Harlem was written in 1951 by poet, novelist, and fiction writer Langston Hughes. The poem sparked realizations and questions that are very much relevant today. The infamous line “what happens to a dream deferred?” uproars different answers, seeking clarification and validation from whoever reads the poem.
Little did everyone know, Hughes wrote the poem in line with the aftermath of the 1935 and 1943 Harlem riots. Harlem can be interpreted in two ways. The deferred dreams can pertain to a collective vision, the aim of most people, or an individual goal, which refers to a person’s imagination alone. This line in the poem could also pertain to dreams when we sleep or dreams we set our minds to reach.
Hughes’s genius way of starting the poem with an intriguing question helped build the reader’s curiosity and served as the poem’s foundation. Every line of the poem corresponds to the possible outcome of a deferred dream.
“What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like raisins in the sun?”
This line tried to give an idea or answer to the question being asked. It compares dried raisins and dreams as something untouched and unmoved for such a long time under the scorching heat of pressure.
“Or fester like a sore
and then run?”
The term festers translates to an infected wound. Hughes compared the deferred dream to a wound badly infected with almost no hope of being cured.
“Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust as sugar over
Like a syrupy sweet?”
These lines pertain to something spoiling, losing potency, or outright decaying. Forgotten dreams were compared to things slowly losing their purpose, almost of no use. Hughes seemed to give a subtle warning in disguise of a question as to what will happen to our dreams once we stop dreaming for them.
“Maybe it just sags
Like a heavy load.”
Deferred dreams were then visualized like a heavy bag on the water, sinking slowly, unsure of how dark and deep it will go. No one knows where it lands. Will it ever reach the bottom? Or will it fade away, washed by the harsh waves of reality?
Due to the timeliness of the poem, it quickly hit off and rose to popularity. Aside from its content, the title also holds a significant meaning close to the author’s heart. The title Harlem doesn’t have any particular purpose in other languages, nor was it derived from a specific word. Harlem is a place in New York that holds a large population of African-American citizens. The poem’s perspective is specifically from someone who lives in Harlem or dreams of Harlem’s peace.
When the poem was written, Harlem was a known Black American neighborhood in New York City. The poem evokes for racial injustice that the residents of Harlem were facing. African-American people joined the U.S. military in fighting during World War II. Despite those heroic acts, they still faced and endured tormenting racism, police brutality, unemployment, and white supremacist violence at home. They are mostly segregated and neglected by society, choosing to disregard their capabilities of doing things. Harlem was interpreted as the poem for the lost and forgotten dreams of the citizens of Harlem. The bitter reality that most of us now face as well.
In conclusion, Harlem by Langston Hughes sparked the reader’s curiosity and imagination. It ignites the creative minds of its readers to add countless possibilities as to what happens to dreams deferred. The poem doesn’t stay as a poem when you read it. It seeks validation for clarity, asks for opinions, and ignites the fire of persistence not to let our dreams die. It is the story of forgotten dreams in the form of a poem, allowing the readers to know what happens once they decide to stop pursuing their dreams.
The poem also seeks justice. It asks the questions: “What could’ve been if..?”, “What if…?”, and “If only…”. Harlem is indeed a masterpiece worthy of being passed on to future generations. A timeless masterpiece created that bravely discussed one’s forgotten dreams.
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