“A Dream Deferred”
What happens to a dream deferred? (a)
Does it dry up (b)
like a raisin in the sun? (c)
Or fester like a sore- (d)
And then run? (c)
Does it stink like rotten meat? (e)
Or crust and sugar over- like a syrupy sweet? (e)
Maybe it just sags (f)
like a heavy load. (g)
Or does it explode? (g)
Born in Joplin, Missouri, James Langston Hughes (1902-1967) was born into an abolitionist family. As the grandson of James Mercer Langston, the first Black American to be elected to public office in 1855, Hughes attended Central High School in Cleveland, Ohio, but began writing poetry in the eighth grade, and was selected as Class Poet. His father didn’t think he would be able to make a living at writing, and encouraged him to pursue a more practical career. His father paid his tuition to Columbia University on the grounds he study engineering. After a short time, Langston dropped out of the program with a B+ average, all the while he continued writing poetry. (Hughes)
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 1900 s. 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, especially this one, paint a clear picture of the disappointment and dismay that blacks in America faced in Harlem. Furthermore, as the poem develops, so does the feeling behind “A Dream Deferred,” growing more serious and angrier with each new line.
To understand Hughes’ idea of the “dream deferred,” one must have an understanding of the history of Harlem, for each and every line in this poem has a figurative, not literal, meaning and relates precisely to his experience in New York. 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’ poem, “A Dream Deferred” in “a,b,c,d,c,e,e,g,g,g” rhyme scheme, clearly outlines his disappointment in the conditions of Harlem. 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 this poem the mood that accompanies “a dream deferred” is a questioning one that begins a search for definition. This mood, which will develop as the 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 “A Dream Deferred,” 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.
Langston Hughes’ poem, as depicted above, properly, but aggressively, transmits his thoughts of disappointment to his readers with each of his lines full of figurative language as described in the previous paragraph. 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 commentary on the experiences of blacks in Harlem and the dream that they share: a dream that, though deferred, still exists.
Bailey, A. Peter and Edith J. Slade. Harlem Today: A Cultural and Visitors Guide – Online Edition.
Hughes, James Langston. Available online: http://longman.awl.com/englishpages/lit_wkbk_hughes.htm