“What happens to a dream deferred?” Langston Hughes asks in the opening line of his poem, “Harlem.” Taken with the title, the first line ties us up in place and language in just a very few words. A “dream deferred” was one of Hughes’ overriding themes, and “dream” is a hard word to read without hitching it to that adjective “American” or dropping it in place in Martin Luther King’s famous speech. “Deferred,” too, begs for a larger audience with the American dream, especially considering how official-sounding it is, conjuring the authoritative action of a “deferral.” Though the line at first sounds almost speculative and relatively private in tone, “What happens to a dream deferred?” is a very public and enduring question.
In the body of the poem, the speaker attempts to answer his own questions with questions, ushering us through a number of similes that help us consider various responses to or fates of “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.
As image-based poems usually do, “Harlem” relies on us to turn its images around in our minds, allowing us to consider the nuances of each.
In “Harlem,” however, the images themselves are a type of encasing, the spinning of language around an absence, since the “dream deferred” remains undefined and abstract. One can read the poem as a congeries of images collected around an abortion, an act of creation in response to abstraction, negation, or even evil itself if we take non-being as evil. “Harlem” itself is the “crust[ing] and sugar[ing] over” of something that was but has been denied. However, if the poem is making something ugly or empty into something beautiful and promising, then it also represents the danger of art: it’s covering over something that, like an infected wound, must be dealt with openly.
But this is where “Harlem,” the title and the community, comes into play. Hughes, the microphone of Harlem, is there to record Harlem, to let the voices of Harlem come through. It’s “Harlem” that prevents the poet from making something beautiful of Harlem at the expense of making something true of Harlem. The last line of the poem, a line of italics, which Hughes often used to represent another voice, interjects a somewhat different answer to the original question:
Or does it explode?
The line is shorter by half than the rest of the poem’s images, notably unpoetic; it as such explodes upon us out of nowhere. And where the first speaker’s images rely on simile, the final line relies on metaphor — instantaneous metaphor: the dream deferred has gone from dream to explosion just that fast.
This year, I asked students to read “Harlem” in light of Ferguson, Missouri, another place that would have us hear something about the conditions of their community. Once again in Ferguson we saw an explosion stemming from a dream deferred: the dream inherent in the life of Michael Brown, and the collective dream of a community whose voices cry out in response to the forces of deferral.
“Harlem,” then, continues to be a helpful lens for American race relations. It is also a reminder of what art can do, what art should do, and what we might do with art —namely, let it interrupt our history, address our wounds, and help us avoid explosions.