Old School Sundays: Langston Hughes’ “Harlem”

The first time I came across the poetry of Langston Hughes, I was an undergrad in an African-American Lit class. I immediately took to his style. To me, Hughes’ work seemed morphed—broken up and haphazardly put back together again, yet the final result was pure…well, poetry.

Hughes’ words seem to almost mimic the meandering beats of jazz music, and it’s not just the formatting, or the ways the words are displayed on the page…the content has roots as deep as the American experience.

Hughes was a prominent figure in the Harlem Renaissance—a black arts movement that exploded in a Manhattan neighborhood (Harlem) during the 1920s. At the time thousands of African Americans from the south were migrating up north in search of a better life. Those who landed in Harlem took this notion and ran with it.

This poem speaks to me on a variety of levels:

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?

“Dried Fruits” Merelize → in Food & Drink

I think most, if not all writers—or anyone with a dream for that matter—can relate to this notion. What does happen when we put our dreams on hold? Do they die this horrible death? Do they “fester” inside of us?

I’ve often wondered if Hughes is suggesting that our unanswered dreams completely disappear or if they stay with us, weighing us down, razing our passion and desire.

The other question that troubles me concerns personal choice. Do we choose our own dreams? I’ve often considered leaving my dreams of writing behind. What kind of person would I be if I no longer wanted to write? Would my life be easier? But if I turn away from it…as Hughes seem to be suggesting…am I destined to “…dry up/like a raisin in the sun?”? Is something I can or can’t help?

The last line, “Or does it explode?” appears to have an even darker connotation. Does what explode? Our lives? Does neglecting our true fervor lead to destruction?

It’s interesting to note that despite Harlem’s rich history, it’s more or less a slum today. West Harlem, actually, was the home of the Renaissance. Anyone from the greater NYC area knows to be wary of treading above 96th street. It’s sad, but I can’t help but wonder if Harlem itself feels victim to this idea of “deferring dreams.”



Filed under Books and Literature, Old School Sundays

4 responses to “Old School Sundays: Langston Hughes’ “Harlem”

  1. I really enjoy how you make the literary and cultural connections. It’s an interesting idea, thinking about dreams deferred. I didn’t write for many years and I think it gave me a sense that something better was just around the corner. Now I’m writing, and I wonder why I waited so long.

    • Thanks Michelle. I often wonder what would happen if I were to stop writing. Whenever I speculate on that idea I often think of this poem and it’s usually enough to get me going again.

  2. Natylie Baldwin

    Hi Katie,

    I first encountered this poem (the full poem) in a college English class and found it very haunting and effective. After seeing it again years later on your post, I still think so. There are so many ways that dreams can be deferred and for so many reasons, whether it is us, people around us, circumstances or the society in which we live.

    Hughes, with this poem, seemed to capture a crucial theme of the Harlem Renaissance as many of its writers and artists seemed to be addressing this very question — whether they realized it or not.

    • Hi Natylie…yes, it is haunting isn’t it? That’s a great word for it! I agree that the poem does address the Harlem Renaissance. It always seemed a bit odd to me that Hughes would write a poem like this, because he seemed to me a man who truly took care of his dreams. I guess there was more behind the poet and the poem.

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