Langston Hughes’s “Dream Deferred” Stirs a Nation’s Conscience

Langston Hughes’s “Dream Deferred” is part of a group of poems he published as a book in 1926. “Dream Deferred” is touted as one of Hughes’s best poems because of its prophetic connotations. Written during the black cultural and spiritual awakening, the Harlem Renaissance, “Dream Deferred” is couched in the scream of the rhetoric, fabulously sounding and echoing the aspirations and ambitions of Blacks to a society which back then, preferred to ignore their cries for equality.

Albeit it is a short poem, the excellence of this poem lies in the fact that a reader does not need to consult biographical sources to understand the poem. “Dream Deferred” from the perspective of new, biographical, cultural, and psychological criticisms exude Hughes’ greatness as one of the best poets of his time.

A closed text analysis of a “Dream Deferred” reveals the symbolic intentions of the poem with the carefully chosen title, basically meaning the postponement by minorities to achieve the American Dream. Hughes begins by sounding to the reader in the poem when the speaker asks: “What happens to a dream deferred?” This is a monumental question that allows the reader to contemplate on the question to enable the reader to fully grasp the profundity of the question. Obviously, a dream which has been deferred can either be realized, or it can sequester itself into oblivion and vanish into thin air like dew in the sun.

The speaker, therefore, ponders into the seriousness of the situation by further asking, “Does it dry up/ Like a raisin in the sun/ Or festers like a sore-/ And then run?” (2-4). If the dream dries up “like a raisin in the sun,” it will be a dream come true for minorities in this country because a dried raisin is sweet. However, if it painfully “festers like a sore” and then run? is a question alluding to whether the waiting will be so long and treacherously devastating that should the burden eventually become unbearable, will minorities be compelled to go elsewhere to seek refuge?

A sore that has festered is painful, so if the dream festers like a sore, it surely would not be a savvy phenomenon for blacks in this country hence the musing of the persona as to whether the festering could probably result in African Americans going elsewhere to seek refuge.  Still unable to come out with clear-cut answers, the speaker ruminates in lines five through eight and hyperbolically asks, “Does it stink like a rotten meat?/ Or crust over–/ Like a syrupy sweet?” We are presented with a dilemma here.

The speaker wants to know if the ramifications of the dream “festering like a sore” would bring with it an end that is full of promise and bright visions in another land, or it will bring disastrous consequences full of agonies and heartaches. If the former happens, does it mean the dream of affluence, economic independence, and political power has been achieved as a result of which the wait would justify the agony, which would be as sweet as liquefied sugar whose effect will be therapeutic? Moreover, will fleeing from it all be the solution? These are just a few of the disparaging questions the speaker elusively searches answers for.

There are more questions than answers, the speaker seems to soliloquy: “Maybe it just sags/ Like a heavy load,” he says. (9-10). What happens? Will the dream continue to be what it is, just a dream, hanging on the shoulders of minorities with no end in sight like an albatross until it finally explodes? Consequently, the speaker ends the poem by asking, “Or does it explode?” Certainly, the situation can become explosive if the wait is no longer endurable to minorities, and this can result in an explosive situation that can lead to civil unrest and chaos, hence, the thought of the probability of “explosion” by the speaker in the last line. In addition, Hughes knows at the time he wrote “Dream Deferred” that the concept of the American Dream to minorities was still a phantasmagoria, so he avoids the use of many punctuation marks in the poem. He relies heavily on the hyphen and the interrogative mark to link his ideas. Commas were not used at all, and the period was used only once, at the end.

The meaning of the poem becomes even clearer when one views the cultural milieu in which Hughes wrote the poem. The genre is the twenties, a period in which Harlem found itself busting and basking in a rich web of tapestry in literature, music, and art, creations spun by its own sons and daughters. It’s also a period in which Marcus Garvey was fiercely preaching virtues about a return to Africa by willing blacks. These diametrically opposing forces prompt Hughes to write “Dream Deferred.”

This assertion is substantiated by the sounding trope Hughes adopts in writing the poem. The persona asks in the opening lines of the poem: “What happens to a dream deferred?/ Does it dry up /Like a raisin in the sun?/ Or fester like a sore–/ And then run?” Hughes is fully aware of the tremendous industry blacks have put in, in the industrialization of America– from the time of slavery through the Industrial Revolution of 1820 to 1914 to World War I and the Civil War to the time of the Harlem Renaissance when he wrote “Dream Deferred”–they did more than their fair share to make this country the shining star of the world to be further denied a share of the national cake by white supremacists.

Samuel Doku



About Dr. Sam Doku
Dr. Samuel O. Doku is a professor and a writer. He earned his Ph.D. in English with concentration in African American Literature from Howard University. He is a W.E.B. Du Bois scholar whose book is titled Cosmopolitanism in the Fictive Imagination of W.E.B. Du Bois: Toward the Realization of a Revolutionary Art. His articles have been published on Google Scholar, in the International Journal of English Language, Literature and Humanities, and College English Association Magazine (CEAMAG).