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Langston Hughes Dream Deferred

Updated on May 1, 2014

Langston Hughes's "Harlem" (often called "A Dream Deferred") is short but potent

I was thrilled when my son was asked to analyze Langston Hughes Dream Deferred -- titled "Harlem" when originally published in 1951 as part of the poetry collection Montage of a Dream Deferred. As a longtime editor, I love when a writer makes his/her point potently with no wasted words. Hughes's famous poem is a perfect example. In just 11 short lines, A Dream Deferred says more than any epic ever could have about the intensity of frustration many African Americans were feeling at the time of the poem's publication.

(Langston Hughes photo: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Carl Van Vechten Collection --via Wikimedia Commons)

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Background: Black Americans' Struggle for Equality

The "dream deferred" Hughes writes of is the dream of equal rights, both de jure (by law) and de facto (in real life) for black Americans. Here, a brief timeline to set the context for its publication in 1951.

~ 1865: With the end of the Civil War, the 13th Amendment to the Constitution is ratified, ending slavery in the United States.

~ 1868: The 14th Amendment requires each state to provide "equal protection under the law" to all its citizens, and grants citizenship to all born in the U.S., even those born into slavery.

~ 1870: The 15th Amendment is ratified, banning race discrimination in voting.

~ In reality, many Southern blacks are kept from voting by whites running the polls -- through literacy tests, poll taxes, racial gerrymandering & other insidious measures.

~ 1896: The Supreme Court's Plessy vs. Ferguson decision approves "separate but equal" accommodations for railroad passengers, paving the way for racially segregated schools, libraries, drinking fountains, public transportation, parks, restaurants & more.

~1876 to 1965: "Jim Crow" state & local laws mandate segregation of blacks and whites in all public facilities in the former Confederacy. In the North, blacks face de facto discrimination through employment and lending inequalities, segregated housing enforced by covenants, etc.

~ 1925: The Ku Klux Klan marches in Washington, D.C.

~ 1940s: Harlem, NYC -- the title of Hughes's poem and neighborhood that nurtured him as a young poet during the 1920s "Harlem Renaissance" -- is increasingly afflicted with crime and violence after World War II. Trouble escalates in 1943, when a policeman shoots a black soldier who had knocked him down, triggering a riot in Harlem that leaves 6 dead, 185 injured.

~~ Other African Americans, too, like the famous Tuskegee Airmen, experience apathy & ingratitude when they return from defending their country overseas in WWII.

(photo: John Vachon for U.S. Farm Security Administration, 1938, via Wikimedia Creative Commons)

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A Dream Deferred Analysis

As my son worked with Hughes's "Harlem," we had a good talk about its meaning. In a nutshell, the poem asks a question, then gives 6 possible answers. Here is our very nonprofessional analysis.

"What happens to a dream deferred?" -- The dream, of course, is for black Americans to be given, and allowed to exercise, the same civil rights as white Americans ... and really, to have access to the American Dream of creating a better life for one's children through hard work.

When this poem was written, the dream had already been "deferred" for close to a century, as each hopeful milestone (the abolition of slavery, subsequent Constitutional amendements, early Civil Rights legislation) was compromised by court decisions (such as Plessy vs. Ferguson)and by state laws designed to deny blacks their rights, especially in the South -- as well as limited job opportunities for African Americans and the persistence of vigilante beatings and lynchings. For many African Americans, this pattern of hopes dashed -- sometimes brutally -- would understandably have built up a deep reservoir of frustration and/or anger.

"Does it dry up

like a raisin in the sun?" -- In this first scenario, we felt like the dream, sitting so long unfulfilled, loses its "juice" or potency over time and essentially shrinks down to nothing....or nothing worth dreaming anymore. Another possibility is that Hughes meant to compare the dream to a grape, starting out fresh and plump but drying to an edible but shriveled raisin. It's lost its "looks" but still nourishes.

"Or fester like a sore-

And then run?" -- My son and I thought this suggested that the unfulfilled dream could become more and more painful over time to the dreamer, like a festering sore that goes untreated. Or was Hughes playing with the word "run" & implying the unfulfilled dream might "run away"?

"Does it stink like rotten meat?" -- To us, this suggested the unfulfilled dream could become something odious to the dreamer, something that over time has begun to "stink" ... basically something you don't want to keep around anymore.

"Or crust and sugar over-

like a syrupy sweet?" -- This was a tough one. The "syrupy sweet" image doesn't seem super positive, nor does the idea of "crusting over" with sugar. (Unless we're talking cobbler, then all bets are off!) What we thought this could mean is that the dreamer, finding a more assertive stance hasn't helped fulfill the dream of equality, starts behaving with artificial deference -- in a "sugary sweet" manner towards whites -- to avoid conflict and danger.

"Maybe it just sags

like a heavy load." -- Here the dream is a burden. It no longer enlivens and provides energy, as dreams are supposed to. Instead, it's become an exhausting weight that the dreamers have to carry -- like the huge boulder Sisyphus (in Greek mythology) was forced to roll up a hill over and over through eternity, only to watch it roll back down every time.

"Or does it explode?" -- The mood shifts here dramatically from contemplative to ominous. If America did not deliver the long deferred dream of equality for its black citizens, Hughes was saying, it could consider itself warned. Violence could erupt, causing physical and/or social damage. His words proved prophetic, of course, with the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and '60s.

(photo: Cary Bass via Wikimedia Commons)

Poem: "Harlem" by Langston Hughes, Montage of a Dream Deferred, 1951, Henry Holt and Company

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Own the Poem

Called the poet laureate of African America, Hughes's work should be, in one reviewer's words, "required reading for ALL Americans." This treasure chest of a book is perfect for the new initiate or longtime fan.

Agree with our untrained analysis? Disagree? Please share your thoughts either way! Also, please share any tips on online resources for this amazing poem that could be added to this page.

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      Azul 2 years ago

      I actually run the opopsite way when poetry is being discussed. Isn't that horrible? Most of it is all lost on me. I have read a couple books though recently that were written in free verse, and that doesn't seem like poetry at all. This is one area I definitely need to expand my horizons.

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      sonoracycles 3 years ago

      I read this poem for the first time in March. I had never heard of most of Hughes' work and did some research for my English Lit. paper and lierary and critical analysis of his work. Thank you for sharing.

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      Mary 4 years ago from Chicago area

      @Aunt-Mollie: My son read that play for school, too (a different year), and we got the DVD. Great stuff.

      Your outlook is beautiful. The White House is just the beginning, as future generations mix, marry & collaborate in all sorts of new ways that will only make America stronger.

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      Aunt-Mollie 4 years ago

      This is a classic American poem and I so enjoyed reading about the discussion you had with your son about this poem. The phrase "raisin in the sun" became the title of a famous play from 1959 about housing restrictions against Blacks in Chicago and its suburbs during that era.

      What happens to a dream deferred? It passes to the next generation to fulfill, like Obama from Chicago who now lives in the White House.