In the poem "Harlem" by Langston Hughes, the poet creates an image of decay. At the height of the New Negro Renaissance, Harlem became the home for a new wave of thought and creativity. Despite the overwhelming popularity given to the small neighborhood in New York City, Hughes records the eventual decline and departure of the intellectual leaders from the Mecca of the greatest cultural change of the twentieth century. "Harlem" foretells of the despair that most residents of the neighborhood will go through, as their dream of equality and prosperity is "deferred".
The poet begins the poem with a question that could easily pass for a philosophical discussion at the dinner table: "What happens to a dream deferred?" (406, 1). The word deferred stands out to the reader in considering what really happened to the dream. By stating that the dream had been deferred, the author allows for the dream to return. Deferring a dream is not the same as destroying it. Most often the reader will associate military service or college when thinking about deferment. This suggests to the reader that the author's dream is being deferred for a higher cause. Whether the dream is put on hold for war—a battle for equality, or for the education of the Black residents—a time to learn and then return ready to share the knowledge with their neighbors and family, eventually that dream will return to claim all the glory it was intended to receive.
The poet continues the writing by starting to list some possible outcomes for the deferred dream. "Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore—and then run?" (406, 2-5). Using the imagery of a raisin in the sun creates the feeling of something small reacting to a large amount of heat. This represents the great oppression the residents and Black leaders were facing at the time from the popular majority parties. The rhyme of these two lines is ABA. By linking the sentences together to allow the reader to feel the heat and pain felt by members of his community, the author takes the reader on a journey into the feelings and disappointment of the Harlem residents.
Continuing on with his theme of a dream deferred, the speaker then compares the dream to food: "Does it stink like rotten meat? Or crust and sugar over—like a sugary sweet?" (406, 6-8). The author's use of meat and sugar signify to the reader the importance of this great dream. Meat feeds and builds the body with a lasting protein while a syrupy sweet is a treat best saved for after meals—a simple dessert. Is this dream the nourishment needed to endure the trials ahead, or does the dream more closely resemble the sweet joys of art; providing pleasure but no lasting energy for life? The words chosen by the speaker create the images of a large feast prepared to celebrate the victory of war, but with no one attending, the food sours and remaining inedible to anyone who shows up late.
The author switches from the imagery of food to a much more pressing comparison: "Maybe it just sags like a heavy load." (406, 9-10). This image relates to the buildings of a once thriving neighborhood. The Apollo Theater for example fell close to ruin after the movement that defined much of Harlem ended. Not only are the buildings aging, but the people too; poverty, crime, and neglect have crippled a large number of Harlem residents. Those wishing to leave the rough neighborhood are often required to work harder and longer than their peers living across town.
The most chilling lines of this poem have been saved by the author for the end. Realizing that people will only be kept down for so long, and that the dream that had been deferred will soon return giving life and hope to the dreamers, the poet leaves the reader with a sense of the power and fight left inside: "Or does it explode?" (406, 11). Will there be an explosion? Will it come from the inside or the outside? The author does not tell when and where, just a simple question perhaps left as a warning serves as a cautionary conclusion to a poignant poem.