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Harlem': Limitations of The American Dream for African Americans

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This short poem is one of Hughes’s most famous works. It is probably the most common Langston Hughes poem taught in schools today.  Hughes wrote ‘Harlem’ in 1951, and it addresses one of his most common themes – the limitations of the American Dream for African Americans. The poem has eleven short lines in four stanzas, and all but one line are questions.

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In the early 1950s, America was still racially segregated. African Americans were burdened with the relic of slavery, which essentially rendered them, second-class citizens, in the eyes of the law, particularly in the South. The change was brewing, however. Hughes wrote ‘Harlem’ only three years before the Supreme Court decision in the 1954 case Brown vs. Board of Education that declared state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students to be unconstitutional. Thus, Hughes was intimately aware of the challenges he faced as a black man in America, and the tone of his work reflects his complicated experience: he can come across as sympathetic, enraged, hopeful, melancholy, or resigned.

Hughes titled this poem “Harlem” after the New York neighborhood that became the center of the Harlem Renaissance, a major creative explosion in music, literature, and art that occurred during the 1910s and 1920s. Many African American families saw Harlem as a sanctuary from the frequent discrimination they faced in other parts of the country.

Unfortunately, Harlem’s glamour faded at the beginning of the 1930s when the Great Depression set in which left many of the African American families who had prospered in Harlem poor once more. The speaker contemplates the fate of a “dream deferred.” It is not entirely clear who the speaker is –perhaps the poet, perhaps a professor, perhaps an undefined black man or woman. The question is a powerful one, and there is a sense of silence after it. Hughes then uses vivid analogies to evoke the image of a postponed dream. He imagines it drying up, festering, stinking, crusting over, or, finally, exploding. All of these images, while not outright violent, have a slightly dark tone to them. Each image is potent enough to make the reader smell, feel, and taste these abandoned dreams. According to Langston Hughes, an abandoned dream does not simply vanish, rather, it undergoes an evolution, approaching a physical state of decay.

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The speaker does not refer to a specific dream. Rather, he (or she) suggests that African Americans cannot dream or aspire to (be) great things because of the environment of oppression that surrounds them. Even if they do dare to dream – their grand plans will fester for so long that they end up rotting or even exploding. 

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Harlem’: Limitations of the American Dream for African Americans. (2023, January 05). GradesFixer. Retrieved June 6, 2023, from
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