Poetry Commentary: A Dream Deferred
‘Harlem’/‘A Dream Deferred’ by Langston Hughes The poem ‘A Dream Deferred’, written by Langston Hughes was written in 1951 in the midst of unrestricted discrimination against African-Americans. Hughes was a leader of the Harlem Renaissance, a movement which spanned the 1920s, devising a new African-American expression of culture across the northeast and midwest US. By employing various analogies, the poet delineates different results of the “dream deferred”, with an emphasis on the fight for the independence of black people. Simultaneously, he suggests that if the oppression is continued, the only possible outcome is an “explosion” of the oppressed, thereby not only warning the oppressors against such outcome, but also strengthening the black commitment to achieving their dream.
The title of this poem, ‘A Dream Deferred’, was originally ‘Harlem’, referring to the black independence movement supported by the poet. The title’s significance is shown through deliberate diction. The adjective “deferred” signifies that such movement had long been rendered futile because ofthe continued oppression by the white people. It also implies that black people are self determined and that they wish to achieve that goal at a later date instead of completely giving up on that dream. On the other hand, the phrase ‘dream deferred’ itself draws attention due to its alliteration and inversion.
The alliteration gives a sense of unity, as if those two words are meant to be together, while the inversion hints that something in this phrase is unnatural. Through the various analogies between a dream and different tangible objects such as raisins, meat, and sugar, the poet implies that the African American dream is in fact, or can be tangible.The comparison of dreams to tangible objects suggests that there is danger in thinking that dreams too abstractly, and that dreams are in fact real. For instance, the poet compares a ‘dream deferred’ to rotten meat. This use of olfactory imagery is often associated with death.
This association serves to call attention to the distinction between a dream that is thrown away, and a dream that is ignored, but still stored. This is because the only times people notice the odor of rotten meat is when they leave the meat for too long, not after they throw it away. On the other hand, line 9 is the only line in the poem that is not a question. With that sentence, comes a shift in tone. From the interrogating questions above, the atmosphere changes completely to exhaustion, and hopelessness.This change in tone foreshadows that a the main idea in this poem is yet to appear.
Repetition is another literary element that is prominent in this poem. The poem is structured through a series of questions, all of which begin with “Does it”. The anaphora seems to be used to debunk the common white people’s expectation of the black people to give up on their dream. This sarcastic tone is most highlighted in the last line. The last line, “Or Does it explode?” indicates a sudden outburst. Implying that if oppression is continued, the oppressed will finally stand up for themselves.
Although the phrase “Does it” is repeated in the previous lines, it seems to hold a different tone in the final line: it sounds as though they are giving the white people a warning, an option to prevent the “explosion”. The final line serves to warn the white people that they will not surrender to their oppression, and the idea is highlighted through the caesura between the previous line as well as the rhyming couplet. As mentioned before, the poet was a leader of the Harlem Renaissance. Unfortunately, the movement came to an end by the end of 1930s, around 20 years before the publication of the poem “A Dream Deferred”. Judging by the previous title “Harlem”, and the time period in which it was published, it is assumed that the poet was inspired by his own dream that was deferred to write this poem; To suggest an alternative ending to the situation that he was experiencing: an end to the discrimination of African Americans.