Langston Hughes short poem, “Harlem,” seeks to understand what happens to a dream when it is put on hold. Hughes uses vivid imagery and similes to make an effort to describe what the consequences are to a dream that is lost. He attempts to bring to the attention the life of a Negro and how so many dreams are put off to the side because of prejudice against African Americans. The tone, imagery, and diction of Langston Hughes poem, “Harlem,” will be discussed in this paper.
“Harlem” was written in 1951, which was around the time where prejudice against African Americans was still present (Cummings).
Earlier, the civil war “had liberated them from slavery, and federal laws had granted them the right to vote, the right to own property, and so on” (Cummings). Although these civil rights were given to African Americans, prejudice continued to be a problem in society. They were put into poorly run segregated schools, given unskilled jobs, and were not allowed to use the same “public facilities” as white people (Cummings).
This background information helps define the tone of the poem. The feeling of anger and frustration are conveyed through Hughes poem.
Hughes was frustrated with the fact that their skin color was holding them back from pursuing their dreams. He asks a series of rhetorical questions to build up to the last line “Or does it explode? ” (Hughes 691). This line sets the overall tone of the poem by describing the build up of the anger the blacks had toward the white oppression. Hughes final message of the poem is that this resentment they have held inside for so long will soon explode causing both political and social damage. The use of imagery is prevalent throughout this poem.
Hughes begins the poem by asking, “What happens to a dream deferred? ” (690). From there he uses vivid imagery in the form of similes to paint a picture of someone’s dream that is wasting away. The images he uses touch on all five senses: sight, touch, smell, taste, and hearing. In the first two lines he uses the sense of taste by comparing a deferred dream to a raisin drying up in the sun. The original dream is a fresh, sweet grape but when it is put off to the side it dries up and turns into a black raisin.
In lines four and five Hughes uses the sense of touch by comparing a dream to a sore by stating “Or fester like a sore/ and then run? ” (609). A sore on our body is apart of us, just like an unfulfilled dream. An untreated sore will eventually become infected, just like a deferred dream will become more intense over time. The next line uses the sense of smell to describe a dream by comparing it to a “stink of rotten meat” (Hughes 690). Hughes is trying to convey that a dream that is put off will become less appealing.
Lines seven and eight compare a dream to the sense of taste by stating, “Or crust and sugar over/ like a syrupy sweet? ” (Hughes 690). This simile is describing that over time this dream will be “crusted” over and forgotten about. This last question then transitions into the only statement in the poem, “Maybe it just sags/ like a heavy load. ” (Hughes 691). This statement is describing the heavy burden that is put on the dreamer. It creates an image of defeat.
The final question uses the sense of hearing by saying “Or does it explode? (Hughes 690). This line describes that if this dream continues to be put off, it will eventually explode and chaos will spread. These images help establish the situation and setting of the poem. The oppression of African American’s dreams will ultimately cause an “explosion” of resentment and hate toward the white race. The diction of the poem seems to be very straightforward. Hughes chose his words very carefully to have a meaning that must be interpreted by the reader.
In line four, Hughes chose the word “fester” to represent the anger and resentment that had been building up inside African Americans from being treated unequally. The word “explode” is used to represent the violence and chaos that will be the result of the festering anger that’s building up. The word “rotten” also has significance towards it. If you put something aside and leave it there for a long period of time, especially meat, it will become rotten. Hughes is trying to convey that putting dreams to the side will cause them to become “rotten” and forgotten about.
Hughes uses the word “crust” to describe the dream being set aside for too long causing it to “crust and sugar over” making it no longer usable (690). Just like syrup that is set out for too long causing it to harden and become no longer usable. Hughes uses the term “heavy load” to describe the burden society put on African Americans by holding them back from pursuing their dreams. They must live with the “what if” weighing them down like a heavy load. Hughes use of diction is chosen very carefully to depict the anger of African Americans for having to hold back their dreams and goals because of their race.
Langston Hughes uses tone, imagery, and diction to convey the deferred dreams and white oppression of African Americans. Racial prejudice caused many African Americans to lose sight of their dreams. Although they were granted their civil rights at this time period, racial discrimination was still prevalent in society and prevented them from pursuing their dreams. Hughes tries to bring to the attention the consequences of the built up resentment and thrown away dreams of African Americans to the reader in his short poem, “Harlem. ”