Appreciating “Harlem”: A BRG Poetry Analysis
Posted on October 9th,2013

By BRG Agent Neal Tucker 


As anyone working at Bohemia knows, Harlem is a great place to live and a place which many of our agents call home. While most of us might also know that Harlem is a place of deep historical roots, we may not exactly know that history in all its rich and variegated complexity. As so many of us are artists, Harlem’s especially colorful artistic past is a great beginning to the discovery of history that waits on every corner of this chronicled area of New York. So, what better place to start than the famous (and eponymous) poem itself, entitled “Harlem,” written in 1951 by Langston Hughes, one of the leaders of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920’s:


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?


The difficulties of engaging with a poem so full of the tension and uncertainty of an America in the throes of the Civil Rights Movement are legion, and with the fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech this year, we are again reminded of the enormous importance of political and social egalitarianism, that all people should have access to the same liberties as everyone else.


Being from Birmingham, Alabama, another epicenter of the movement, I find these overlaps particularly poignant. Hughes’ poem communicates beautifully, if not painfully, the burden of the movement itself, the conflict at the heart of a group of people seeking the full and free expression of empowerment and meaning in a modern world that seems simultaneously both to offer and to deny these same freedoms.


Also of note, Hughes’ poem inspired the title for A Raisin in the Sun, the critically acclaimed play by Lorraine Hansberry that premiered on Broadway in 1959, about the daily struggles of an African-American family living in Chicago in the middle of the last century, another example of the inextricable nature of artistic articulation and political paradigm shifts, as well as a connection to real estate, as the family in the play deals with the difficulties of discrimination in the housing market.


This is obviously only a snippet of the historical and artistic legacy of Harlem and of the greater New York area. There are countless stories that provide the narrative foundation for what Harlem has been and what it has become. It is a place with a dynamic past and a legacy of inspiring artists and cultural revolutionaries that have shaped the area, New York, and the rest of the world.*


*If you’re interested in learning more about Harlem, there is a walking tour that covers many of the notable stops throughout the area, ending with the Apollo Theatre. The starting locations vary, depending on the tour. And the best part: it’s FREE! Here is a link with more information:

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