Interpreting Harlem by Langston Hughes

Let’s look at the meaning of this short but powerful poem by Langston Hughes.

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?
      Or crust and sugar over
      like a syrupy sweet?
 
      Maybe it just sags
      Like a heavy load.
      Or does it explode?

     ~ by Langston Hughes

Vocabulary

  • defer: push back to a later time
  • raisin: a dried grape
  • fester: a wound becomes infected
  • sore: a kind of skin infection
  • crust: form a hard outer layer
  • syrupy: thick and sweet liquid
  • sag: to sink downward under pressure or weight
  • sweet: (noun) dessert

Commentary

Harlem is a predominantly working-class district in New York City with a large population of Black people. This poem, written by famed American poet Langston Hughes in 1951, has also been titled A Dream Deferred. Though the actual ‘dream’ is never defined in the poem, the poem describes the plight of Black people in America. At the time the poem was written, racial discrimination was socially acceptable and in many places actually enforced by law. In the South, segregation was the norm—there were separate schools, separate restaurants, even separate drinking fountains for Black people and White people. Slavery had been abolished in America nearly a hundred years earlier, but many basic freedoms were slow in coming. Even today, racial inequality and discrimination plagues American society.

This poems makes effective use of simile— comparing the consequences of pushing back dreams of equality to a variety of different things. The narrator asks what will happen if inequality persists indefinitely, asks whether people’s dreams of equality will eventually:

  • wither away, leaving Black Americans to basically give up and accept inequality
  • become festering sores (i.e. infected wounds), leaving Black Americans in pain and feeling bitter and resentful
  • harden like a spoiled dessert, leaving Black Americans wallowing in a kind of unhappy nostalgia for a time when dreams of equality didn’t seem so far-fetched
  • sag under the heavy burden of unfulfilled hopes, leaving Black Americans feeling hopeless and dispirited
  • or explode, leading Black Americans to lash out violently in anger, such as during the Los Angeles riots of 1992 or the Black Lives Matters Riots of 2020 or even earlier riots such as the Harlem riots of 1935 and 1937.

Despite being deeply rooted in the Black American experience, the theme of this poem is universal. Everyone has dreams, but how many people can fulfill them? There comes a point in just about everyone’s life when he/she realizes that a long-treasured dream is becoming less and less attainable. What will you do if you come to such a realization? Entire societies can face similar crises in faith. For example what happens when people in a society realize that their dreams of increasing prosperity are becoming more and more difficult to attain.

I think that what makes this poem so powerful is the vividness of the imagery and the universality of the message.

Your Interpretation

How do you feel about the poem? How would you interpret its meaning? What are your dreams? If you can’t reach this dream, how will you feel?

~ by longzijun


Interpretations of Poems


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