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Harlem by Langston Hughes a Summary and Analysis

       Harlem by Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes is best known as one of the most imminent poets of Harlem Renaissance.  While Hughes himself did not belong to the lower class of the African American people, his works and poetry mostly addressed the problems plaguing the lives of these people.  Several of his poems bear an influence of the Blues that were the most common means for these people to express their pain and anguish.  Hughes was not just a poet but also a playwright and prose writer. He has written several works of prose apart from drama. He was among the primary contributors to the Harlem Renaissance. His works were initially criticized heavily by the other African American writers of his time but they also won critical acclaim for the way they expressed the troubles faced by the African American community. His “Harlem” came in 1951. The poem is about the lost dreams of the millions of African Americans.  It expresses their anguish over how they could not become a part of the great American Dream.

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?

The poem starts with a question “What happens to a dream deferred?” Deferred word means postponed. What can be a reason that a dream was deferred? A dream can be postponed because the means to realize it was lost. The poet expresses in his words the pain of those millions of African Americans whose dreams have always remained dreams and then lost their meaning and relevance like  the water in their eyes dries up. So, what happens to a dream unrealized? Does it dry like a raisin or decay like a sore and then run? Or the poet imagines, it might stink like rotten flesh. A dream that cannot be realized can become as painful as a sore that does not dry but keeps running. Or does it leave behind a sweetness like a crust of sugar and syrup? These lines bring so many pictures to the mind of the shapes a dream unrealized can take. Lost dreams can rot and leave behind their stink in human memory or sometimes they might be remembered with a sweet pain.

Maybe it just sags

like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

Or maybe the burden of the unfulfilled dream remains in the hearts of the millions who have lost their dreams.  When the burden gets unbearable it explodes?  The poem does not just speak of the unfulfilled dreams of the African Americans but also questions the limitations placed on  these people by the white society that have turned lives of people of color into a bad dream.

Hughes has compared a dream with several things in the poem from a dried raisin to a running sore. He asks about what happened to those dreams? Did they dry away or remained in the eyes paining them like a sore? Dreams are relevant to everyone’s lives and are found in every eye. Some live their dream and for some life never offers a chance to make their dreams a reality.  Dreams are sweet if they are realized and otherwise they can become a burden on the heart. The lower class African Americans lived a life that was a running sore in itself.  Far from the Great American dream they were bound to kill their own dreams for they were never given the right to realize them. The poet’s comparisons of a dream are difficult. We ordinarily do not compare a dream with these things like load or sore. The lines mostly paint a grim picture of dream that died in the womb. While on the one hand he inspires us to think of our dreams that never became reality because had to be deferred and on the other he also tries to show us what unrealized dreams might become. They might remain hanging to you like a burden on your conscience, sometimes their load absolutely impossible to carry. Or may be they explode with a bang shaking your soul and leaving the dreamer feeling devastated. whatever happens to a deferred dream, it is difficult to imagine a meaningful conclusion for it.

Sources:

https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poet/langston-hughes

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/46548/harlem

Written by Abhijeet Pratap

Abhijeet has been blogging on educational topics and business research since 2016. He graduated with a Hons. in English literature from BRABU and an MBA from the Asia-Pacific Institute of Management, New Delhi. He likes to blog and share his knowledge and research in business management, marketing, literature and other areas with his readers.

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