The poetry of Langston Hughes, the poet laureate of Harlem, is an effective commentary on the condition of blacks in America during the 20th Century. Hughes places particular emphasis on Harlem, a black area in New York that became a destination of many hopeful blacks in the first half of the 1900s. In much of Hughes’ poetry, a theme that runs throughout is that of a “dream deferred. ” The recurrence of a”dream deferred” in several Hughes poems paints a clear picture of the disappointment and dismay that blacks in America faced in Harlem.
Furthermore, as each poem develops, so does the feeling behind a”dream deferred,” growing more serious and even angry with each new stanza. To understand Hughes’ idea of the”dream deferred,” one must have an understanding of the history of Harlem. First intended to be an upper class white community, Harlem was the home of many fancy brownstones that attracted wealthy whites. Between 1906 and 1910, when whites were forcing blacks out of their neighborhoods in uptown Manhattan, the blacks began to move into Harlem. Due to racial fears, the whites in the area moved out.
Between 1910 and the early 1940’s, more blacks began flooding into the area from all over the world, fleeing from the racial intolerance of the South and the economic problems of the Caribbean and Latin America. Eventually Harlem became an entirely black area. However, this town once filled with much potential soon became riddled with overpopulation, exploitation, and poverty. Thus, what awaited new arrivals was not a dream; rather, it was a”dream deferred” (Harlem Today). Hughes’ first poem”Harlem” clearly outlines the”dream deferred” theme, setting the pace for the poems to follow.
The first line of this poem is”What happens to a dream deferred? ” In the case of this poem, the dream is of the promise of Harlem, and what blacks hoped to find there: opportunity, better living conditions, and freedom from racial intolerance. When blacks arrived in Harlem, though, their dream was deferred; instead of the opportunities they had envisioned, they were faced with overcrowding, exploitation, and poverty. At the beginning of”Harlem,” the mood that accompanies “a dream deferred” is a questioning one that begins a search for definition.
This mood, which will develop as each poem progresses, induces the reader to reflect upon the meaning of “a dream deferred,” preparing them for its development. The poem continues, listing the possible fates of a dream that never becomes reality. It suggests that maybe the dream will “dry up / like a raisin in the sun,” withering up and disappearing. Maybe it will “stink like rotten meat,” becoming a sickening reminder of what will never be. Perhaps the dream will”crust and sugar over;” Hughes seems to be saying here that the dream deferred might be covered up by society with a veil of normalcy.
The most powerful line in”Harlem,” though, is the last line: “Or does it explode? ” This line, in italics for emphasis, makes obvious the severity of a postponed dream, especially the dream of the blacks in Harlem. For a people who have been oppressed for centuries, the denial of yet another dream is not taken lightly. With the final line, Hughes seems to be hinting at a revolution, alluding to the idea that blacks in Harlem are like a ticking time bomb waiting to explode. Here, the mood of”a dream deferred” has increased in intensity.
The possible fates listed previously are unpleasant, but the last one is somewhat ominous and almost threatening. The theme continues in the poem”Good Morning,” emphasizing the rude awakening that awaited the blacks upon their arrival in Harlem with the use of details that paint a more realistic picture and create a more serious feeling about”a dream deferred” in the reader . “Good Morning, ” unlike”Harlem,” contains direct references to the city. These direct references help the reader to understand the reality that lies within the poem.
The speaker has”watched Harlem grow / until the colored folks spread. ” Hughes refers to Harlem as a”dusky sash across Manhattan:” he describes the masses of blacks flooding into Harlem from places such as Puerto Rico, Cuba, Georgia, and Louisiana. The poem changes moods with the lines”I’ve seen them come dark/ out of Penn Station – / but the trains are late. / The gates are open – / Yet there’re bars / at each gate. ” The people have not found what they expected and hoped for in Harlem. These last lines help the reader to understand the feelings that accompanied the harsh reality of Harlem.
The addition of the blunt question,”What happens / to a dream deferred? ” maintains this understanding: this is the”dream deferred,” and this is what the people were experiencing. The question is harsh and unyielding, and its position in the poem creates a feeling of seriousness. Another Hughes poem,”Same in Blues,” attempts to establish further the idea of a”dream deferred,” incorporating a type of dialogue between characters to explain the components of a”dream deferred,” adding an element of anger to the end.
The first stanza has a woman telling her man that she has to keep moving, followed by the lines,”There’s a certain / amount of traveling / in a dream deferred. ” This method continues through four stanzas, where peopl converse, and a new component is introduced:”a certain amount of nothing,””a certain amount of impotence. ” The last component the poem introduces is the most effective:”There’s liable / to be confusion / in a dream deferred. ” The poem continues to say that”there’s liable to be confusion / when a dream gets kicked around. This last line seems to suggest the anger that many blacks feel – no longer is the dream”deferred. ” Now it is”kicked around,” creating a harsher image and angrier feeling than the former.
The next poem, somewhat shorter than the previous three, is”Comment on Curb,” which also contains the more negative image of dreams being”kicked around” while hinting at the false illusion of hope that many had about Harlem. The poem, two stanzas long, states:”You talk like / they don’t kick / dreams around / downtown. Unlike”Same in Blues,””Comment on the Curb” is entirely dialogue. The poem consists of one person speaking of how dreams are”kicked around” downtown, while the other suggests that such things do not happen in Harlem:”I’m talking about Harlem to you! ” This poem, continuing with the image of dreams being abused to a great extent, demonstrates the view of Harlem as a place where dreams thrive.
The title suggests that this type of dialogue occurred often, a comment made in passing, alluding to the idea that this view was a widespread and highly accepted one. Comment on Curb” is a remark on the disillusionment of many blacks; it portrays their image of Harlem in an almost sarcastic manner, commenting indirectly on their unfortunate lack of information. The use again of the”kicked around” expression conveys the same type of anger that”Same in Blues” conveys: anger with the situation, anger with the anger with the lack of information blacks possessed, and moreover, anger with society’s lack of respect for their dreams. The final poem that utilizes the”dream deferred” theme is”Island. This poem describes an island located between two rivers, hence the title. The image of the island is negative and somber:
“Like darker rivers / The streets are dark. ” The word”dark” can refer to either lack of light or the fact that the population is dark skinned; however, an expected first impression would be gloomy and foreboding, coming from the image of darkness. The poem continues, making reference to the many different colors that are in this”pie of a town:””Black and white, / Gold and brown. ” The reader might infer that people of many races reside on this island of many colors.
The use of the phrase”Chocolate-custard / Pie of a town” seems somewhat sarcastic, as did the lines in”Comment on Curb. ” The lines create the ironical illusion of a happy place without worries or problems, the irony being that the island is not completely trouble-free. The irony increases with the following stanza:”Dream within a dream, / Our dream deferred. ” Again, Hughes uses italics for emphasis, as this is a very crucial stanza. Moving from an angry mood to one that is rather melancholy and doleful, the poem now refers to another dream, this one inside the first.
Perhaps this new dream is of the “pie of a town” – perhaps, after the initial shock of the conditions of Harlem, the island of the poem’s title, the people living there have created a new illusion, one in which Harlem lives up to their original expectations. Hughes continues, saying that the”dream within a dream,” along with the original dream of Harlem, has been deferred. The satirical hope that the poem offers in the”pie of a town” reference disappears with the”dream within a dream” illusion. This final poem gives the sad impression that although it may appear as if things have improved in Harlem, nothing has changed.
It is all still a dream – a dream that is stilldeferred. Langston Hughes, in utilizing the continuing”dream deferred” theme in his poetry, creates a powerful image that develops with each poem and links one poem to the next. Hughes communicates the dejection of blacks in Harlem with great clarity and precision. The feelings that accompany the theme range from foreboding to anger to gloom, creating a sense of each in the reader. Hughes’ poems are an effective comment on the experiences of blacks in Harlem and the dream that they share: a dream that, though deferred, still exists.