This study guide will help you analyze the poem “Harlem” (1951) by Langston Hughes. You can also find a summary of the poem, as well as ideas for interpreting it and putting it into perspective

Langston Hughes (1901-1967) was an American writer and columnist. Hughes wrote poetry that explored experience of black people in America and is known as a leader of the Harlem Renaissance. The poem “Harlem”, which is also known as “A Dream Deferred”, was published in 1951 in the poem suite Montage of a Dream Deferred


Here, you can read an extract from our study guide: 

Inner composition

The poem “has a linear composition that takes the form of an initial question and a series of possible suggestions phrased as rhetorical questions. 

In the beginning, the author wonders about the fate of a dream that is postponed: “What happens to a dream deferred?” (l. 1). The question is abrupt and draws the attention of the readers, who might try to give their own answers before reading on.

The middle of the poem tries to come up with an answer to the initial question, so the speaker provides a series of suggestions. The fact that these are also phrased as questions, instead of being simple affirmative sentences, gives the impression that the readers are following the speaker’s thought processes as he tried to find the answer to his question. The suggestions are distinctively negative. For example, the speaker wonders whether the dream withers: “Does it dry up/like a raisin in the sun?” (ll. 2-3) or if it gets infected : “Or fester like a sore –/And then run?” (ll. 4-5). The speaker concludes that the dream might become a burden: “Maybe it just sags/like a heavy load” (ll. 9-10). This is the only suggestion in the poem that is not a question, and highlights the negative impact of having your dreams ignored and neglected. 

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