Summary, Theme and Analysis of Harlem by Langston Hughes

American poet Langston Hughes was the leader of the Harlem Renaissance that took place in the 1920s. Harlem Renaissance is an artistic, intellectual and literary movement that was formed by black intellectuals and was based in Harlem, later expanding to other cities as well. Hughes tried every genre of writing including poetry, novels, short stories, plays, books for children, and non-fiction. He spent his life portraying both the joys and the hardships of working-class black people.

In 1951, Langston Hughes wrote one of his most succinct poems, Harlem which talks about the American dream of Afro-Americans. Hughes raises questions incorporating his speculations on the consequences of a dream deferred. Since the poem, Harlem is pretty vast in its themes, you might like to read the following summary and analysis.

What is the Summary of Harlem by Langston Hughes?

In his poem Harlem, Langston Hughes asks one major and five other hypothetical questions regarding the dream of Afro-Americans. He wants to know what actually happens to a dream delayed. Hughes questions if the deferred dream dries up “like a raisin in the sun.” Then, he asks if a postponed dream festers like a sore and flows down. He wonders if it stinks like rotten meat or forms a sweet crust.

In the third stanza, Hughes stops questioning for a while and speculates that a deferred dream might sag “like a heavy load.” Again, in the fourth stanza, he proclaims to know if it just explodes and is over.

How to Make an Analysis of Langston Hughes’ Harlem?

Langston Hughes’s poem Harlem was published almost a century after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on 1 January 1863. Though the proclamation legally freed the black lives from slavery, it was not so in practice. Even American civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. publicly delivered a speech, “I Have a Dream” on 28 August 1963. It suggests that The Emancipation Proclamation promised the black people of freedom and equality but that was not implemented even after a century and it just remained a dream for the black lives.

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Hughes’ poem Harlem has four stanzas and eleven lines in total. The first and the last stanza are one-lined while the third is two-lined and the second stanza has seven lines. There is not much rhyming in the poem, except the second and fourth lines (sun/run), and fifth and seventh lines (meat/sweet) of the second stanza. It signifies that there is not much to celebrate in the lives of Harlem citizens.

The terms ‘dream deferred’ refers to the promises made by The Emancipation Proclamation which are not executed even after a century. Hughes, a representative Afro-American, is frustrated with the practice of racism that sees the black lives always as second class or working-class citizens. In the succeeding lines of the second stanza, Hughes compares the delayed dream with several other things like a raisin, sore, rotten meat, and syrupy sweet. He deploys similes to make those comparisons. However, all the sentences are followed by a question mark which suggests that even after numberless revolts against racism and discrimination, the future of black people is uncertain.

In the third stanza of Harlem, Hughes speculates: “Maybe it just sags/ like a heavy load.” By that, he means to say that the burden of racism might keep increasing to such an extent when the black folks won’t be able even to ask for freedom.

Furthermore, the only line of the last stanza, “Or does it explode?” is intentionally italicized. It is not just a question but a premonition and Hughes’ solution to color-based discrimination. If white Americans continue to violate human rights by repressing the black people, Hughes believes that the latter won’t keep silent and passive. Instead, they will explode in unison in order to execute the Emancipation Proclamation. Hence, we can also analyze Harlem from the perspective of Karl Marx’s class struggle. According to Marx, the bourgeoisie can be defeated only when all the proletariats unite. Hughes is also expecting one such unity of the working-class black lives in order to fight against the racism and the impending doom of the Afro-Americans.

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What is the Theme of Langston Hughes’ Poem Harlem?

Regarding the theme of Langston Hughes’ poem Harlem, it covers issues like racism, the emancipation proclamation, class struggle, etc.

Racism is the most prominent theme of Hughes’s Harlem. The whole poem revolves around the past, present, and future of working-class black lives. The poem, Harlem, seems to have its root in the Emancipation Proclamation because it talks about the dream that is promised to the black people but never offered. Likewise, class struggle is another theme of Hughes’ Harlem. All the colored citizens of American, especially the South, have raised their voice against racism but they are yet to come together.

Langston Hughes’ Poem Harlem

What happens to a dream deferred?
      Does it dry up
         like a raisin in the sun
         Or fester like a sore—
         And then run?
         Does it stink like rotten meat?
         Or crust and sugar over—
         like a syrupy sweet?
 Maybe it just sags
 like a heavy load.
       Or does it explode?
Also, listen to the recitation of Langston Hughes’ poem, Harlem!


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