The Civil Rights Movement in “Harlem” by Langston Hughes

1. Introduction

Langston Hughes’ poem “Harlem” is one of the most famous and widely anthologized poems in American literature. It was written in 1951, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, and is often seen as a prophetic work, foreshadowing the later years when unrest would erupt into outright violence. The poem is also a great example of Hughes’ distinctive style, which combines elements of jazz and blues with more traditional poetic forms.

2. Historical context

“Harlem” was written against the backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement, which was gaining momentum in the early 1950s. At this time, many black Americans were living in poverty and facing discrimination, and there was a growing sense of frustration and anger among them. In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that segregated schools were unconstitutional, and this decision led to a increase in racial tensions across the country. In 1955, a black man named Emmett Till was brutally murdered in Mississippi after allegedly flirting with a white woman, and his death became a rallying point for the Civil Rights Movement. In 1957, nine black students who were trying to integrate an all-white high school in Little Rock, Arkansas, were met by an angry mob and had to be escorted by federal troops. And in 1960, lunch counter sit-ins began spreading across the South as black Americans protested against racial segregation.

3. The poem

“Harlem” is a short poem consisting of just fourteen lines, divided into two stanzas. The first stanza asks a question: “What happens to a dream deferred?” The speaker then lists a series of possible answers: it “sags like a heavy load,” it “festers like a sore,” it “rots like meat,” or it “explodes.” The second stanza extends this metaphor, comparing a deferred dream to a raisin that has become dried-up and wrinkled, or to a bomb that is ticking and ready to explode. Throughout the poem, Hughes uses simple language and short phrases to create an effective sense of rhythm and musicality.

4. Themes

The main theme of “Harlem” is the experience of black Americans in the early twentieth century. The poem explores the idea of what happens when people are forced to put their dreams on hold because of racism and poverty. Hughes also raises questions about what might happen if those dreams are never realized. Will they fester and eventually explode? Or will they simply wither away? These are questions that were very relevant to black Americans at the time the poem was written, and they remain relevant today.

5. Symbolism

The dream deferred is a symbol for the hopes and aspirations of black Americans that were not being met in the early twentieth century. The raisin represents how those dreams can become dried up and wrinkled if they are not realized. And the bomb represents how those dreams can turn into anger and violence if they are frustrated for too long.

6. Langston Hughes’ style

Hughes’ style is often described as lyrical or musical because of its use of rhythm and repetition. He also frequently employs metaphors and similes to compare one thing to another (as in the comparisons between the dream deferred and the raisin or bomb). In “Harlem,” Hughes’ use of simple language and short phrases gives the poem a sense of urgency and intensity.

7. Conclusion

“Harlem” is a powerful and timeless poem that speaks to the experiences of black Americans. It is a great example of Hughes’ distinctive style, and it is also a prophetic work that foreshadows the later years of the Civil Rights Movement.


The poem's main theme is the frustration and anger that many African Americans felt in the early twentieth century about their economic and social conditions.

Hughes conveys this theme through the use of literary devices such as irony, metaphors, and similes.

The historical context surrounding the poem is the Great Depression, which was a time of great economic hardship for many people in the United States.

"Harlem" has been interpreted by critics and scholars over the years as a powerful statement about the inequalities faced by African Americans in society.