By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Harlem’ is a short poem by Langston Hughes (1901-67). Hughes was a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance in New York in the 1920s. Over the course of a varied career he was a novelist, playwright, social activist, and journalist, but it is for his poetry that Hughes is now best-remembered.
Given his centrality to the Harlem Renaissance, it is perhaps unsurprising that Langston Hughes chose to write a poem about Harlem. But what is the meaning of his short 11-line lyric about Harlem? You can read the poem here.
The poem is arranged into four stanzas: the first and last of these are just one line long, with the second comprising seven lines and the third two lines.
The speaker of the poem asks a series of questions. He asks first, what happens to a dream that is deferred – that is, a dream or ambition which is never realised? Does it try up like a raisin in the sun, shrivelling away and losing something of itself? Or does it grow putrid and infected, like a sore (on a body) from which pus runs? And does the dream come to smell like rotten meat?
He then wonders whether the dream might develop a tough ‘crust’ of sugar, like a boiled sweet.
In the third stanza, the speaker turns from the interrogative mode of questioning and muses aloud: perhaps instead of these things, the dream simply grows weak, like a heavy burden being carried.
The final stanza, another standalone line, is italicised for additional emphasis, and sees the speaker return to the interrogative mode: he asks whether this ‘dream deferred’ might actually end up exploding, such as in a fit of righteous anger or frustration.
One of Langston Hughes’ best-known poems, ‘I, Too’, is often categorised as a protest poem. But it is also a poem of celebration, and one of the things which a critic or student of Hughes’ poem needs to consider is how these two sides to the poem are kept in careful balance.
‘Harlem’ is more clearly and emphatically a poem of protest rather than celebration, focusing on the area of New York which had a large African-American population (and culture). In ‘I, Too’, Hughes took up Walt Whitman’s famous words from his nineteenth-century poem ‘I Hear America Singing’ and added his own voice to the chorus, and, by extension, the voices of all African Americans.
But in ‘Harlem’, he takes up the idea of the American Dream, the ideal, or belief, which states that anyone, regardless of their background, can make a success of their lives if they come to America. Is this really true of African Americans, or do they face too much prejudice and too many obstacles as they try to make their way in America?
The reference to ‘a dream deferred’ in the opening line of ‘Harlem’ alludes to the fact that this short poem is of a piece with a much longer, book-length poem which Hughes published in the same year, 1951. That longer work, Montage of a Dream Deferred, was influenced by the rhythms and styles of jazz music, as Hughes takes us on a 24-hour tour of Hughes’ own Harlem in New York.
The motif of the dream – a favourite Langston Hughes trope – is central to the poem, as Hughes plays off the real world with the ideal. But his ‘dream deferred’ is also recalling the American Dream, and critiquing the relevance of this ideal for African Americans.
The various images and similes Hughes employs in ‘Harlem’ reveal a conflicted attitude towards this dream. While other Americans can make their way up the socio-economic ladder and achieve success for themselves and their families, the speaker feels that African Americans are being left behind.
But the images are not all one and the same. We are given festering sores and rotten meat, but then the speaker proposes the sugared coating of a boiled sweet: altogether a more palatable image. So what is the purpose of this image?
We talk about ‘sugar-coating’ something to make it more palatable and acceptable, and therein lies the meaning of Hughes’ simile: black Americans are sold the idea of the ‘American Dream’ in order to keep them happy with the status quo and to give the illusion that everyone in the United States has equal opportunities. But that’s all it is: the sugar that covers up something less appealing or appetising, which is the rather less rosy truth.
Like many of Langston Hughes’ poems, ‘Harlem’ is written in free verse, its irregular line lengths and erratic rhythms suggestive of jazz music, which was so important to the culture and nightlife of Harlem. However, it is not wholly free verse, since Hughes does use rhyme: sun/run, meat/sweet, and load/explode (and note how ‘explode’ contains, or carries, that ‘load’).
The final line of ‘Harlem’ suggests that if African Americans continue to endure the grinding poverty, mistreatment, and lack of opportunities they are currently enduring, their anger may burst out in an explosion of energy and rage.
In some ways, Hughes’s poem is prophetic in predicting the growing momentum that the American Civil Rights movement would gain as the 1950s progressed, and figures like Malcolm X would use radical anger (as opposed to the less combative approach adopted by Martin Luther King) to galvanise black Americans into demanding a better life.