Langston Hughes' "Harlem"
Marc Wolsky (Oct 23, 2012 3:04 PM)
I lived in the place in New York City known as Harlem from 1995 – 2002, which I know happens to be the Harlem in the title of Langston Hughes’ poem, “Harlem”. During those seven years, I knew this part of the city real well. I choose to regard this poem through the critical approach of Reader-Response Criticism, as I think my experiences resonate so well with the form and content of Hughes poem. Ironically, with the opening line: “What happens to a dream deferred?” (Hughes 1) I immediately identified with the content and theme this poet was relating; living in Harlem or that type of living arrangement and having to put your dreams on hold. If you were living there at the time this poem was written, 1951, or when I was living there, the condition of poverty and the seemingly impossibility of getting ahead is pervasive in the Harlem area of the city. This kind of neighborhood was often referred to as the “hood”, a euphemistic reference to a criminal wearing a hood and the end of the word neighborhood. This is an important point because often the mindset of persons residing in a Harlem type neighborhood, whether they are criminal or “street” regardless of whether they were born into a crime family or were just poor, is that they always want to get out of the old neighborhood into a new way to live. In the second through tenth lines, Hughes is describing through imagery and symbolism the deplorable conditions of the ghetto. With his imagery of: “…fester like a sore- / And then run?” (Hughes 4-5), “…crust and sugar over-“, (Hughes 7) I was living through my experience of Harlem and my wish to get out of the neighborhood. But the poverty of Harlem can also be its charm, as the down trodden can be influenced to live better and achieve the “dream deferred” (Hughes 1) at some point in the future. The symbol of the working class ghetto life, a truck being loaded in: “Maybe it just sags / like a heavy load” (Hughes 9-10) suggests the grittiness of the work ethic of the ghetto; and not to forget where you came from, suggesting you can profit from the experience of struggling to get out of a poor area.
In the end of the poem, when Hughes asks about the dream deferred: “Or does it explode?” (line 11) I believe he is referring to the ghetto ethic of exploding on the scene of your dream achieved.
“Harlem.” ENGL 200: Composition and Literature. New York: McGraw- Hill, 2011: 250. Web. 23 October 2012.