Harlem 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?

Summary and Analysis

The images in Harlem are sensory, domestic, earthy, like blues images. The stress is on deterioration-drying, rotting, festering, souring on loss of essential natural quality. The raisin has fallen from a fresh juicy grape to a dehydrated but still edible raisin to a sun-baked and inedible dead bone of itself. The Afro-American is not unlike the raisin, for he is in a sense a desiccated trunk of his original African self, used and abandoned in the American wilderness with the stipulation that he rot and disappear. Like the raisin lying neglected in the scorching sun, the Black man is treated like a thing of no consequence. But the raisin refuses the fate assigned to it; it metamorphoses instead into a malignant living sore that will not heal or disappear. The metaphor is rather long drawn out but is symptomatic of a serious disorder. Its stink is like the stink of rotten meat sold to black folks in so many ghetto groceries; meat no longer suitable for human use, deathly. And while a syrupy sweet is not central to the diet, it is still a rounding off dessert. But that final pleasure turns out to be a pain.

The elements of the deferred dream are like the raisin, sore meat and candy, little things of no great consequence in themselves. But their unrelieved accretion packs together considerable pressure. Their combined weight is too much to carry. The longer it is carried, the heavier it gets. And if it is dropped, it might explode from all its strange, tortured, compressed energies.

In short, a dream deferred can be a terrifying thing. Its greatest threat is its unpredictability.

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