A Poem by Langston Hughes (1902-1967)
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings..© 2007
Type of Work and Date of Publication
......."Harlem" is a lyric poem with irregular rhyme and an irregular metrical pattern that sums up the white oppression of blacks in America. It first appeared in 1951 in a collection of Hughes's poetry, Montage of a Dream Deferred.
1951—the year of the poem's publication—frustration characterized the mood
of American blacks. The Civil War in the previous century had liberated
them from slavery, and federal laws had granted them the right to vote,
the right to own property, and so on. However, continuing prejudice against
blacks, as well as laws passed since the Civil War, relegated them to second-class
citizenship. Consequently, blacks had to attend poorly equipped segregated
schools and settle for menial jobs as porters, ditch-diggers, servants,
shoeshine boys, and so on. In many states, blacks could not use the same
public facilities as whites, including restrooms, restaurants, theaters,
and parks. Access to other facilities, such as buses, required them to
take a back seat, literally, to whites. By the mid-Twentieth Century, their
frustration with inferior status became a powder keg, and the fuse was
burning. Hughes well understood what the future held, as he indicates in
the last line of the poem.
.......Although the meter of "Harlem" varies, the poem has a rhythmic, lyrical quality achieved through alliteration, rhyme, repetition of certain words, and carefully placed stressed syllables. The length of the first five lines also varies: Line 1 has eight syllables, line 2 has four, line 3 has seven, line 4 has six, and line 5 has three. This irregularity gives these lines a jagged edge, like the edge of a shard of broken glass, enabling Hughes's message to lacerate its readers. However, the last three lines of the poem each have five syllables, smoothing the poem's edge to the keenness of a razor ready to cut cleanly. Although the poem does not imitate any format used by previous poets, it does exhibit regularities, including the following:
Six of the seven sentences in the poem are questions.
All of the sentences except the first and the last contain similes using like.
Line 3 rhymes with line 5; line 6 rhymes with line 8; line 10 rhymes with line 11.
Lines 4, 7, and 11 begin with or.
Lines 3, 8, and 10 begin with like.
.......Hughes relies on alliteration, similes, and anaphora in the poem. Alliteration is the repetition of a consonant sound. Similes use like, as, or than to make comparisons. Anaphora is the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning successive groups of words. Following are examples these figures of speech.
What happens to a dream deferred?Simile
Does it dry upAnaphora
Does it dry upGraphic Sights and Smells
.......The language of "Harlem" is frank, down-to-earth. It does not euphemize. The narrator asks whether a dream becomes a dried-up fruit, a running sore, rotten meat, or a sweet that crusts and sugars over. He also asks whether the dream sags or explodes. All of these tropes enable to reader to see and smell the frustration of American blacks.
13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution—approved
in the post-Civil War era—granted black Americans
basic rights as American citizens, as did the Civil Rights Act of 1875.
However, court and legislative decisions later emasculated the legal protection
of blacks. For example, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1896 (Plessy v.
Ferguson) that it was legal to provide "separate but equal" accommodations
for passengers of Louisiana's railroads. This ruling set a precedent that
led to segregated schools, restaurants, parks, libraries, and so on.
By Langston Hughes