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Harlem
A Poem by Langston Hughes (1902-1967)
Study Guide
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Type of Work
Date of Publication
Theme
Meter, Structure, Rhyme
Figures of Speech
Graphic Sights and Smells
Maltreatment of Blacks
Text and Commentary
Study Questions
Writing Topics
"The Negro Speaks of Rivers"
"Cross"
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Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings.. 2007
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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.

Theme

Frustration

.......In 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. 
 


Meter, Structure, Rhyme, and Technique

.......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: 

    In each line except Line 7, the last syllable is stressed.
    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.
Figures of Speech

.......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. 

Alliteration

What happens to a dream deferred? 
Does it dry up (lines 1-2)

syrupy sweet (line 7)

Simile
Does it dry up 
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore— (lines 2-4)
Comparison of the dream to a raisin and a fester

Does it stink like rotten meat? 
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet? (lines 6-8)
Comparison of the dream to foods

Maybe it just sags 
like a heavy load. (lines 9-10)
Comparison of the dream to a heavy load.

Anaphora
Does it dry up 
like a raisin in the sun?
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Does it stink like rotten meat? 
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet? 
Graphic 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. 

Maltreatment of Blacks Since the Civil War

.......The 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitutionapproved in the post-Civil War eragranted 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. 
.......Meanwhile, hate groups inflicted inhuman treatment on innocent blacks, including brutal beatings. Lynchings of innocent blacks were not uncommon. Many so-called "enlightened" or "liberal-minded" Americans looked the other way, including law-enforcement officers, clergymen, politicians, and ordinary Americans. By the mid-20th Century, black frustration with white oppression formed itself into a potent blasting powder. 
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Harlem
By Langston Hughes
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Text of the Poem

What happens to a dream deferred1

Does it dry up 
like a raisin2 in the sun?
Or fester3 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.

......Or does it explode?.

Notes

1...deferred: Postponed, put off. 
2...raisin: A dried, sweet grape. The grape is dried by the sun or by a dehydrator. 
3...fester: develop pus; ulcerate.

Comment: Line 3

Lorraine Vivian Hansberry (1930-1965) borrowed the phrase "a raisin in the sun" to use as the title of her famous play, A Raisin in the Sun, a three-act drama focusing on a black family subjected to the emotional stresses of living in a cramped apartment while confronting bigotry and economic hardship. It received wide acclaim, winning the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award, after it was staged at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on Broadway in 1959. Random House published it in book form in the same year. In 1961, a film version starring Sidney Poitier as Walter Younger won an award at the Cannes Film Festival in France.
 

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Study Questions and Writing Topics
  • In an essay, explain why "Harlem" continues to be relevant for modern readers.
  • Write an essay identifying other groups besides blacks that regularly suffer prejudice because of their physical appearance, ethnic background, mental condition, beliefs, income, and so on. 
  • Write a short poem that has frustration as its theme.
  • Do you have a dream that has been deferred?
  • Did the author of the poem realize his dream (or dreams) during his lifetime?

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