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by Langston Hughes
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester 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?
Harlem is sometimes also known as A Dream Deferred, was published by Langston Hughes as part of a longer suite, in 1951, called Montage of a Dream Deferred. The poem remains one of Hughes’ most famous works. The subject is straight-forward. What happens to a person – or a community – when their hopes and aspirations are set aside, put off, or delayed? For Hughes, this was undoubtedly both a personal question and one meant for the African American community of which he was a part (as is suggested by the piece’s title.)
Hughes was individually a shining star in the Harlem Renaissance, but his star was not as bright as it might have been, had race relations in the United States and around the world been better. The same truth held for many others within his community. What does being held back in this way do to a person or to a group of people?
The interesting use of the word “deferred” is a reference to the King James Bible’s Book of Proverbs, and it is a reference which would have been widely understood at the time of its publication in the United States, in 1951.
Proverbs 13:12 Hope deferred maketh the heart sick: but when the desire cometh, it is a tree of life.
Hughes was writing in a primarily Christian country, to a primarily Christian audience, so to some degree this poem is a faith-based appeal, because both the wounded, and the wounders, shared the same religious faith.
After asking the initial question in line one, the rest of the poem is speculation as to the answer.
- Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?
This theory imagines that the dream shrivels, and changes, but remains edible. A raisin lacks the juice of the grape, but it endures and it is tasty. The imagery here still depicts a loss and a tragedy, but it is not entirely negative.
- Or fester like a sore— and then run?
This option is more grotesque. Rather than the dream being a thing that changes, but endures in a usable way, here the dream is injured and the injury significantly worsens over time. The imagery here is intended to provoke disgust.
- Does it stink like rotten meat?
Hughes gives us another image designed to provoke a sense of disgust. The question seems to relate to the previous image of physical injury. In this scenario, the deferred dream is an injury, and delay leads eventually to rot and destruction that not only destroys the dream, but does injury to those around it as well through its loss.
- Or crust and sugar over—like a syrupy sweet?
The alternative outcome for the wound of a dream deferred is that it crusts and sugars over. Instead of the wound creating a bad odor, it creates a good one. Here we imagine that the wound continues, and that the dream remains deferred, but also that the deferral becomes at least arguably a positive. Perhaps Hughes imagines a lack of racial inclusion as ultimately becoming somewhat positive for those within that community. It’s worth noting, though, that by attaching this positive, to the metaphor of an open wound, Hughes is far from endorsing the continued deferral. He does not use language of healing, or completeness.
In his next question, he moves away from the metaphor of an open wound.
- Maybe it just sags like a heavy load.
Here we see the deferral as a heavy burden. Hughes removes the imagery of the open wound, but replaces it with one that is not much improved. The imagery of bearing a heavy load unavoidably also conjures the image and specter of American slavery. While slavery had been made illegal almost a century earlier, the lack of progress, and the lack of equality, weighed heavily.
The other image that comes to mind, when thinking of someone carrying a too-heavy load, is that person setting down or dropping that load. We must wonder what would happen if that load drops. That line of thought leads into Hughes’ final question:
- Or does it explode?
The final line of the poem is in italics. This question is filled with subtext. What would it mean for a dream deferred to explode? It almost certainly means revolt (either violent or migratory.) The completed piece, in total, gives us the image of a heartsick community, wounded, and carrying a heavy burden. We as the Reader know that status quo cannot continue much longer. The poem can be read as a call to action, for the wounded, but also as a call to action for those with the power perhaps to heal the wound.
The poem’s central question has been described as “one of American poetry’s most famous questions”. Scott Challener considers Hughes’s questions to be “urgent, embodied questions” that presents imagery of neglect while “provoking the senses”. He notes that “Dreams here are not these overexposed things per se but are imagined to be like them and subject to the same forces—they are both visceral and vulnerable, and altogether too much. Dreams, like history, hurt. By implication, they demand care—and all the work that care entails.” Challener feels that the final line “Or does it explode?” is abrupt and dramatic, which could be emblematic of race riots such as the Harlem riot of 1935 and Harlem riot of 1943, but might also refer to movements of population like the Great Migration and breaking down of misconceptions. The scholar N. Michelle Murray notes that the dream itself is never named.
Hughes uses the “dream deferred” motif in several of his works, such as “Boogie 1AM” and “Good Morning.”