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Langston Hughes, whose full name was James Mercer Langston Hughes was born in 1902 in Joplin, Missouri, in the United States of America. He was the only son of James Nathaniel Hughes and Carrie  Mercer Langston. His parents divorced when he was young, and his father moved to Mexico. His mother traveled a lot to find work and was absent from home very often. So, his grandmother brought him up until he was 12. His childhood was lonely, and he often occupied himself with books. Hughes’ grandmother was a good storyteller,  and it was she who instilled in Hughes a love for literature, and the importance of being educated

Hughes wrote the poem “Harlem” in 1951. In the early 1950s, America was still racially segregated. African Americans were burdened with the legacy of slavery which essentially rendered them second-class citizens in the eyes of law.

The term “Harlem” is associated with the “Harlem Renaissance” or “New Negro Movement”, The “Harlem Renaissance” was a period of outstanding vigor and creativity centered in New York’s black ghetto of Harlem in the 1920s. Its leading literary figures included Alain Locke, James Weldon Johnson, Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Jessie Redmon Fauset, Jean Toomer, Wallace Thurman, and Arna Bontemps. It was a literary movement that coincided with the great creative and commercial growth of jazz and a concurrent growth of the visual arts and altered the character of much African American literature. Dialect works and conventional imitations of white writers were replaced with sophisticated explorations of black life and culture.

The theme of the poem is the possible consequences of a dream if it is deferred in realization. The poet puts the question of what happens to a dream deferred and answers the question immediately. It dries up like a raisin in the sun, fester like a sore, or sugar and crust over like a sweep syrup, or sags like a heavy load, or explode like a bomb. This small poem is very important so far as the struggle of the African-Americans for political freedom and equality with whites is concerned. Hughes wrote the poem, “Harlem” only three years before the seminal decision of the Supreme Court in the 1954 case of Brown Vs Board of Education, which declared state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students as unconstitutional. The poem contributed to the enhancement of the changes that were bubbling up during that time. The poem might have served as an inspiration for the famous speech, “I have a dream” by Martin Luther King Jr. 

The poem is written in the form of rhetorical questions, and questions are cast in the form of similes. Only one sentence is in the declarative form: “Maybe it just sags/ like a heavy load.” Rhetorical questions mean questions of which the answers are contained in the questions themselves. For example, the question, “Does it dry up/ like a raisin in the sun?” has the answer, “It does dry up like a raisin in the sun”. Of course, the answers to rhetorical questions are intended by the questioner. The similes in the 4 questions are very effective. The dream dried is like the drying up of a raisin in the sun. The implication is that if a dream is deferred, it loses its freshness * and vitality, as a grape loses its freshness and vitality when it is dried up in the sun. The last question is particularly very effective. Here the deferred dream has been compared to a bomb. The natural end of a bomb is to explode, and when it does explode it makes widespread devastation. In the same way, if a dream is deferred in its realization, it explodes, that is, it has an explosive effect and makes widespread destruction. It is potentially true especially in the context of the dream of the Negroes for achieving equal rights with the whites. 

The stanza structure of the poem is novel. The first and last Stanzas are one-line stanzas. The first stanza of the poem contains the seeds of all the other questions, and the last stanza contains the word “explode”, and it does explode upon the reader. The words are simple but effective. The words like “fester”. or “stink” creates the effect exactly desired by the poet. 

It is really a wonderful poem. Its novel techniques: its use of rhetorical figures like simile and metaphor and understatement, its use of commonplace words composing pithy sentences, unusual stanza forms, impress upon the reader with extraordinary force. It seems really to take up the dimension of an explosive bomb which occupies a small space but makes widespread devastation all around when exploded.

Critical appreciation of "Harlem"


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