of black intellectual, literary, and artistic life that took place in the 1920s in a number of American cities, particularly Harlem.

A major poet, Hughes also wrote novels, short stories, essays, and plays. He sought to honestly portray the joys and hardships of working-class black lives, avoiding both sentimental idealization and negative stereotypes.

As he wrote in his essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” “We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too.”

Hughes died on May 22, 1967, as a result of prostate cancer complications.


Background of the Poem

Langston Hughes wrote “Harlem” in 1951 as part of Montage of a Dream Deferred, a book-length sequence. Montage, which Hughes intended to be read as a single long poem, is inspired by blues and jazz music and explores the lives and consciousness of the black community in Harlem, as well as the ongoing experience of racial injustice within this community.

“Harlem” considers the harm done when the dream of racial equality is continually postponed. The poem suggests that society will eventually have to reckon with this dream as the dreamers claim what is rightfully theirs.

The poem “A Dream Deferred,” is also known as “Harlem.” Other poems by the same author are also referred to as “Harlem.” This “Harlem” poem is about the negative consequences that can occur when a person’s dream or wish that could contribute to their happiness does not come true.

The poem compares various negative consequences of a dream being postponed or even abandoned using the poetic techniques of simile and metaphor.


Summary of the Poem

The speaker wonders what happens to a community’s vision or hopes when it is continually postponed or delayed.

Will that dream wither and shrivel like fruit left out in the sun, asks the speaker? Or will it rot and leak pus like a painful, infected wound? Will it smell revolting, like rotten meat? Or will it turn into a gooey candy that becomes crusty and crystallized?

The speaker suggests a fifth possibility: that the unfulfilled dream will simply weigh down the dreamers because they will have to bear it indefinitely.

Finally, the speaker suggests a final option: perhaps the dream will burst forth with energy and potency, demanding to be recognized and accounted for.


Analysis of the Poem

“Harlem,” like many other poems, is very short (fifty-one words). However, there is a lot to think about in it. Every word of a poem, like every word of a short story, should be meaningful, and every word of “Harlem” is meaningful.

African-Americans faced severe discrimination and reduced or eliminated opportunities at the time this poem was written, as well as earlier in our country’s history.

Some forms were subtle, while others were not. Unfortunately, as a result of this racism, many African-Americans have had their dreams derailed by having their goals and hopes postponed or completely denied.

This small and powerful poem by Langston Hughes captures the reality of life for many African-Americans.


The Theme of the Poem

“Harlem” contains several themes. One example is racism. The poem exemplifies the oppressive racism that afflicted African-Americans at the time. These negative effects include being burdened by broken dreams as well as violence. Injustice is another recurring theme. This is related to racism because racism is a form of injustice.

Hopelessness is the third theme. The poem captures the hopelessness that comes with being unable to succeed and having one’s dreams postponed or abandoned. Imagining a plump and juicy grape drying up “like a raisin in the sun” reflects that hopelessness and despair, as does having the postponed dream sagging “like a heavy load.”


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