The first recognized African-American writer, Langston Hughes became famous for his literary talent and insuperable will to change the society. The poetry of this passionate man had a significant impact on the civil rights movement.
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Langton Hughes, one of the most talented writers to emerge from the Harlem renaissance used his poem “Harlem” to express his feelings toward the inequalities, discrimination and limitations that African Americans have to endure in a presumably free society.
The year 1951, the place Harlem, are iconic symbols because in 1951 the civil right movement was strong in America, and Harlem since the 1920’s has been a major residential and cultural center of African Americans. Since the Civil War in 1865, the movement for social changes and equal opportunities had been developed.
Philips says that “the events the critic cites here begin at the conclusion of the Civil War in 1865 and actually extend beyond the poem’s 1951 publication date into the 1970s and 1980s when many Black Studies programs at American universities were eliminated and when reaction against Affirmative Action programs began to escalate” (“An overview of “Harlem””).
In 1951, a young writer published his poetry dedicated to all those people who struggle for the equality and freedom. Although African-American soldiers were fighting and defending democracy in the Second World War together with other citizens, after the War, they faced a problem of racial discrimination, frustration and oppression at home (“Explanation”).
Thus, Bizort emphasizes that “the poem reflects the post-World War II mood of many African Americans; the Great Depression was over, the war was over, but for African Americans the dream, whatever particular form it took, was still being deferred” (2002).
Langston Hughes expressed his feelings is a special style where “he employed his jazz form – with its polyrhythmic texture, quick cuts and extended riffs – to express a deep yearning for freedom” (“Explanation”).
The poem of Langston Hughes has two titles: Harlem and Dream Deferred. As the representative of the Harlem Renaissance, the author describes the life of Harlem community after the Second World War and the civil rights movement. The intolerance and disillusions are the main topic of the poem.
Hughes never abandoned the language of racial protest in his poetry to fight for the rights of the African Americans in a society where they were segregated. The author comprehended the meaning and power of words as a tool of peaceful but effective fight.
From an early age, Hughes started to use word as an instrument of protesting. According to Sundquist, “Hughes first came to notice, barely out of high school, with the publication in 1921 of “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”, a poem composed in a ten-minute flash of inspiration on a trip to visit his estranged father in Mexico” (1996).
From his childhood, Hughes faced the racial prejudice and wanted to change this situation, using his talent in order to struggle against the racial intolerance. Sundquist indicates that in the preface to “Simple Stakes a Claim” (1957), Hughes says, “the race problem in America is serious business, but humor is a weapon, too, of no mean value against one’s foes” (1996).
In this case, literature, poetry can be the powerful tool which can stand against the politicians. Understanding of this power made Langston Hughes the most famous and valuable figure of Harlem literary Renaissance.
“Harlem” invites the reader to answer the question: “What happens to a dream deferred?” (Hughes); in this case the dream that Hughes refers to is the American dream of freedom from oppression and liberty. The author asks what happens to a dreams as he wonders why they are postponed and left to dry up under the sun.
The last line is the answer on the question of this poem. Perhaps, these dreams explode. The formalist analysis of the work is based on the rhetorical question why people forget or neglect their dreams.
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The main question is opened by other five rhetorical questions while the author offers only one possible answer. The frustrated dream of African-Americans includes “dream of freedom, equality, dignity, opportunity, and success” (Bizot 2002).
According to Bizort, “this particular poem does not define or give examples of the dream (many other poems in Montage of a Dream Deferred do this); it concentrates, instead, on possible reactions to the deferral of a dream, ranging from the fairly mild-mannered (“Does it dry up/ like a raisin in the sun?”) to the threatening (“Or does it explode?”)” (2002).
Although the author does not indicate the dream, the main idea and the message are evident: it is necessary to remember the dream and to continue fighting for its realization. The author sees people around him, the citizens of Harlem and he wonders why they neglect the dream that is the major sense of life during the centuries.
Hughes says: “I didn’t know the upper class Negroes well enough to write much about them. I knew only the people I had grown up with, and they weren’t the people whose shoes were always shined, who had been to Harvard, or who had heard of Bach. But they seemed to me good people, too” (“Langston Hughes”). Growing in a poor area, Hughes cannot comprehend why people stopped fighting, what happened with their dream.
Hughes used metaphors to introduce possible answers to the poem’s opening question; and compare the dream to a “raisin”, to a “festering sore”, to “rotten meat”, to “sugar crust over”, and to a “heavy load” (Hughes). The use of similes compares the dreams’ deferring with the meat rotting, sugary syrup and heavy loads.
This imagery reflects our daily life activities. Bizot indicates that “the most striking features of “Harlem” are the vivid, even startling, metaphors that Hughes introduces as possible answers to the poem’s opening question, “What happens to a dream deferred?” (2002).
Analyzing the metaphors used by the author, one can find that each of them has a significant idea that makes poem deeper and bright.
Thus, “drying “up/ like a raisin in the sun” (Hughes) refers to the person who still has one’s dream but it is not evident anymore, this dream seems vague. According to Bizort, “To “fester like a sore / and then run” suggests something considerably more unappealing – and dangerous – than drying up: a wound not healing and eventually a limb or a life may be lost” (2002).
The author’s technique has its own characteristic that includes the use of “the various visions of the psychological ramifications of the dream’s deferral: a type of atrophy and exhaustion, dried up “like a raisin in the sun”, a cankerous wound that “stinks like rotting meat”, or a type of Uncle Tom sentimentality, where the dream would “crust and sugar over / like a syrupy sweet” (“Explanation”).
Vulgar word “stink” is used in order to emphasize an idea that even the best strivings can be destroyed. The line “stink like rotten meat” (Hughes) indicates that thought, idea or dream that was abandoned, neglected can be compared with stink meat.
Writing “crust and sugar over / like a syrupy sweet”, the author wants to emphasize the sweetest way of talking about the racial problems, when the top of the society tries to show that there is no real problem and, in fact, everything is fine.
However, Hughes as the representative of the Harlem Renaissance was acquainted with the reality from inside and knew the real depth of this issue. For Bizort, “crust and sugar over / like a syrupy sweet” seems anticlimactic at first, after rot; “sugar” and “sweet” recall the concentrated sweetness of a raisin” (2002).
The final warning question: “Or does it explode?” proves Hughes’s poem to be prophetic as violence broke out in America’s inner cities in the 1960’s. According to the article “Explanation of: ‘Harlem: A Dream Deferred’ by Langston Hughes”, the author “does not question the fundamental vision of democracy, but wishes to extend its freedoms to blacks, “a dream within a dream” (2000).
The last two lines of the poem are different than others. “Penultimately, there is the statement, “maybe it just sags/ like a heavy load” – perhaps the saddest of the responses, suggesting depression and despair”, indicated Bizot. However, at the end one still can see and feel the real opinion of Hughes. The author believes that this dream will explode.
The people of Harlem will wake up and raise their flags in order to get the social equality. It is obvious that Hughes reflects about this turn in the people’s mind. Perhaps, this claim can be considered as a simple hope; however, I think that Hughes is sure that this will happen. People just need someone who will conduct them and show how to get the freedom, rights and all opportunities that our life provides.
For Phillips, the final question indicates that “the poet is drawing our attention to “possibility” and “toughness” as qualities born from the need to survive under an oppressive social, political, judicial, and economic order and the decay-ridden conditions it brings” (“An overview of “Harlem”) Moreover, “it also underscores, emphatically, that the repressed, but still throbbing, dream of equal treatment will indeed be realized, but in unpredictable and potentially furious forms” (Phillips).
Hughes believes that soon the streets of his native Harlem will explode and African-Americans will claim about their rights. However, on the other hand, the author does not say about the violence and fight with the use of weapons. He knows that word can be better and more effective instrument than violence.
The Harlem Renaissance that is also called the New Negro Renaissance or the Harlem Awakening had been occurred between 1919 and 1929. This event had a significant impact on the civil rights movement.
Waldron indicates that “whatever they are called, they were years of rich productivity within the black artistic community, and Hughes was an important element in that Renaissance” (2002). Concluding, one can notice that “Harlem” suggests an idea that having to postpone one’s deepest desires can lead to destruction and violence.
Bizot, Richard. “Harlem.” Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition (2002): 1-3. Literary Reference Center Plus. Web.
“Explanation of: ‘Harlem: A Dream Deferred’ by Langston Hughes.” LitFinder Contemporary Collection. Detroit: Gale, 2000. LitFinder. Web.
Hughes, Langston. “Harlem”. Web.
“Langston Hughes.” Contemporary Heroes and Heroines. Vol. 2. Gale, 1992. Gale Biography In Context. Web.
Phillips, Harry. “An overview of “Harlem”.” Poetry for Students. Detroit: Gale. Literature Resource Center. Web.
Sundquist, Eric J. “Who was Langston Hughes?” Commentary 102.6 (1996): 55+. Literature Resources from Gale. Web.
Waldron, Edward E. “Langston Hughes.” Critical Survey Of Poetry, Second Revised Edition (2002): 1-5. Literary Reference Center Plus. Web.