In “Harlem,” Langston Hughes asks one of American poetry’s most famous questions: what happens to a dream deferred? This question echoes throughout American culture, from Broadway to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches. It would not be an exaggeration to say that every time the “American dream” is invoked, Hughes’s question is there, asking what that dream is, what conditions make it possible, and why for so many it seems little more than a trap, or an illusion, or a promise that no longer meaningfully obtains. Today, Americans can hear the question in the political language of the Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and the DREAM Act. More basically, it resounds in the stories of people who, by accident of birth or fate, find themselves thrust onto a precarious margin. For many who struggle daily toward a more livable life, the question persists.
The composition and reception of “Harlem” suggest it is no accident that dreaming and deferral are so entwined in the civic discourse of the contemporary American moment. In fact, though readers now tend to consider “Harlem” as an isolated, standalone anthology piece, Hughes initially conceived it as one part of a longer, book-length sequence of poems exploring black life in Harlem. Hughes eventually titled this book Montage of a Dream Deferred (1951). In addition to “Harlem,” Montage contains several of Hughes’s most well-known poems, including “Ballad of the Landlord” and “Theme for English B.” But the sum is greater than the parts. In all, Montage is made up of more than 90 poems across six sections that continually return to, riff on, and worry the question of what happens to a dream deferred. “Harlem” is the first of six poems in the final section, “Lenox Avenue Mural,” after the main north-south thoroughfare that runs through upper Manhattan. By reading “Harlem” back into Montage of a Dream Deferred, we can appreciate the full measure and range of its possible meanings.
In his prefatory note to Montage, Hughes prepares readers for the book’s volatile shifts in theme and style:
In terms of current Afro-American popular music and the sources from which it has progressed—jazz, ragtime, swing, boogie-woogie, and be-bop—this poem on contemporary Harlem, like be-bop, is marked by conflicting changes, sudden nuances, sharp and impudent interjections, broken rhythms, and passages sometimes in the manner of the jam session, sometimes the popular song, punctuated by the riffs, runs, and disc-tortions of the music of a community in transition.
The sections of Montage chart various aspects of this “community in transition” through the intimate spaces of cafés, dives, cabarets, stoops, rooms, subway cars, and corners of Hughes’s beloved city.
Here is the entirety of “Harlem,” as it originally appeared in 1951:
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?See AlsoKashmir Online Store
If “Harlem” begins with a big question—“What happens to a dream deferred?”—the rest of the poem speculates on how best to answer that question. Hughes’s “answer” takes the form of five questions and one conjecture. These are urgent, embodied questions. Each directs attention to the material costs of neglect and provokes the senses in the process: the withering of the grape (rather than the lush, intoxicating poetry of wine); the uncared-for sore, an open wound now infected and oozing; the butchered meat fetid and putrefying; the candy, left out, abandoned, hardening into an inedible, oversweet, unshapely mass; the body bending, unfree, under a burden. Dreams here are not these overexposed things per se but are imagined to be like them and subject to the same forces—they are both visceral and vulnerable, and altogether too much. Dreams, like history, hurt. By implication, they demand care—and all the work that care entails.
After all these sensory experiences, the poem ends abruptly and dramatically in a way that demands consideration. One of the most ready-to-hand interpretations of that final line—“Or does it explode?”—is to think of the explosion as a riot, a reflection of the possibility that the oppressive conditions marginalized communities in Harlem and across Jim Crow America face might lead to open rebellion. In James Smethurst’s words, Hughes’s poem “both psychologically contextualizes the Harlem riots of 1935 and 1943 and predicts future unrest.” In the larger context of the book, however, two other meanings of explosion are in play—the rapid growth of a population and the breakdown of a misconception, as when someone or something “explodes” a cultural myth, fantasy, or deeply held assumption.
Of course, these meanings are interrelated. Several great migrations transformed northern US cities in the first half of the 20th century. The explosion that “Harlem” anticipates, then, might also be imagined in relation to the dizzying wave of languages and cultures that transformed midcentury New York City. At the end of the 1920s, one-quarter of the Harlem population was of West Indian origin. According to some accounts, by 1940, Harlem had the largest West Indian urban population outside of Kingston, Jamaica. And despite a spate of increasingly restrictive immigration laws, Harlem’s immigrant population continued to grow. Citizens migrated as well: in the 1940s, in the wake of the Great Depression and Operation Bootstrap, Puerto Ricans became the city’s second-largest minority after African Americans.
The poems that appear before and after “Harlem” also address these meanings of explosion. “Good Morning,” the poem following “Harlem,” features a Harlemite reflecting on the changes in his city:
I was born here, he said,
watched Harlem grow
until colored folks spread
from river to river
across the middle of Manhattan
out of Penn Station
dark tenth of a nation,
planes from Puerto Rico,
and holds of boats, chico,
up from Cuba Haiti Jamaica …
There is more evidence to suggest these two poems are very closely related in subject matter. In earlier drafts, Hughes gave “Good Morning” the title “Harlem,” and the poem that readers now know as “Harlem” appeared embedded within it, like this:
I’ve seen them come,
Wondering, wide-eyed, dreaming and dark.
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?
Pouring out of Penn Station
a new nation—
but the trains are late.
This draft helps readers see that all three senses of explosion—riot or rebellion, rapid population growth, and myth-busting—go hand in hand. “Harlem” is not just a poem about the American dream or the dreams of African Americans. Rather, it reimagines the city at the center of “the long history in which black global dreams have foundered on the shoals of America’s racial dilemma,” in Nikhil Pal Singh’s memorable words. The trains in “Good Morning” are not just late: when the newly arrived people disembark, they discover that “there’re bars / on each gate.”
By placing the question of what happens to a dream deferred in the “wondering, wide-eyed, dreaming” mouths of migrants and refugees, Hughes builds on the antiracist and anti-imperialist project of his earlier poetry. By describing Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Haitians, and Jamaicans as part of a new “dark tenth,” he dispels once more the enduring notion, popularized by W.E.B. Du Bois nearly half a century earlier, of an elite, highly educated, “talented tenth” of “exceptional men” that would “save” “the Negro race.” From the vantage point of 1951, “Harlem” not only puts the question of a dream deferred in a decidedly internationalist light but also demands that people recognize and hear in it the everyday, lived histories that African America and the Americas share—histories of slavery, racial capitalism, colonialism, and the “unmitigated gall of white imperialism,” as Hughes once described it. These are the forces of relation that pulse and cut through Hughes’s jagged line of questions.
If readers consider “Harlem” apart from these contexts, the poem seems to withhold these histories. But look again: what kind of “answer” is a figurative question—or five of them? One question appears not to lead to the next—there’s no knowing in advance that the poem is heading toward explosion. Hughes’s questions are not especially Socratic or part of some elaborate rational argument or explanation. Yet they’re not evasive maneuvers. To wonder whether a dream might, like everything else, be subject to decay, is to pursue a distinctive thread of inquiry. The jeopardy to which every question points is there. Though readers might not immediately perceive what connects a “sore,” a “syrupy sweet,” and a “heavy load,” the poem’s broader Caribbean context makes the deep historical connections between sugar, slavery, and labor impossible to ignore.
At the same time, Hughes always stakes his poetry’s highest charge on a surviving wonder. His poems return again and again to that basic play of power and risk entailed in asking a question or hazarding a possibility. If “Harlem” is a poem of questions, Montage is a book of them. Often the questions double as answers. As with filmic montage, in which one image often collides with another in suggestive, violent, and unpredictable ways, in Montage, questions jostle one another, becoming part a deeper interrogation of the rhythms and contradictions of black life in the United States.
“Island,” the last poem in the “Lenox Avenue Mural” section, ends with another question: “Ain’t you heard?” The final section of Montage is thus bookended with questions that insist that what happens depends not just on who is listening but also on what gets heard. What’s more, by ending his book with the question “Ain’t you heard?,” Hughes brings readers full circle, back to “Dream Boogie,” the first poem of Montage, which begins
Good morning, daddy!
Ain’t you heard
The boogie-woogie rumble
Of a dream deferred?
You’ll hear their feet
Beating out and beating out a—
It’s a happy beat?
Compare the questions Hughes poses here with the ones he tried out in earlier drafts of “Harlem”:
Has anybody heard
what happens to a dream deferred?
Does it just disappear in air
as might smoke anywhere?
Unlike “Has anybody heard,” “Ain’t you heard?” does not beseech—it demands. In contrast to anybody, Hughes’s you is more direct: it’s a gauntlet, thrown down, for readers and listeners to pick up. By insisting that readers “Listen closely” at the beginning of his book, Hughes ensures that we won’t take his question to mean “Haven’t you heard what happens to a dream deferred” or even “Can’t you hear what happens to dreams in Harlem?” Instead, urgency and need mix with disconsolation and desire. The question is more like “Why haven’t you heard?” and “Have you been listening at all?”
Hughes had a great ear: the loud, jaunty end rhymes—sun-run, meat-sweet, load-explode—propel the poem forward across lines and sentences that vary in length, rhythm, and stress. At the same time, internal echoes cut across and distort the poem’s emergent patterns: defer reverberates in fester and sugar; syrupy becomes oddly conjoined with maybe and heavy. The poem’s sounds make it possible to hear “the boogie-woogie rumble / of a dream deferred” right down to the phoneme. That first alliterative question, for example, asks readers to listen for the sound the letter d makes—from dream deferred to does and dry all the way to the load and the final “Or does it explode.” Try reading the poem out loud again, this time listening to the sibilant ess sounds as they rise and recede. All of “Harlem” seems to whisper of something else, some fugitive undercurrent, some other answer or meaning, just out of reach.
Meanwhile, the interrogative mood of the poem stays almost constant. Likewise, the basic underlying structure and parts of “Harlem” repeat (Does it … like … or), keeping readers focused on the ongoing, harmful effects of deferral. Yet within this structure, the question of likeness introduces uncertainty: the this-or-that pattern makes it seem as though there’s always an unwanted and unexpected alternative lying in wait.
Throughout Montage, the “dream” that’s deferred and the rumble of its beat are not named or explained in just one way. Instead, the meanings of a “dream deferred” unfold in “broken rhythms”: they’re plural, fragmentary, interrupted, and fugitive. In another poem in Montage, “Deferred,” the dreams that get put off are mostly those granted by upward mobility and access to the middle class. Low-wage work, debt, economic exploitation, and kids are what delay high school graduation, interfere with a happy marriage, make the ownership of luxury goods impossible, turn French lessons and playing Bach into distant wishes, and make the possibility of choosing a different means of employment hard to fathom. In Montage, these dreams quickly become punctuated by others. Throughout, Hughes insists on the underside—the more common and expansive yet less describable side—of such aspirations.
Tending to the deep connections between Hughes’s poem and his historical moment can help readers understand the longer history of the struggle for racial justice. The poem’s fame and enduring public life, for instance, owe much to the playwright Lorraine Hansberry, whose play A Raisin in the Sun debuted on Broadway in 1959 and became an overnight success. Hansberry took the title of her play from Hughes’s poem and used it as an epigraph in the playbill and in the book version of the play as well. According to W. Jason Miller, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. saw a performance of A Raisin in the Sun, read “Harlem” in the playbill, and later wrote to Hughes, “I can no longer count the number of times and places … in which I have read your poems.” Three weeks later, “Harlem” made its way into King’s Easter sermon, “Shattered Dreams,” and after that into some of his most memorable speeches. In one, King remarked, “I am personally the victim of deferred dreams.” Even King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech plays on the strains of a deeply Hughesian vision of racial justice.
Throughout his life, Hughes never stopped listening to Harlem. In One-Way Ticket, the book he published just before Montage, a different poem called “Harlem” ends like this:
So we stand here
On the edge of hell
And look out on the world
What we're gonna do
In the face of what
Neither this earlier “Harlem” nor the poems of Montage offer pat, easy answers or fantastical solutions to the intractable problems Harlemites faced in 1951. But in the final poem of Montage, Hughes imagines Harlem not as a “dusky sash across Manhattan” but as itself an island. What if by this gesture Hughes means to invite readers to imagine the city not as a symbol of isolation, dispersal, or containment but as part of a vast pan-African archipelago stretching from New York to the Caribbean? In a late essay reflecting on his early days in Harlem, Hughes recalled “West Indian Harlem. … Haitian Harlem, Cuban Harlem, little pockets of tropical dreams in alien tongues.” Hughes never stopped listening to those dreams—or to the beat underneath them. In this way, “Harlem” reminds us not only of the kinds of questions that must be asked but also that their answers didn’t have to be determined or faced alone—or dreamed of in one language.
Originally Published: September 25th, 2019
Scott Challener is a visiting assistant professor of English and American Studies at the College of William & Mary, where he works on the literature of the Americas. His poems and essays appear inGulf Coast,Lana Turner Journal, Mississippi Review, OmniVerse,The Los Angeles Review of Books,The Rumpus, and elsewhere.
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The poem "Harlem" asks a central question: "What happens to a dream deferred?" in its first line. The rest of the poem then provides possible answers to that question.What questions is the poem Harlem full of? ›
This short poem about dreams is one of the most influential poems of the 20th century. In “Harlem,” Langston Hughes asks one of American poetry's most famous questions: what happens to a dream deferred? This question echoes throughout American culture, from Broadway to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s speeches.What is Langston Hughes trying to say in his poem? ›
Hughes turned to poetry to speak out against the blatant racism and oppression surrounding the Black community, and this poem is no exception. Although short in length, it delivers a powerful message about how many African Americans felt—and still feel—in America.What is the summary of the poem Harlem by Langston Hughes? ›
Specifically, the poem concerns the Black community in Harlem, the Upper Manhattan neighborhood named in the title. The speaker is looking back to the Harlem Renaissance, a period of Black cultural flourishing that gave new life to the dream of Black advancement.What is the main theme of the poem? ›
The theme of a poem is the message an author wants to communicate through the piece. The theme differs from the main idea because the main idea describes what the text is mostly about. Supporting details in a text can help lead a reader to the main idea.What is the first question the speaker asks in the poem Harlem? ›
Hughes structured “Harlem” in two parts. The first part consists solely of the opening line, in which the speaker asks the question that drives the rest of the poem: “What happens to a dream deferred?” (line 1).What is the central idea of the poem question answer? ›
The central idea of a poem is the poem's theme or 'what it's about' if you like.What is the literal meaning of the poem Harlem? ›
Langston Hughes' poem Harlem explains what could happen to dreams that are deferred or put on hold. The poem was initially meant to focus on the dreams of Blacks during the 1950s, but is relevant to the dreams of all people.What is the poem the question about? ›
The poem asks you to analyze your life, to question whether every decision you made was for the greater good, and to learn and accept the decisions you have made in your life. One Answer to the Question would be simply to value the fact that you had the opportunity to live.What is Langston Hughes main point? ›
Through his poetry, novels, plays, essays, and children's books, he promoted equality, condemned racism and injustice, and celebrated African American culture, humor, and spirituality.
Lesson #1: He defies the status quo
According to the Poetry Foundation, Langston Hughes wanted to portray the joys and hardships of working-class black lives, avoiding both sentimental idealization and negative stereotypes.
Message is the thing that encourages poets to create poetry. The message can be found after knowing the meaning of poetry. Message or advice is captured by readers as the impression after reading the poem. How the reader to conclude message poetry is closely related to the point of view of the reader toward something.What is the overall tone of the poem Harlem? ›
The tone of “Harlem” is anticipatory and prophetic. Everything the speaker says in the poem is oriented toward what will happen in the future.What is symbolism in poem? ›
Symbolism is a literary device that uses symbols, be they words, people, marks, locations, or abstract ideas to represent something beyond the literal meaning.How do you find the message of a poem? ›
The speaker in a poem reflects on a topic by saying what he or she thinks and feels about it. You can use these reflections and other details in a poem to figure out that poem's message, or theme.What is the mood of the poem? ›
What Is Mood in Poetry? In poetry, the mood describes how word choice, subject matter, and the author's tone convey an overall feeling that characterizes the emotional landscape of a poem for readers.What is the point of view of the poem Harlem? ›
The speaker of “Harlem” is anonymous and genderless. There is no “I” in the poem, so the reader's awareness of the speaker comes through the title and the ways the questions in the poem are posed.Who is the speaker referring to in Harlem? ›
Therefore, the speaker of "Harlem" is Hughes himself, or, possibly, another African-American with similar concerns to Hughes: the effects of systemic racism on African-Americans in the United States.Who is speaking in the poem Harlem? ›
The speaker of the poem is most likely Langston Hughes himself. The poem's title, “Harlem”, fits the poet's background and involvement in the Harlem Renaissance. The setting of the poem is Harlem.What is the difference between central idea and message of the poem? ›
The main idea is what the book is mostly about. The theme is the message, lesson, or moral of a book.
Das explores powerful themes of feminism/equal rights, freedom, and marriage in 'An Introduction'. This poem is a very clear feminist statement that advocates for free choice for all women. This is in regards to every aspect of life, but the poet puts a special emphasis on marriage.What is the difference between the and central idea of the poem? ›
A theme is a universal lesson learned and the central idea is a one-sentence main idea. Central idea conveys that the text is about mainly, whereas, theme refers to the author's message, life lesson or moral learned from the story.
'Harlem (A Dream Deferred)' by Langston Hughes is a powerful poem. The poet wrote it in response to what he felt as a black man navigating a career and personal life in a white-dominated world. Langston Hughes is considered as one of the most important writers of the Harlem Renaissance.What does night funeral in Harlem symbolize? ›
The poem begins with an emphasis on the nighttime at which the funeral of a young boy is in procession. The night is symbolic of darkness and silence which is what the dead boy now has to endure. He has entered into a phase of endless sleep and no one can ever reach him.Why is the poem Harlem significant to the black community? ›
Why was the poem Harlem significant to the Black community? It represented the Black view of life in the late 1800s. It represented the postponement of Black dreams.Who is the speaker in the poem answer the question? ›
The poet is the speaker of the poem.Who is Langston Hughes in simple terms? ›
James Mercer Langston Hughes (February 1, 1901 – May 22, 1967) was an American poet, social activist, novelist, playwright, and columnist from Joplin, Missouri. One of the earliest innovators of the literary art form called jazz poetry, Hughes is best known as a leader of the Harlem Renaissance.Who was Langston Hughes short summary? ›
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.What is Langston Hughes famous quote? ›
“Hold fast to your dreams, for without them life is a broken winged bird that cannot fly.”What are the most important works of Langston Hughes? ›
Langston Hughes died in 1967. Among his most well known works are The Weary Blues, a 1926 collection of poetry; The Ways of White Folks, a 1934 collection of short stories; The Big Sea, an autobiography of his early life, published in 1940; and the 1956 A Pictorial History of the Negro in America.
In both quatrains, Hughes repeats his main message: "Hold fast to dreams." By "dreams," Hughes means bigger goals, aspirations, and hopes for a person's life rather than dreams at night.What lesson on message does the poet want to convey through this poem? ›
The poet wants to say that there should be no discrimination between people on the basis of their appearance, religion, or region.What figure of speech is used in the poem? ›
Poets use figures of speech in their poems. Several types of figures of speech exist for them to choose from. Five common ones are simile, metaphor, personification, hypberbole, and understatement. A simile compares one thing to another by using the words like or as.What is the moral conveyed? ›
A moral (from Latin morālis) is a message that is conveyed or a lesson to be learned from a story or event. The moral may be left to the hearer, reader, or viewer to determine for themselves, or may be explicitly encapsulated in a maxim. A moral is a lesson in a story or in real life.What is the main message or theme in Harlem? ›
Dreams. “Harlem” begins with a direct reference to a primary theme: dreams. Specifically, it asks “What happens to a dream deferred?” (Line 1). Using the indefinite article “a” instead of the definite article “the” widens the scope of the exploration.What type of imagery is used in the poem Harlem? ›
entitled Harlem[Dream Deffered], the following stanza presents gustatory imagery. Or crust and sugar over— like a syrupy sweet? The words Syrupy sweet, get the readers imagine the taste of sugar. Through this poem, Hughes tells the readers that if his dreams come true and perfect, then it would be as sweet as sugar.What type of poem is Harlem based on the structure of the poem? ›
Free Verse, Irregular Meter.What question does Hughes ask in Dreams Deferred or Harlem? ›
In his poem “Harlem,” Hughes asks: “What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore—and then run?” April and Moses explore whether lifelong dreams chain us or lead us to hope.Is the poem Harlem is full of questions is significant that they have no answers? ›
Answer: The unanswered questions are functional to the main themes of the poem. The dreamer is left with no answers as to the future of his dream which represents the hopes for equal rights between white and black Americans. This adds to the general sense of frustration.Where is Harlem and why is it important? ›
The Harlem section of Manhattan, which covers just three square miles, drew nearly 175,000 African Americans, giving the neighborhood the largest concentration of black people in the world. Harlem became a destination for African Americans of all backgrounds.
Harlem is known internationally as the Black Mecca of the world, but Harlem has been home to many races and ethnic groups including the Dutch, Irish, German, Italian, and Jewish. Harlem was originally settled by the Dutch in 1658, but was largely farmland and undeveloped territory for approximately 200 years.What is Hughes trying to say about dreams? ›
The meaning of the poem Dreams by Langston Hughes is simple: don't give up on your big dreams and goals, or life will be broken, motionless, and meaningless.What point is Hughes trying to make about dreams that are never realized? ›
He is trying to emphasize that you should really hold on to your dreams and chase them. You should do this no matter what because otherwise your dreams may slip away.What dream is Langston Hughes talking about in Harlem? ›
The title, “Harlem,” places the poem in this historically black and immigrant neighborhood in New York City, while the "dream" could be any dream that those in Harlem have had: a dream for a better life, for opportunity, for equality—most broadly, for access to the American Dream itself.What is the central idea of poem question? ›
A poem's core concept is the subject of the poem, or 'what it's about' if you like. While many shy away from poetry being 'about' something, at the end of the day, as it was written, the poet had something in mind, and that something, whatever it was or may have been, is the central concept.Why is Harlem so important? ›
The Harlem Renaissance was a turning point in Black cultural history. It helped African American writers and artists gain more control over the representation of Black culture and experience, and it provided them a place in Western high culture.Why is it called Harlem? ›
Originally a Dutch village, formally organized in 1658, it is named after the city of Haarlem in the Netherlands. Harlem's history has been defined by a series of economic boom-and-bust cycles, with significant population shifts accompanying each cycle.What is the meaning of the word Harlem? ›
/ (ˈhɑːləm) / noun. a district of New York City, in NE Manhattan: now largely a Black ghetto.What percent of Harlem is black? ›
New York City, the most populous city in the United States, is composed of five boroughs: The Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, and Staten Island. Each borough is coextensive with a respective county of New York State.
In the 1920s and 1930s, Harlem became a symbol of the African American struggle for civil and economic equality while emerging as a flourishing center of black culture, art and music.