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Research Analysis of Harlem by Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes was one of the most important poets of the so-called 'Harlem Renaissance'. In 1951 he wrote a wonderful and endearingly popular little poem called Harlem. The poem is in fee verse, meaning that it has no regular meter or rhyme scheme, but it still has a natural rhythmic feel, and it makes great use of techniques like alliteration (repeating syllables) and anaphora (repeating phrases) to achieve a song-like effect. One of its lines gave the title to Lorraine Hansberry’s hit Broadway play A Raisin in the Sun.  Hughes often wrote on political themes of racism, segregation, and oppression of blacks in America. Even though there is no direct mention of those themes in this poem, it is generally believe that the “dream deferred” is the dream of equality for African Americans. (This is partially deduced from the title, which refers to a black neighborhood in New York City.) Therefore the poem uses metaphor to describe the different possible outcomes for deferring civil rights. In light of this, the last line, “Or does it explode?” sounds like an ominous warning of the turmoil and the violence that would emerge in the civil rights battles of the 1960’s.

Here are some ideas to guide you in doing a research analysis of “Harlem”:

  • Like many Harlem Renaissance writers, Hughes was very influenced by and wrote about Jazz music. Try listening to some jazz from that period, and then going back and reading the poem. (This is the bebop era. Try something like Thelonious Monk or Charlie Parker.) Do you notice any stylistic similarities to the poem? How does the poem achieve that effect? Read the poem out loud to experience the musical effect if rhyme and alliteration in the poem. Also consider how the poem looks on the page.  Are there visual techniques that affect the poem’s meaning?
  • Read or watch Lorraine Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun. How does she adopt the Hughes’ themes for her own artistic purposes?
  • What are the different meanings of each image used in the poem? What would it mean for a dream to “fester” and then “run,” or to stink or sugar over? If the dream is of equality, can you see some examples in history where these images are appropriate? Do some research on the period in which Hughes wrote the poem, in particular Harlem.
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