“Harlem” centers around the question of what happens to a dream when it is deferred – does it go away, fester, or explode?
In “The Weary Blues,” the speaker wanders down Harlem's Lenox Avenue at night and hears a lone musician playing the blues. The musician sways back and forth on his stool, singing mournfully about his loneliness and his wish to die. He finishes playing late at night, after which he goes home and sleeps.
In “Dreams,” the speaker counsels the readers to hold on tight to their dreams, for a life without dreams is comparable to a “broken-winged bird” and a "barren field."
In “Mother to Son,” a mother tells her son that her life has not been easy but she has always kept going. She does not want him to give up or turn back because she is still climbing the stairs.
In “I, Too,” the speaker claims that he "is America" even though he is forced to eat dinner in the kitchen when guests come. Someday, he knows that he will sit at the table and everyone will see how beautiful he is.
In “Negro Speaks of Rivers,” the speaker says he has known ancient rivers and his soul has grown deep like them. He has bathed in the Euphrates, built his hut along the Congo, watched the pyramids rise along the Nile, and has even seen Lincoln on the Mississippi. He has known all of these “ancient, dusky rivers.”
In “My People,” the speaker exhorts the beauty of his African American people, comparing them to stars and the sun and the night.
In “Let America be America Again,” the speaker says that the American dream has never evolved into something more than a dream. Freedom and equality are not a reality for slaves, toiling immigrants, bondsman farmers, poor white people, or Native Americans. America has grown to embody greed and injustice; many citizens are trapped in a cycle of poverty with no channel for escape. However, these are the same people who once came to America possessing pure and inspiring dreams, and there is still a chance that those dreams can become reality. When that happens, America can be America again.
In “American Heartbreak,” the speaker says he (and all African American people) are the rock that American freedom stumped its toe on, and represent the mistake Jamestown made. He is referring to the disparity between the ideals of America's founders and the creation of a slave system.
In “Life is Fine,” the speaker describes his despair over a lost love. He tries to drown himself, but finds the water to be too cold. He thinks about jumping off a building, but it is too high. He eventually decides to keep living, proclaiming that he will be “dogged” if his baby sees him give up. Life, he concludes, is fine.
In “As I Grew Older,” the speaker explains that he had almost forgotten his dream from long ago. A thick wall descended between himself and his dream, casting a shadow on him. The speaker specifies that he is black and lies in that shadow. As he grows older, though, he decides to break through the wall with his hands, smashing the night and shattering it into sun so that he can be reunited with his dream.
In “April Rain Song,” the speaker delights in the sights and sounds of the spring rain.
In “Mulatto,” a biracial boy confronts his white father. The father, filled with rage, insists that he is not the boy's father. Instead, the white man claims that female slaves' bodies are toys and exist to satisfy the white man’s lust. The son addresses his white half-siblings, asking them if they consider their (white) mother's body to be a toy, but they, too, disown him. By the end of the poem, the speaker has come to terms with the role of biracial children in the world, and realizes that he is not alone.
In “Theme for English B,” a young African American college student works on an assignment - he must write a piece about himself that is true. He walks home and sits down in his Harlem apartment, explaining who he is and what he likes. He wonders if his writing is "colored" because he is "colored." He eventually concludes that he and his white instructor are inextricably connected and can learn from each other.
In “50-50,” a woman plaintively laments her loneliness, wishing for a man to share her bed and hold her hand. A male voice tries to calm her down, offering to share her bed… and her money.
In “Harlem Sweeties,” the narrator extols the merits of the beautiful women in Harlem, comparing their varying skin tones to luscious sweets, desserts, and fruits.
“On the Road” is a short story about Sargeant, a large, unemployed black man who is trying to find solace during the Depression. One night, he comes to a parsonage in the hopes of finding shelter from the driving snow. The (white) Reverend, exemplifying racism and hypocrisy, refuses Sargeant entry, so he goes to the church next door. There, Sargeant finds the door locked, so he tries to push it open. White bystanders yell at him, but he insists that he needs a place to sleep. The cops arrive, but they come too late - Sargeant has pulled the whole church down, burying the bystanders in the rubble.
As he walks away from the ruins, Sargeant notices that Christ has descended from the cross and is walking alongside him. The two converse amiably and walk together for a short way. Christ says he is tired of this place and wants to move on - the white parishioners have imprisoned him on the cross but do not live by his teachings. The two travelers bid each other adieu at a hobo jungle by the train tracks, where Sargeant spends the night. The next morning, Sargeant catches a train. He feels a pain on his knuckles and jerks awake to realize he is not on a train but in a jail cell.
The harsh reality emerges: Sargeant never walked away from the church, In fact, he was jailed for trying to break in. Sargeant hollers at the policeman, who tells him to be quiet. Sergeant does not give into the policeman's demands, and threatens to pull the jail down. He then wonders out loud if Christ ever made it to Kansas City.