Langston Hughes: Poems

Langston Hughes: Poems Video

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Watch the illustrated video summary of the classic poem, “Harlem,” by Langston Hughes.

“Harlem” is one of Langston Hughes’s most famous works; it is likely the most common Hughes poem taught in American schools. Written in 1951, it addresses one of Hughes’ most common themes: the limitations of the American Dream for African-Americans. The poem has eleven short lines in four stanzas, and all but one line are questions.

Hughes titled this poem “Harlem” after the New York neighborhood that became the center of the Harlem Renaissance, a major creative blossoming of music, literature, and art in the 1910s and 1920s. Many African-American families saw Harlem as a sanctuary from the frequent discrimination they faced in other parts of the country. Unfortunately, Harlem’s glamour faded at the beginning of the 1930s when the Great Depression set in, leaving many who had prospered in Harlem destitute once more.

The poem begins with the famous line, “What happens to a dream deferred?” A sense of silence follows this powerful question, created in part by the white space on the page. The speaker does not refer to a specific dream, but suggests the difficulty of dreaming or aspiring to great things due to the oppressive environment surrounding Black America.

In the three stanzas that follow, the speaker—a Black person, perhaps the poet or a professor—muses on the fate of this “dream deferred.” He wonders if it “dries up like a raisin in the sun,” or if it “oozes like a wound and then runs.” It might smell like “rotten meat” or develop a “sugary crust.” It might just sag like a “heavy load,” or it might “explode.”

The verbs in the poem—"drying up,” “festering,” “oozing,” “stinking,” and “crusting over”—create potent images, allowing the reader to smell, feel, and taste these discarded dreams. A “dream deferred” does not simply vanish, rather, it undergoes an evolution, approaching a physical state of decay.

The last line of the poem—“Or does it explode?”—stands out because it is italicized; it invites many interpretations. The “explosion” could refer to the riots in Harlem of 1935 and 1943, or more generally, the way that oppressive conditions inevitably led to open and overt rebellion. In a figurative sense, the “explosion” also suggests the explosion or undoing of a cultural myth or the overturning of a deeply held belief.

Hughes was intimately aware of the challenges he faced as a black man in America, and this poem reflects his complicated experience.