Harlem by Langston Hughes Analysis and Summary

Harlem by Langston Hughes Analysis and Summary


Harlem by Langston Hughes Analysis and Summary


◇ About the poem Harlem (1951) 

The brief poem "Harlem" introduces theme 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. 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. 


◇ About Langston Hughes:

Langston Hughes was born in 1902 in Joplin, Missouri, to James Nathaniel and Carrie Mercer Langston Hughes who separated shortly after their son's birth. 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. Hughes's mother frequently moved 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. When his grandmother died, Hughes lived with family friends and various relatives in Kansas. In 1915, he joined his mother and stepfather in Lincoln where he attended grammar school. The following year, the family moved to Cleveland where he attended Central High School. 


Hughes also wrote poetry and short fiction for the Belfry Owl, the high school literary magazine, and edited the school yearbook. In 1923 and 1924, Hughes lived in Paris. He returned to the United States in 1925 and resettled with his mother 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 the poet Vachel Lindsay by placing three of his poems on Lindsay's dinner table. Lindsay read Hughes's poems to an audience and announced his discovery of a "Negro busboy poet". 


Hughes published his first collection of poetry, "The Weary Blues" in 1926. Around this tune, Hughes became active in the Harlem Renaissance, a flowering of creativity among a group of African-American artists and writers. In 1932, Hughes traveled with other black writers to the Soviet Union on an ill-fated film project. 


Hughes 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. Langston Hughes died in New York on May 22, 1967.


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◇ Poem Text:

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? 

May be it just sags

like a heavy load. 

Or does it explode? 


◇ Summary of the Poem Harlem:

Line 1:

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 individual's dreams get deferred, or put off indefinitely. 


Lines 2 - 3:

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. 


Lines 4 - 5:

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 body and the psyche and slowly kill their host. The word 'fester' refers to decay and 'run' literally refers to push. Hughes may use the word 'run' to suggest that the dream may flee or may run rampant with one's sanity. 


Line 6:

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 the 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. 


Lines 7 - 8:

With these lines, the poet suggests 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. Here the word 'sweet' may represent the American dreams of equality and success. 


Lines 9 - 10:

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 that deferred dreams weigh one down physically and emotionally as heavily as a load of bricks. 


Line 11:

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. 


◇ Critical Analysis of the poem Harlem:

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 movements 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... " 

The poem, "Harlem"  is in the form of a series of questions, a certain inhabitant of Harlem asks (to himself or to someone listening to him) - "What happens to a dream deferred?" He tries to answer tentatively, but his questions are more telling than the attempt at an answer.

Through this poem, Langston Hughes examines the possible effects caused by the dream, when they are constantly deferred. Hughes opines that when the dreams are constantly deferred, we are naturally cut between hope and hopelessness. Then these dreams stay in the mind like a heavy load.

In the first line of the poem "Harlem", the speaker of the 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 individual's dreams get deferred, or put off indefinitely. 

Hughes has put various images to explore the dry up dreams. The images used in the poem must be analyzed in terms of the feelings of the speaker, rather than finding out objective qualities of the images. The first image in the poem suggests that the dream dries up like a raisin. In the next image, the speaker compares the dream to a sore on the body. The poet compares the unfulfilled dreams to scars which need attention to heal. Neglected sores may lead to infection, even death. Appealing to all of the reader's senses, the speaker suggests that a dream deferred may also stink like rotten meat. Like the raisin image, rotten meat stinks when it is no longer fresh. These images reinforce the idea of decay and death.

The last line of the poem, where Langston Hughes sets off and italicizes the line to emphasize the larger consequences of mass dissatisfaction. Though this line is 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. 

"Harlem" is placed toward the end of Montage and comments on the widespread despair and frustration expressed by the personas in the preceding poems. Thus "Harlem" may be read as both a distinct individual poem and an outstanding note in much larger symphony. 


◇ Themes of the poem Harlem:

American Dream

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 hardwork could never buy one a house in a certain neighbourhood, where hardwork 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. 


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 white 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. Hughes approached the growing anger of blacks carefully, stopping short of stating directly that it would lead to violence. Secondly, 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. 


Civil Rights

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 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 organisations 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 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. Eventually, though the road to civil rights did lead to an explosion of violence, just as "Harlem" foretold. 


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◇ Structure of the poem Harlem:

The poem "Harlem" uses several similes. These similes use various images to describe the poet's feelings of dissatisfaction on deferred dreams. The image of 'raisin' is used to describe the dream which has been neglected for too long and probably dried up. The simile of the 'sore' conveys a sense of infection and pain comparing the dream to a sore on the body. Like the raisin image, the image of 'rotten meat' reinforces the idea of decay and death. 

Langston Hughes uses an irregular meter in the lines of the poem, "Harlem". Hughes stresses different syllables in each line and varies the length of each line. 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." 

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 final line of the poem is offset and italicized to emphasize the potentially explosive social consequences of wide-spread dissatisfaction. 


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