Published in 1951, Langston Hughes’ “Montage of a Dream Deferred” is a collection of poetry which explores the theme of racism and utilizes rhythm to make the pieces almost musical. The work “Harlem” quickly became one of the most popular of the anthology. Later the title was changed to “Dream Deferred”, but in analyzing the poem, it is easier to understand in context of its original title. Although the poem was popular with Hughes’ fans, who continued to appreciate the outpourings from this writer closely associated with the Harlem Renaissance, there are those who critically examined the work and found it to be too ambiguous and lacking in real poetic structure.
The poem itself is comprised of a list of rhetorical questions which answer themselves. The answers are written as similes, such as “raisin in the sun” and in the last stanza, “like a heavy load” (Grimes). These similes appeal to all the senses: visual – “dry up” and “crust…over”, feel – “sags” and “heavy load”, auditory – “explode”, olfactory – “stink” and “fester” and “rotten meat” – and the sense of taste, as well – “syrupy sweet” and “raisin”, (Hansen).
The last line “does it explode?” is a metaphor referring to the way a dream can be like a time bomb – it must be used before the time when it will detonate inside a person.
Hughes employs the use of rhyme, as well, such as “sun” and “run” and “meat” and sweet”. In this way, the poem has a somewhat musical tone when spoken aloud and the short stanzas provide an easy structure. Hughes uses imagery, as well, to give the reader a clearer picture of his intent. “Raisin in the sun” is particularly evocative of an item withering away while “fester like a sore” gives the reader a grim visual and denotes the bitterness of the writer.
In interpreting “Dream Deferred”, it must be taken into account that Hughes was well-noted for his scant use of words to convey the issues and circumstances most affecting Black Americans of the time period. In this case he is asking a question which means more than just its surface meaning. “What happens to a dream deferred” is referencing the dreams, the goals, the visions, most particularly of Blacks, who have been denied many of the privileges of their White counterparts.
Hughes answers the question with several lines evoking imagery. “Like a raisin in the sun” is a reminder of skin, both in its dark color and wrinkled image, and could even reference days spent toiling in the sun by migrant workers working in the fields. That fact that the dream dries up could also refer to it becoming less valuable, or less viable (Grimes). During the time Hughes grew up, he could very well view a lofty dream as being impossible to attain due to his race and thus the issue of racism is once again addressed by Hughes in this poem.
“Dream Deferred” also answers the question by stating the result of ignoring a dream may be for it to “fester like a sore” and “then run”. In this case, the dream, if not tended to, may become “infected” by a lack of motivation, or opportunity, or circumstance. The reference to the stink of rotten meat refers to the nurturance required to make a dream reality. Without proper preservation, a dream “may decay because it dies” (Grimes).
When Hughes uses the terms of crusting over and syrupy sweet to describe a dream deferred, he makes an analogy to something which started out as a treat but becomes unusable if it is, again, not properly cared for. A dream which once held hope “hardens into an unusable substance” (Grimes). The deterioration depicted can be further assumed to be referring to the state of the Black population and Harlem itself. Hughes was worried about the “widespread poverty, drugs, and crime of the 1950s” (Mueller) and felt the society he was most familiar with was experiencing a general decay.
Instead of continuing to answer the question, the second stanza gives a set of possibilities: maybe it sags, maybe it becomes a heavy load, maybe it just explodes. If working toward the dream seems impossible, it can deflate, become a burden, or perhaps it causes the dreamer to erupt due to the unrealized end to his goal. The burden can be an expression of depression, or the loss of will to make a dream come true.
The explosion could occur in the form of death – not necessarily a literal death, but the death of a person’s soul, or motivations, or hope to change his life. This explosion and death also analogizes the life of Black Americans at the time. According to Hansen, “Its disintegration mirrors the continuing failure of American society to achieve harmonious integration of blacks and whites”. For so long, the race had been oppressed and the pent-up frustrations and anger of Hughes’ fellow Blacks, could very well one day explode in a burst of violence (as if often did).
Hansen criticizes the unity of “Dream Deferred” by referring to it as a mass of “unresolved conflict”. According to Hansen, its elements, form, and structure are all at odds with themselves and do not follow that often prescribed for poetry of the period. He states that most of the answers Hughes gives to the question “What happens to a dream deferred?” are not declarative and the only one which is, “maybe it just sags” loses its significance because it is written without force and does not provide a conclusive answer (Hansen). Hansen also decries Hughes’ usage of stanza breaks.
The middle five lines are indented, giving more weight to the first line (the question), and the last (the answer), although Hansen feels the middle lines are much more dramatic and should have been given the emphasis. As well, Hansen criticizes the structure in that the rhyming lines are not placed in logical order and thereby lose their musical resonance and the importance of the pairing of oppositions. Hansen sums up the contradictory nature of the poem and its ideas by reiterating the lack of forceful answers, the final answer which is tentative in its assertion, the division of stanzas which remove the importance of pairing opposites, and a failed rhyme scheme in “Dream Deferred”.
While Hansen’s criticism of the work has its merits, there is still an important message regarding racism within Hughes’ poem, one which the author reiterated in many ways. Through the use of imagery, metaphor, and similes, many of which are uncomfortable, Hughes airs his frustrations regarding race separations. Often Hughes employed a sardonic tone to get his point across and educate the general public about the effects of racism (Mueller).
Even as he began to achieve some fame and acclaim for his literary works, Hughes wanted to be known as one of the more common folk and let others of his race know that he, too, experienced their frustrations and anger. To this end, Hughes was quite successful. He, as well as his peers, had all experienced the emotions accompanying a dream which seemed impossible. Although “Dream Deferred” couches his message in rather repugnant phraseology, it is effective in bringing forth a natural fighting instinct to rail against the dictates of a racist society and this is exactly what Hughes desired to do.
Hansen, Tom. “On ‘Harlem’”. Modern American Poetry. Retrieved March 27, 2008 from the Modern American Poetry Website: .
Mueller, Michael E. “Black Biography: Langston Hughes”. From Answers.com. Retrieved March 28, 2008 from the Answers.com Website: http://www.answers.com/topic/langston-hughes-poet-writer
Grimes, Linda Sue. “Hughes ‘Harlem: A Dream Deferred’: Analysis and Commentary”. Suite 101. February 1, 2007. Retrieved March 28, 2008 from the Suite 101 Website: http://poetry.suite101.com/article.cfm/hughes___harlem__a_dream_deferred_.