HARLEM by Langston Hughes
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
The speaker wonders what happens to a deferred dream, whether it dries up “ like a raisin in the sun” , or if it oozes like a wound and then disappears. It might also smell “like rotten meat” or develop a sugary crust, or it might just sag “like a heavy load,” or even “explode”.
Hughes wrote “Harlem” (also known as “Dream Deferred” ) in 1951, on one of his most common themes – the limitations of the American Dream for African Americans. The title recalls the Harlem Renaissance, that creative explosion in music, literature, and art that occurred during the 1910s and 1920s, whose glamour faded at the beginning of the 1930s with the arrival of the Great Depression .
In the early 1950s, America was still racially segregated and Hughes was aware of the challenges he faced as a black man in America.
The speaker thinks about the fate of a “dream deferred” and employs powerful images to underline that a discarded dream does not simply vanish, but it undergoes an evolution, approaching a physical state of decay.
Martin Luther King, Jr. first spoke of “dreams” in a sermon he delivered on April 5, 1959. His subject that day was disappointment, not hope, the realization that often hopes are not fulfilled, and the necessity “to face the agony of blasted hopes and shattered dreams”. His reference to unfulfilled and shattered dreams is actually an allusion to Langston Hughes’s poem “Dream Deferred”. This sermon became one of King’s most repeated and personal sermons, and on other occasions King made the connections to Hughes’s poem explicit: “I am personally the victim of deferred dreams, of blasted hopes.” His intimate familiarity with Hughes’s poetry was sustained by his wife Coretta’s vast collection of Hughes’s works
King loved poetry: he quoted it from memory and rewrote poetic lines in his public addresses. Even his earliest iterations of the phrase “I have a dream” were actually presented in the form of a poem. And the phrase gradually turned the negative aspects of dreaming into something inspiring and unifying.