‘ Instructor’s name’
The theme of racism in ‘ Harlem’ by Langston Hughes
All literary works have various elements such as theme, imagery, setting, rhythm, metaphors and characters, each used in a specific way to express the views of the author/poet, about the society in which he/she is a part of. Using these elements, an author drives home his/her point of view on worldly affairs. According to Laurence Perrine, there are two primary purposes for any literature – to entertain and enlighten. While entertaining is the easier part, Perrine opines that a literature should do more than just entertain, if it is worth scholarly scrutiny. Harlem renaissance is one such period, where a horde of contributors tried to give voice to the oppression suffered by the American Blacks, through cultural expressions. The aim of this essay is to explore how the Harlem literature conveyed the theme of racial prejudice, by scrutinizing the poem ‘ Harlem’ written by Langston Hughes, a Black poet who was one of the early innovators of Jazz poetry.
While discussing about the civil rights movement, most people describe only the events that took place between the 1950s and 1960s. Whilst it is true that most of the important legislations in support of anti-racial policies were passed during that period, the seeds of the movement were sown much earlier. The agitations witnessed and legislations passed during this period, were an outcome of many decades of efforts and struggles put forth by various factions.
The Harlem Renaissance, which spanned from the year 1919, played a significant role in redefining the identity of the African American people. Harlem Renaissance is a cultural movement which originated in a place called Harlem, a major African –American neighborhood in the New York City, and it for the first time portrayed Black people to be different from the established stereotypes of that era. It ridiculed the notions of ‘ back to Africa’, and established the African Americans as a distinct but integral part of the American society.
Many Black poets, singers, actors, writers, and social activists, contributed to this movement. Together they initiated an unprecedented ‘ border-crossing’, whereby the never before revealed inner rebellion and repressed emotions of the African Americans, were showcased to the outer world. As Howard Zinn puts it, the centuries old controls that were imposed on the Blacks, made them suppress their feelings and they exhibited their secret thoughts by way of arts. Their blues reflected concealed anger, and their happy flowing Jazz showed their inner rebellion. Even the self mocking and outwardly submissive Uncle Tom comic roles enacted by Black actors on stage, had a concealed anger and resentment beneath.
In 1951, the year in which Hughes’ ‘ Harlem’ was published, the mood of the American Blacks was one of frustration and disappointment. The poem discusses as to what happens to an unfulfilled dream, will it dry and wane off, or will it grow even stronger. To fully decipher the meaning of this poem it is important to understand the context in which it was written. The Blacks, though relieved of the slavery shackles of the bygone centuries, were struggling during that era to come to terms with the, ‘ equal but separate’ segregation that existed in the then American society.
Most of them endured a life of poverty, and had to fight both their economic conditions and the societal discrimination. For young African Americans, growing up in the pre-civil rights movement era, the possibilities were limited due to the general prejudice and segregation, which existed in the then society. So their dreams were often unfulfilled, and this caused frustration and rage amongst them. Their children were educated in separate schools, they were given menial jobs like porters, shoeshine boys etc., and public facilities like bathrooms and restaurants remained segregated. Thus many dreams of the Blacks, some crucial like the end of discrimination in workforce, some mundane like living in the same neighborhood as Whites, were never allowed to fulfill. Hughes’ poem reflects the disappointment building inside the Blacks because of the deferred dreams.
In the opening line of the poem the poet wonders what happens to a deferred dream. The subsequent lines of the poem discuss various outcomes that might arise, when a dream is put on hold. The poet uses symbolism and imagery, to make the reader visualize and sense, the mounting frustration among the Blacks. He discusses various scenarios that might arise, if the African Americans are continually denied the rights they deserve.
Our writers will create one from scratch for
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
First he wonders whether the dream will die, and wane away like a raisin does when exposed to sunlight. Raisin, which once was a moist, juicy and a taut grape, becomes arid and withered when left to dry. A grape undergoes a complete transformation when exposed to sun, and it no longer retains its sweetness or original appearance. With this metaphor, the poet conveys how a dream when left unfulfilled for years together, changes its character and it is no longer the same vigorous and promising dream it once was. The poet wonders whether the American dream of the Blacks, which is full of promise and hope, will wane away if left uncared for and postponed for so many decades.
The other imagery used, like festering sore and rotten stinking meat, are again used to create an image of pain and disgust. A wound when is not treated properly, it gets infected and starts oozing pus. Likewise, a psychological or emotional injury when is not treated with proper remedy, would aggravate and poison both mind and the body. This simile is used, to warn that repeated denials of rights may poison the minds of young American Blacks. Rotten meat and its stink, are used elevate the feeling of disgust. When meat is not consumed and left uncooked for days, it would rot and stink. In the same way when the promised eradication of prejudice, if does not happen in time, it would rot the mind and would lead to social divisions which would degrade the image of the country.
The words ‘ syrupy sweet’ draws the attention of the reader to the sweetness of the dream, producing a contrast to the bitterness of unfulfilled dreams. Hughes delineates, how the initial sweetness of the dream crusts over, when it was made to wait in vain. Also he indicates how the weight, of years of oppression, has made the dream sag and droop over, not able to stand withstand the pressure anymore.
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
The last line has a significant meaning, and records a change in tone in the poem. The poet, after lining up various images that indicate meek surrender of dreams as a lost cause, alters the tempo with the last line, by wondering whether the dream will explode.
Or does it explode?
Through this he conveys, that an explosive reaction to the denial of the dreams of the Black people, is very much a possibility. Explosion is usually the outcome of concealed pressure, and denotes bursting of suppressed energy. He opines that African Americans, who waited patiently for social changes to take place, might take the initiative and fight for their rights. Given the fact that, the civil rights movement was born and gained steam within a decade after this poem was published, Hughes predictions proved to be prophetic.
Through this poem Hughes elucidates, how Black Americans have run out of patience, and could not afford to wait anymore. By way of lining up various metaphors, he points out how Black Americans are continued to be denied their rights, and yet they are asked to be patient. The poem is a reflection of the famous quote of Martin Luther King Jr. who stated, “‘’Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never’.
One of the tenets of the American dream states that, there is an equal chance for everyone to pursue success, if they put in hard work and try in a virtuous manner. But, generations of the Blacks were denied an equal chance to pursue the dream, due various forms of discriminations, such as those found in the labor market in the 20s, and in housing facilities in 1950s. The poem is a reflection on the after effects of such repressed dreams.
The anger was always there in black literature but in a masked fashion. What the Harlem renaissance of the 1930s did was to take the mask away, and show the black people as they were – oppressed, angry and waiting for a change. The efforts of each of the participants of Harlem renaissance paved way for a society, where the future generation can lead a dignified life. The present society is a culmination of the efforts of six generations of African Americans, who were oppressed and endured many hardships.
The effects of Harlem renaissance were felt well into the 1960s, and in a sense it showed the direction for the civil rights movement. It emphasized on integrationist approach, and called for racial collaboration which was opposite to the spirit of the Jim Crow laws, which allowed Blacks equal rights but kept them segregated from the White population. Also it gave a face to the Black Nationalism, and for the first time identified Black people as Black Americans rather than Africans. Thus, Harlem Renaissance marks a crucial stage in the civil Rights movement, and made the Government take heed of the suppressed anger of the Black people.
Hughes, Langston. Harlem. Course pack, 1951. Print.
Jr, Dan Walker, Jeff Newton and Joe Strzepk. Teaching English in the Block. Abingdon: Routledge, 2013. Print.
Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States: 1492 to Present. New York: HarperCollins, 2010. Print.