The poem ‘Harlem’ was written in 1951 by Langston Hughes as part of a ‘Montage of A Dream Deferred’ a poem cycle about life the Harlem area of New York, which had one of the largest populations of African Americans in the country. The Harlem Renaissance was a creative movement during one of the most prosperous periods for African Americans. Music, Art, Poetry and Philosophy blossomed in this period prior the Civil Rights Movement. Langston Hughes was questioning and challenging the individuals and community through poetry, he said ‘The negro was in vogue’. He felt that the American Dream was denied to most African Americans, which created a kind of duality between the communities and a tension of holding fast to an African American identity whist engaging with the larger American project. People could vote but segregation was still an everyday reality in parts of the country.This is the mountain standing in front of any true negro left in America – this urge within the race towards whiteness, the desire to pour racial individuality into the mold of American standardisation and to be as little negro and as much American as possible’ (Hughes, The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain, 2002)Hughes uses opposites throughout the poem, words like ‘fester’(Hughes, 1951, Line 4) ‘sweet’ (Line 8), ‘sugar’(Line 7) and ‘stink’ (Line 6) perhaps to show the two sides and options, but also emphasising the duality of the African American people within the American Dream and the rise of consumerism after the Second World War. This ‘dream’ (Line 1) may have included African Americans but only those who aspired to white culture. The need to maintain their own identity but also prosper in America created a tension for the individual and community.The poem follows a circular form beginning with the question ‘what happens to a dream deferred?’(Line 1) and ending with the question ‘Or does it explode?’(Line 11) . These questions can be personal to the individual or directed to the whole of Harlem. The layout resembles a blues call and response with question and answers and invites the reader to consider what happens when we defer our dreams. The poem is eleven lines long with an abcdbefeghh rhyme scheme. The tension and opportunity for the African American community to realise their own dream and identity was a question at the time and is addressed here through metaphor and figurative language The poem is reminiscent of a nursery rhyme throughout with playful one syllable rhymes like ‘sun’ (Line 3) and ‘run’(Line 5), ‘sweet’(Line 8) and ‘meat’(Line 6), this contrasts nicely with the weighty theme of a struggling community under pressure. The jarring layout could resemble jazz too, with the lines going off seemingly at random but in the end coming back in a circular form and addressing the first question, which is the essence of the poem.Langston Hughes said, ‘I am not interested in doing tricks with rhymes, I am interested in recreating the human soul, if I can’ (Royster, 1974)Hughes asks the questions then lists possibilities, an offer, or challenge to the reader. He tries out one metaphor after another to get closer to the answer or to encourage contemplation within the reader of what happens when we cast aside our dreams. Of seven sentences, six are questions. The duality in addressing the individual creates a personal feel and the last line is a question too which suggests there is no definitive answer or conclusion. Hughes is not telling anyone what to do here, he is merely inviting a response within the hearts of folks in Harlem and beyond. The theme is universal, individual and societal so can touch readers all over the world.Verbs throughout the poem tend to be negative ‘dry’ (Line 2), ‘fester’(Line 4), ‘stink’(Line 6), ‘crust’(Line 7) and ‘sag’(Line 9) which may illustrate Hughes feelings about deferring dreams. The rhythm is always changing and can be quite tense and jarring to read, it feels difficult and uneasy yet simple to understand. The simple rhymes keep the reader bouncing along lightly while the sentence structures feel slightly broken or incomplete. There are five similes: ‘like a raisin in the sun’(Line 3), ‘like a sore’(Line 4), ‘like rotten meat’(Line 6), ‘like a syrupy sweet’(Line 8) and ‘like a heavy load’(Line 10 ). The sentences are fragmented, like jazz but perhaps also like the African American community, incomplete with dreams yet to be realised. The title ‘Harlem’ suggests he is addressing the whole community and placing the poem in a specific geographical area that is experiencing the struggle, and directly with the people who may identify with the feelings and themes. Hughes is also informing a wider audience of the situation in the Harlem area.‘What happens to a dream deferred?’ (Line 1) The first sentence is short, easy and smooth. Dreams are hopes and aspirations within individuals and communities. It is optimistic that Hughes uses the word ‘deferred’ meaning postponed until later or put off, rather than destroyed or forbidden or unwanted. After the first line the poem shifts to a series of abrupt, jarring sentences that feel slightly harsh and clunky. ‘Does it dry up/like a raisin in the sun’? (Lines 2 & 3) Drying up feels negative and redundant, the idea of a grape which was once juicy and sweet, ripe and nourishing, tasty and beautifully shaped is now shrivelled up. The once healthy grape, full of promise, opportunity and bursting with excitement or spirit has gone. The drying in the sun suggests the passing of time, with the daily sun cycle and questions the putting off dreams until later and what can happen to the once life-giving fruit. The raisin too can never go back to be a grape, it is dried and out of shape, ugly and not smooth as before. It is unattractive now. The Sun can refer to the life-giving aspect too but could be a warning. Although the sun can help grow and give life to a grape, over time it can also dry it out and take the sweet juice and vitality, as life can. The use of Sun is interesting too as it refers to time and life and can be biblical or religious, it is the giver if life itself. The wine from grapes can also be biblical. The pattern here is like Pslams from the Old Testament too, warning that if the dream is put off then time itself will remove the energy required to realise or fulfil the dream. ‘Does it dry’ is a nice alliteration which offers a lovely rhythm and musicality to the line, however, there is also a deflation with depressing metaphors and negative connotations.‘Or fester like a sore – /And then run?’ (Lines 4 & 5) This is a very graphic image and the reader can almost smell the sore. When a wound does not heal it runs blood and starts to spread, a horrible thought. The nastiness in the sore bubbles up and spreads out further. It is an ugly image and frightening that a dream deferred can end up infecting a community or person, perhaps with bitterness and resentment. It starts off as a simple wound but over time it gets worse. When a dream is not fulfilled it becomes like a wound that cannot heal, it festers. The word ‘run’ could also be a metaphor for cowardice, running from battle or responsibility towards a safe and easy existence, there is perhaps a warning here that inside there will be wound that will continue to cause ill feeling.‘Does it stink like rotten meat? (Line 6) Another question that brings the reader’s attention and holds them to account, a simile around another foodstuff. Meat can be life-giving and nutritious, edifying, but once it is abandoned it goes bad and is no longer usable, it cannot return its once healthy state and have something to offer, the chance has passed and gone. The word ‘stink’ is powerful as it is not just used to describe a bad smell in the U.S. but also a very bad situation (it stinks!). Hughes is illustrating that taking no action and allowing dreams and aspirations to pass will end in a decaying, rotten situation for people both inside and out.‘Or crust and sugar over- /like a syrupy sweet?’ (Lines 7 & 8) A nice little bounce on the ‘s’s of ‘syrupy sweet’ (Line 8) gives a light feel to a message of depth, the mention of sugar puts the reader in mind of nursery rhymes again and feels easy to digest. The ‘crust’ (Line 7) could be a metaphor for the front or face people put on when they are hurt inside, a sickly-sweet veneer to the world when inside the heart or soul is festering, rotten or dry. The ‘crust’ (Line 7) might also represent a hard shell, the survival tactic for people who are in trouble, a mask. It is not the real sweet, it is something that has happened to the once tasty, lovely sweet after being left for too long. The crust also could be the mask that hides the subservient face of the African American who did not fulfil their own dream or vision. The metaphor of the syrupy sweet is a good description of honey and how it behaves when left out, it forms a crust, like a hardened, embittered soul. The three foodstuffs of raisin or grape, meat and honey feel archetypal, almost like biblical foods. Grapes could signify wine and meat and honey are like the land of milk and honey, they are very basic foodstuffs, a fundamental and ancient necessity giving the poem a very primal quality.The lines beginning with ‘does it’ (Line 2 & 6) and ‘or’ (Lines 4 & 7) build tension throughout the poem and create a type of structure within the disjointed style. These words are often repeated in Old Testament Psalms and strengthen the form. It gives the poem a very weighty religious or spiritual feel. So much of this poem is about the deeper spirit of the individual and the community.The space to the next stanza ‘maybe it just sags/like a heavy load’ (Lines 9 & 10) creates a sagging effect, a burdensome feeling and offers imagery of a person’s posture looking sad, down and burdened. We say, ‘straight up and proud’ and ‘stand tall’ which are opposites of this sagging stance. The position of this stanza on the page also allows the reader to pause and reflect on the questions. Another simile ‘like a heavy load’ (Line 10) tells the reader perhaps this isn’t a load the reader will carry physically but emotionally, yet it too will be very difficult and burdensome. So heavy it causes a person to sag, an internal load of the deferred dream which deflates, depresses and aggravates the human spirit.The final line ‘Or does it explode?’ (Line 11) is a question to the people of Harlem. Which is it going to be? The tension built up throughout the poem ends with a provocative connotation. Each syllable is stressed, and the line feels compact and pressured, written in italics to set it apart from every other line. There is an offer for the reader here to discuss and explore the question being asked. The response is left with the reader now, the responsibility has been passed and it is the reader who must ask the question within themselves. Which of these outcomes would be preferable for a dream deferred? The rhyme with ‘load’(Line 10) and ‘explode’ (Line 11) tie the two stanzas together but also illustrates that the load or burden is very much on the inside and taking action, expressing the upset and tension or letting go of the frustration will put the load to the outside, or the ‘ex’. There are bomb and uprising metaphors here and aggravation, it feels like a challenge to the reader and a laying out of the choices. Also, universally the feelings of bitterness and burden of unrealised dreams can cause a person to show rage and anger in unhealthy ways or ‘explode’ at people for no obvious reason, so the metaphor can work on many levels.‘Harlem’ feels initially like a very short, simple poem that describes a situation in a geographic area. The use of simple rhymes and easy figurative language engages the reader, it is an enjoyable poem on the surface. The real beauty is how Hughes poses questions to the community and reader, a universal, fundamental question and exposes the consequences of deferring our dreams. He explores the futility of dreams unrealised with negative language and gruesome metaphors. Pushing the idea that the residents of Harlem will have an unhappy future unless they fulfil their dreams. The final line feels quite militant when placed in the context of the community’s situation. ‘Harlem’ preceded the Civil Rights Movement and the inner-city riots of the 1960s so was prophetic of what was to eventually unfold.
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