18 pages 36 minutes read

Langston Hughes


Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1951

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Summary and Study Guide


“Harlem” was written by American poet Langston Hughes. It was originally published in Montage of a Dream Deferred (1951), a collection of individually titled free verse works that are stylistically linked by jazz- and blues-inspired techniques and thematically connected through their shared focus on Black life in Harlem.

Langston Hughes traveled a long time before settling in Harlem, New York. He worked many jobs on farms, ships, restaurants and night clubs, and his varied experiences show up in his work.

By the time “Harlem” was published, Hughes’s career was well established: He’d been one of the leading artists in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and continued to write poetry, plays, essays, and fiction. But despite his reputation and artistic influence, critical reception of Montage of a Dream Deferred was tepid, both because many of the poems had been previously published, and because some critics felt that Hughes’s style was too sentimental.

“Harlem” is one of the most famous poems from the collection. One of its lines inspired the title of Lorraine Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun (1959). The poem’s vivid images, strong rhythm, and powerful themes make it an enduring favorite.

Poet Biography

James Mercer Langston Hughes was born in Joplin, Missouri on February 1, 1901. His parents divorced early in his life, and he was raised by his grandmother in Lincoln, Illinois, until he was 13.

After his grandmother’s death, Hughes and his mother moved to several cities before settling in Cleveland, Ohio. He wrote poetry during high school and contributed to his school's literary magazine. After graduating, he spent time in Mexico. In 1920, his first published poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” appeared in The Crisis magazine.

From 1921 to 1922 Hughes attended Columbia University; at this time, he was introduced to Harlem and the cultural phenomenon of the Harlem Renaissance. New York became a frequent home base, but Hughes continued to explore the world. He worked on a freighter to Africa and traveled to France, Italy, Holland, and Spain. While he was working as a busboy in Washington, D.C. in 1924, Hughes met the poet Vachel Lindsay, who helped promote his art. In 1926, Hughes enrolled at Lincoln University, a historically black institution near Oxford, Pennsylvania, on a full scholarship for poetry. That same year, his first book of poetry, The Weary Blues, was published. Not Without Laughter, his first novel, came out in 1929—the same year he graduated.

During the 1930s Hughes traveled on lecture tours to the American South, the Soviet Union, Haiti, and Japan. He published short stories and poems. His play Mulatto debuted on Broadway in 1935, and in the next couple years he founded theatre companies in New York and Los Angeles. He served as a war correspondent in the Spanish Civil War in 1937.

Hughes’s success continued to grow during the next decade. He created Jesse B. Semple, a character who would later appear in several books and plays, for a column in the Chicago Defender. He also contributed lyrics for the music of Kurt Weill in a Broadway musical. Money from Street Scene enabled him to buy a brownstone in Harlem where would live for 20 years.

Because Hughes crafted and cultivated his public persona, his private life, particularly his sexuality, has been a contested question for scholars and historians. Arnold Ampersand, the poet’s primary biographer, has suggested Hughes was asexual, while others have used subtext in poems and letters to claim he was a closeted gay man; either way, he has a place in LGBTQIA history.

Hughes continued to write and publish until his death from complications of prostate cancer in 1967. His last collection, the politically engaged The Panther and the Lash was published posthumously. His ashes are buried in the foyer of the Schomburg Library of African American Culture in Harlem. The marker is a circular medallion with a river motif inspired by his first published poem.

Poem Text

Hughes, Langston. “Harlem.” 1951. Academy of American Poets.


The poem opens with a driving question: “What happens to a dream deferred?” (Line 1). This inquiry is philosophical and playful; while a serious reading considers the aftermath of a reneged promise or an expectation that has been betrayed, the rest of the poem sidesteps this line of thinking in favor of a more wry, lighthearted approach, treating the "dream deferred" as an object rather than an idea.

The second stanza searches for an answer by asking a series of secondary questions, each of which implies that the deferred dream is a kind of organic matter that has a finite shelf life. There are many possible ways for the dream to expire or go bad: It could “dry up” (Line 2), “fester” (Line 3), “stink” (Line 6) or “crust and sugar over” (Line 7). The speaker seems to weigh each potential kind of destruction equally, and each query ends with a simile that develops the idea of the dream as a physical object. The pattern is established by the opening lines: “Does it dry up / like a raisin in the sun?” (Lines 1-2) and continues throughout the rest of the stanza.

The two lines of the third stanza bends the pattern by offering another possibility as a statement rather than a question: “Maybe it just sags / like a heavy load” (Lines 9-10). Here, the deferred dream is a burden; this means that will be borne on its dreamer's back for an indeterminate amount of time.

The fourth and final stanza wonders if the dream deferred will “explode” (Line 11). This final question leaves off the simile, though the implication of the verb is that the dream is like a bomb: Rather than being only the dreamer's problem, the constantly put-off dream might become a volatile and violent weapon that impacts everyone around it.

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