Rot and Decay in ‘Harlem’

June 17, 2019 by Essay Writer

Why do we mourn humans, but not unrealized dreams? ‘Harlem’, a poem by Langston Hughes, is a lament for the lost dreams of African Americans living in the United States in the first half of the 20th century. Literally, the poem focuses on the decaying process of a deferred dream, while figuratively, it delves into the depth of the consequences of putting a dream on hold due to racist beliefs. The form of the poem follows a stanzaic structure, consisting of four stanzas of varying number of lines. Langston Hughes employs powerful imagery in his poem ‘Harlem’ in order to depict the evolution of black American sentiments in the years prior to the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement. The poet utilizes images of rot and decay to explore the process of loss of hope and growth of frustration that black Americans underwent during this time.

Structurally, the poem is significant, as the way each stanza is arranged aids in the creation of a tone of self-restraint that allows for the poem’s powerful culmination to achieve its full impact. The poem’s structure is stanzaic, comprising of four stanzas with differing number of lines. The most significant feature of this structure lies in the spaces between these stanzas. The spaces that antecede and follow the third stanza, where Hughes writes: “Maybe it just sags / like a heavy load.”, for instance, are notable because through them, the poet compels the speaker to a stop. In slowing the narrative, Hughes portrays the speaker’s attempts to calm itself down after an almost violently charged stanza, in which he describes the transformative decaying process of the dream. This has a strong effect on the tone, as it mimics the speaker’s struggle to accepts its fate and bear the burden of having dark skin silently, thus showing the admirable self restraint of black Americans. More significant, however, is the impact this has on the single line of the last stanza. The already powerful meaning behind the words: “Or does it explode?” is made that much more potent by how inevitable it is. Although the speaker clearly tries to remain composed and accepting, it cannot help but pronounce these last threatening words. This is suggestive of the riots, protests and other violent events that took place before the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement, which were arguably the unavoidable response of the black American population to decades of structural oppression and suffering. It is most probable that this poem, given the title ‘Harlem’ and the author’s background, refers specifically to the Harlem Riot of 1943, which took place after a white police officer shot an African American soldier by the name of Robert Bandy. This withering ability of the black people of Harlem to remain peaceful in the face of so much injustice is reinforced through the literal and figurative meaning, which reflect on the decomposition of a deferred dream.

Literally, the poem explores several instances of rot and decay, while figuratively, the poem creates a very strong representation of the consequences of unrealized dreams. The literal meaning of the poem is focused on answering the question posed in the first line of the poem: “What happens to a dream deferred?” through a comparison with different commonplace examples of decomposition. After asking whether this deferred dream dries up “like a raisin in the sun” or “fester like a sore”, Hughes wonders in the fifth line of the second stanza: “Does it stink like rotten meat?”. The poet employs simile to equate deferred dreams with the traditional image of putrefaction of meat that has gone bad. This is relevant, as it suggests that a dream, similarly to meat, once postponed, left out in the open and vulnerable to the world’s corrosion, can never be recovered, as it is now corrupt and beyond repair. The effect this has on the portrayal of the process that led to the emergence of the Civil Rights Movement is significant, as it introduces the depth of the loss of the African American community; they were not only robbed of realizing their dreams and hopes in the present, but also, much more tragically, of the possibility of returning to those dreams and hopes once their current circumstances had changed. Figuratively, the poem furthers the portrayal of the dire results of the deferral of a dream. In lines 1 and 2 of the second stanza, where Hughes writes: “Does it dry up / like a raisin in the sun?”, the poet describes the consequences of the postponement of a dream through the comparison of deferred dreams with dried up raisins. This simile is notable, as raisins are the product of dried up grapes which are conventional symbols of fertility and prosperity. The effect this comparison has on the thematic axis of the story is significant, as it solidifies the theme of loss that is hinted at in the first line of the poem, and will be further developed later on. By likening deferred dreams to grapes which become raisins in the sun, the poet is arguably referring to the unrealized potential of these dreams, which once could have led to so much. Perhaps the sun is representative of the United States, who instead of taking advantage of the thoughts and ideas contained within the dreams of African American people, rejected them, making it impossible for them to become reality.

Langston Hughes utilizes a collection of images of deterioration to explore the progression of the general black American sentiments, which turned from hope in the years leading up to the Civil Rights Movement era, to frustration and anger. These images are mostly found in the second stanza, and are a response to the opening line, where Hughes puts forward the rhetorical question upon which the whole poem is based: “What happens to a dream deferred?” In lines 3 and 4 of this stanza, Hughes writes “Or fester like a sore / And then run?”, alluding to the sense of sight and tact to create a powerful image of decay. This is notable, as in appealing to the reader’s senses, the author is able to more clearly communicate the arduousness of the process of loss of hope and growth of frustration that African Americans experienced. Readers perceive the inflammation of the wound of racism on a physical level, and are disturbed by the impactful illustration of blood and bruises. The effect this image has on the audience is eye-opening, as they can more easily empathize with the bursting frustration of African Americans who were once so full of dreams, but whose hopes turned rotten because of the way they were treated in the land that had promised them freedom and opportunity. For those who have never been victims to racism, it could prove hard to understand how it feels, but Hughes masterfully manages to overstep this rift between the audience and the speaker by appealing to the universal experience of physical pain.

“Harlem” by Langston Hughes is a powerful poem that delves into the tragic consequences of racism, and masterfully depicts the deteriorating process of a population who has been robbed of the possibility of making their dreams come to pass. The poem is notable in the poet’s use of powerful imagery of rot and decay that aids in the portrayal of the evolution of African American feelings in the years preceding the birth of the Civil Rights Movement. In ‘Harlem’, Hughes has created a poem that not only bears witness to the history of his people, but also compels those who may not have been directly affected by it to experience a semblance of what African Americans suffered.

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