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Langston Hughes & the Harlem Renaissance: Poems of the Jazz Age

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  • 0:05 Langston Hughes
  • 1:06 'Harlem'
  • 4:03 'I, Too, Sing America'
  • 6:26 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

Langston Hughes was a popular poet from the Harlem Renaissance. His Jazz Age poems, including 'Harlem' and 'I, Too, Sing America,' discussed the racism facing African Americans in the 1920s and '30s.

Langston Hughes

Hughes was a major literary figure of the Harlem Renaissance.
Langston Hughes

The most famous poet from Harlem was Langston Hughes. He wrote during the 1920s and '30s, when there was an explosion of African American writers and poets writing and publishing, called the Harlem Renaissance. Hughes, like other poets of the time, was concerned with portraying the lives of members of the black community. He wanted to highlight their concerns and the challenges they faced in America at that time, including racism. And Hughes also wanted to highlight the unique ways that the African American experience was different from the experience of white Americans. At the time, jazz music was very popular, especially within the African American community. Like his contemporaries, Hughes loved jazz music. His poetry was influenced by some elements of jazz, including its rhythms and the way that jazz music freed itself from traditional musical forms.

Let's look at two of Langston Hughes' most famous poems and examine what makes them special.

'Harlem'

Perhaps the most famous poem by Langston Hughes is 'Harlem'. It is also sometimes called 'Dream Deferred.' Let's read the poem and then analyze it.

'Harlem'

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?

Dreams are usually thought of as abstract things - ideas and concepts that don't have any real-world importance. In fact, if you ask most people how important dreams are to basic survival, they'll answer, 'Not at all.' Everyone knows that you need food and clothing and shelter to survive, but dreams? Are they really that important?

Music of the Jazz Age influenced Hughes.
Jazz Musicians

In 'Harlem,' Hughes is saying that dreams are a necessary part of survival. He starts by asking a question: 'What happens to a dream deferred?' That is, when you put off (or defer) a dream, what happens to it? Most people might say that a 'dream deferred' will just fade away, but Hughes disagrees. He compares dreams to food, a basic element of survival. He talks about what happens when dreams are put off: They are like raisins, dried and shrunken and not nearly as juicy as the ripe grapes they came from. They are like rancid meat. They crust over like syrup left out. And he also compares them to physical ailments: an infected sore and someone sagging under a heavy load.

So basically, Hughes is saying that dreams are an important part of human survival, and when they are ignored or put off, they rot and infect everything around them.

And then, the last line: 'or does it explode?' This idea swoops in at the end of the poem and jars the reader with its vivid violence. We can imagine the fallout of a dream deferred like the result of a bomb that's exploded, destroying everything around it. Though the poem's message is true of all people, regardless of race, it's hard not to read this poem in the context of the Harlem Renaissance. At the time when Hughes was writing, slavery had been over for 60 years, but blacks were still treated with horrible inequality in their day-to-day lives. The dream of equality had been deferred, and the deeper message of the poem is that leaving that dream deferred will have consequences not just for the dreamers but for those denying the dream. In this context, Hughes is saying that the explosion of the deferred dream of equality could hit the entire country, not just the African American community.

'I, Too, Sing America'

Another poem by Langston Hughes that explores the idea of the fragile relationship between the black community and the rest of America is called 'I, Too, Sing America.'

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