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"Harlem, What Happens to a Dream Deferred?" is one of Langston Hughes's numerous poems about the lives of African Americans in the United States. The poem raises many concerns about these people's desires and the possible repercussions if their expectations and wishes do not come true. The key subjects of this poem are visions, African American issues, the American dream, expectations, hopes, and objectives, and people's psychological and emotional capacity. The poem has eleven short lines and four stanzas, with the majority of the lines asking questions. It responds to its question by the use of similes, metaphors, and imagery, emphasizing creativity.
Life and History of Langston Hughes
Langston Hughes relating to the lives of the African Americans in the USA. The poem asks many questions concerning the aspirations of these people and the likely consequences if their dreams and hopes do not come to fruition. The main themes of this poem are dreams, issues of the African Americans, the American dream, goals, aspirations and objectives, psychological and emotional energy of the people. The poem has eleven short lines, and four stanzas and most of the lines are questions. It answers its question by use of similes, metaphors, and imagery, which emphasizes on imagination.
Life and History of Langston Hughes
Langston Hughes was an American poet, dramatist, and novelist whose subjects of both Africa and American nature made him a popular contributor of the 1920’s Harlem Renaissance. He was mainly a poet and wanted his poems to reflect the predicament of the African-Americans as well as give them a voice. He was born on 1st February 1902 in Joplin, Missouri and his parents separated immediately afterwards. He was thereafter raised by his maternal grandmother till her death when he moved to stay with his mother. He moved around with her for a while and settling down in Cleveland, Ohio finally (Laybourn, Wendy and Gregory 1). Around this time, he started to write poetry being introduced by his teachers, and this shows that despite the hardships he underwent his determination did not leave him. He was also a popular contributor to the literary magazine in his school as well as frequently submitting to other poetry magazines though these rejected him.
Hughes cleared his high school education in 1920 and stayed with his father for one year in Mexico before enrolling in Columbia University, United States. While in Mexico, Hughes’ first poem was printed in The Crisis magazine and was commended by many. It was during his brief study at Columbia University that he joined the Harlem Renaissance. He stopped his studies in the university in 1922 and left for Paris in 1924 where he continually developed and published his poetry. Despite this, he never gave up but kept on building and developing his writing and poetry. In 1925 he went back to the United States, and one of his poems made him win a scholarship at Lincoln University. This move made him progress a lot in the development of his career as a poet as well as a novelist (Anderson 15).
After graduating from the university in 1929, he published his first novel, a book that was very successful and made him believe that he could be able to earn a living as a writer. Hughes after that traveled to several lecture tours as he continued to write and publish and in 1934 was able to write his first short stories. He served as a correspondent for several American papers during the Spanish civil war of 1937. In 1940, he started contributing very highly successful columns to The Chicago defender magazine. His contribution to a musical known as The street scene enabled him to make adequate cash that he used to purchase a house and settled in Harlem. During this period, he lectured imaginative writing at Atlanta and Chicago Universities. Over the next years of his life, he continued producing prolifically and published several works in the 1950s and 1960s. Hughes died on 22nd May, 1967, due to difficulties caused by prostate cancer.
Interpretation of the poem
Hughes published ‘‘Harlem’’ in 1951, towards the end of the Harlem Renaissance. This time, America was still recovering from the horrors of the Second World War, and the African American writers were writing against the racism they had experienced. He used the poem to tap into the air of resentment and rage that informs the racial politics up to the present age (Huh 210).
‘‘Harlem’’ is a short reflective poem that is among the most famous works of Hughes and the most taught in the schools in the United States. Hughes was greatly aware of the challenges faced by the African Americans, and this complicated experience is reflected by the tone of his work. He comes out in this poem as resigned, enraged, hopeful, sympathetic and melancholic. The title of the poem was extracted from the New York neighbourhood that was the midpoint of the Harlem Renaissance. The Renaissance was a main outburst in art, literature, and music that arose in the 1910s and 1920s (Rampersad 21). The central thesis of this interpretation is the fact that the endpoint of a dream deferred is destruction and vanity.
The speaker in the poem deliberates about the destiny of the ‘‘dream deferred’’. The poem begins with a powerful question that is followed by silence. Hughes after that employs vivid similarities to create an image of a deferred dream. He visualizes it drying, rotting, stinking, crusting over or even blowing up in the end (Rampersad 21). All these descriptions are not entirely intense but have a somewhat gloomy nature within them. Each can easily make a reader feel, smell and taste the discarded dreams. According to him, if a dream is discarded, it does not vanish simply but go through advancement as it approaches a corporal form of deterioration.
Hughes was not, therefore, referring to a precise dream, but reasonably proposes that the African Americans cannot aspire or dream of big things due to the atmosphere of harassment surrounding them. According to him, even if these people dreamt, the dreams will be extended that they end up decaying or blowing up (Huh 215). Hughes depiction of the aspirations, hopes, frustrations, as well as deep-seated discontent of the people, expresses their feelings. The dream being referred to in the poem is that of dignity, freedom, success, and equality. The main concentration of the poem is the possible reactions to the deferral of some dream that range from mild to dangerous effects.
The dream being addressed is not like what we experience while sleeping or while daydreaming. It is a dream that is related to an individual’s conscious hopes, aims, and goals for the future. The speaker suggests that this dream has already been frustrated and delayed and its timing is the essence since it either has to be fulfilled or else left to explode. The poem suggests a variety of responses as the reactions to a deferred dream to be the behavioral patterns that Hughes witnessed among the citizens of Harlem. It was written when the great depression and the Second World War were over, but the dream of the African Americans was still being deferred, whatever the specific form it took.
The poem does not give any solution to the problem of the deferred dream, but just give us some tentative examples. Something will happen, but the speaker is not certain, thus give us a series of comparisons. According to him, it is like a raisin in the sun since it represents a fruit that was once juicy but later dries up and becomes useless. Secondly, it is like a wound that once neglected can be too harmful to one’s health. Thirdly is that it is like a rotten meat and is already beyond use. Finally, it is a heavy load that no one feels like carrying it unnecessarily (Huh 220). These contrasting elements shape the poem and energize the mind of the reader.
The prominence of food materials throughout the poem suggests that this dream touch on the topic of survival for the fittest. It shows that what is taken in is important but can be explosive in the end. The last line especially sums up the notion of the consequences of a dream failing to manifest in real time. The aspects of prejudice, historical issues, societal pressure and oppression including other factors play their role in deferring the dream. Hughes mainly used similes, metaphors, and imagery to enhance the reader’s understanding about the theme of the poem. He can successfully make the readers understand that denying or rather postponing a dream just but destroying it.
Anderson, Cordelia Elizabeth. "A Performance Analysis of Dorothy Rudd Moore's Sonnets on Love, Rosebuds, and Death." (2016).
Huh, Jang Wook. "Beyond Afro-Orientalism: Langston Hughes, Koreans, and the Poetics of Overlapping Dispossessions." Comparative Literature 69.2 (2017): 201-221.
Laybourn, Wendy Marie, and Gregory S. Parks. "Brotherhood and the Quest for African American Social Equality: A Story of Phi Beta Sigma." U. Md. LJ Race, Religion, Gender & Class 16 (2016): 1.
Rampersad, Arnold. "Langston Hughes: The Man, the writer, and His Continuing Inﬂuence." Langston Hughes: The Man, His Art, and His Continuing Influence 29 (2014): 21.
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