The speaker asks if you have seen the delights of the Sugar Hill neighborhood in Harlem. He asks if you have cast your eyes upon the “sepia thrill” of the ladies there, who have skin like brown sugar and caramel treats that are “sweet enough to eat?” There are girls with peach skin, coffee and cream, or a “chocolate darling / Out of a dream.” Some are walnut-colored or cocoa brown and others have pomegranate lips and are the “pride of the town.” They range from cream-colored to dark plum to black, and, in Harlem, there is no lack of “feminine sweetness.”
Their cheeks glow like quince or rose, and they are “persimmon brown / To cinnamon toes.” They are as dark as blackberry cordial and wine. Their flavors range from walnut to cocoa and caramel to brown sugar to molasses, taffy, licorice, clove, and cinnamon. The girls of Harlem fulfill the entire spectrum. The speaker concludes that if you want to know about beauty’s “Rainbow-sweet thrill,” then you should just stroll down the “Delicious, fine, Sugar Hill.”
“Harlem Sweeties” is a luscious, sensual poem appeals to the reader's sight, sound, and taste. It is joyous and catchy, and is representative of Hughes's early depictions of Harlem. In this poem, Harlem is filled with jazz, sex, art, cultural fecundity, dreams, and possibilities. The women in “Harlem Sweeties” differ from the female character in “50-50,” who is lonely, sad, and yearning for a man even if he just uses her for her money.
The rhymes in "Harlem Sweeties" are simple yet bold, and Hughes uses figurative language to great effect. The speaker begins by asking the reader if he (most likely a he, yes) has seen the “spill / Of Sugar Hill?” Even if some of the words won't make sense to modern readers, their meaning is easy to discern within the context of the poem. Hughes uses several culinary-based metaphors to describe the varying skin colors of the women who live in Harlem, creating a vivid rainbow of browns, creams, and blacks. He compares their skin to brown sugar, caramel, coffee, peaches, walnuts, molasses, cloves, cinnamon, and more. He also evokes the deep richness of wine and blackberry cordial, and referring to one girl as “pomegranate-lipped.”
Hughes extols the “rainbow-sweet thrill” of the spectrum of beauty he has painted for his reader. His appreciation of women is quite clear, and although he is certainly exhibiting the male gaze, the overall tone is playful and non-threatening. Like in the poem "My People," Hughes celebrates the beauty of African American women. The standard of beauty he expresses is the opposite of the popular (white) vision of beauty that was more pervasive at the time. Instead of promoting homogenous beauty, Hughes is inspired by the variety and vitality of the women in Harlem.