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Langston Hughes' "Harlem"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Langston Hughes

Introduction and Text of "Harlem"

While some of Langston Hughes’ work descends into little more than adolescent whimpering with the example of "Cross," more often he explores life among the races with deep conviction and appropriate questioning. Hughes is always worth the study. His poem, "Harlem," appears in his Montage of a Dream Deferred (1951).

The theme of Hughes’ "Harlem" is that being forced to set aside one’s life goals can result in catastrophe. The poem uses similes and one explosive metaphor to convey its impact. The questions in which the similes and metaphor are couched are all rhetorical questions, that is, they all answer themselves. The similes "like a raisin in the sun," "like a sore," "like rotten meat," "like a syrupy sweet," set the questioning pattern. Then the metaphor bursts forth with, "does it explode?"—the most volatile question of all! They all have the same answer: yes.

No one wants to postpone a dream, that is, a goal, regardless of whether it is to buy that new iPhone or start that new career as a doctor, lawyer, artist, teacher, or whatever. But what happens to that dream if it has to be put off for any reason? Maybe it just languishes in the back of the mind or maybe it causes the individual to behave in a destructive manner.

Hughes' poem features perfect rimes in "sun-run," "meat-sweet," "load-explode." The poem employs images: "raisin in the sun," "fester like a sore," "stink like rotten meat." Even the metaphor that offers no noun suggests the subliminal vision of an exploding bomb which includes all the senses to which imagery can appeal.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

Harlem

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?

Langston Hughes reading "Harlem"

Commentary

While undoubtedly racially influenced, this message of this poem can be applied to any "dream" or "goal" that would have to be postponed, especially if postponed by coercion. (This poem appears widely under the title "Dream Deferred."

First Movement: What Happens?

What happens to a dream deferred?

This poem full of questions begins with a question: "What happens to a dream deferred?" The speaker then goes on to ask four more questions along with one suggestion. All of the questions are merely a rhetorical device.

No one will doubt that the answer to each question is yes. They are all in fact "yes or no" questions, requiring no elaboration. The speaker's stance on the issue is abundantly clear: he believes that a postponed dream can cause all sorts of havoc, even death!

It does not matter what the dream is. Every human being has dreams and goals to achieve. These dreams are so important to the lives of the dreamer that they occupy the dreamer's attention in the consciousness every moment of the day and even in sleep. It is, therefore, little wonder that if the dreamer hits a roadblock that stalls his continuing on the path to fulfillment of his goal, s/he will be disturbed.

Second Movement: Drying Up

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?

If a dream is left to "dry up like a raisin in the sun," it will become worthless. A raisin is a delicious food, sweet and nutritious, but put it out in the sun and let become a hard, inedible dot, and it will no longer offer its useful nutrition and yummy flavor.

The life's goal of a human being performs a vital role in making that person a successful, contributing member of the human race. But if that person is told over and over agin that s/he must wait for society to change its attitudes and laws before s/he can become a doctor, lawyer, teacher, artist, etc., that individual may simply wither away, dry up.

The speaker wants to bring to consciousness the notion that delaying the dreams of individuals will undoubtedly become a stultifying act. Talent must be nurtured not postponed. Desire to grow must be nurtured not kept in the shade of indifference. The drying up of talent is a waste of human capital.

Third Movement: Festering

Or fester like a sore—
And then run?

The speaker then considers another problem that might pop up from a delayed dream; instead of drying up, maybe it will run like a sore that has festered and become all pus infused. We all want our sores to dry up; we do not want them to fester and continue to run. Restless dissatisfaction might occur if a dream festers and runs. The innocent dreamer might transform into a criminal perpetrating criminal offenses against whom or what he believes to be standing in the way of his dreams.

Fourth Movement: Stinking

Does it stink like rotten meat?

Rotten meat sinks! A dream allowed to lie untended in the mind might decay and give off the stench of unfulfilled desires. The unpleasant odor comes for the dead dream, just as the stink spreads from rotten animal flesh.

Fifth Movement: Crusting Over

Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?

We all have no doubt noticed the crusty accumulation that has formed on our syrup or honey bottles that have been left unused for quite some time. Lack of use has caused that unpleasant crust.

The contents of the bottle will become unusable if left long enough, and so it becomes with dreams. Elderly folks ofttimes complain that they failed to pursue certain dreams when they were young, and now those dreams have become a bitter memory, a crusty accumulation at the top their bottle of life. The crusted over dreams may present themselves as emotions of hatred, doubt, anger, and despair.

Sixth Movement: A Suggestion of Sagging

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

The next stanza does not ask a question; it makes the suggestion that maybe this postponed dream just sags under the heavy load of deferral. The dreamer has become lethargic, clumsy, as s/he moves under the burden of the heavy load. The dream still weighs on the mind of the dreamer who continues to wonder what s/he might have accomplished. Thus from carrying the burden of doubt, the dreamer may become depressed even lacking the ability to be at all productive.

Seventh Movement: The Explosion

Or does it explode?

All of the possibilities heretofore mentioned in the similes of suffering a dream deferred are deficient, shoddy, even life-threatening. But the question metaphorically expressed in the final line becomes literally explosive. The speaker asks: "does it explode?" What explodes? Bombs. And anything in a container in which pressure has built up to the point of the container's inability to expand to accommodate that pressure.

If the dreamer no longer harbors a shred of hope for his/her dreams, s/he may become such a container under pressure or a human bomb. The hapless dreamer filled with unsustainable grief, despair, and hopelessness may commit ungodly acts against him/herself or against society.

© 2015 Linda Sue Grimes