Today’s poem of the day at poetry.org is “Harlem” by the great Langston Hughes. The one that begins with one of the most famous questions in literary history: what happens to a dream deferred?
Like many, I first encountered it as a standalone, anthology poem. I think “Harlem” is the first poem I truly loved that I read because of school. This text about the endlessly deferred American dream, especially for Black people, is still so relevant. In an explanatory article published along with the piece on poetry.org, Scott Challener contextualizes the poem in a way I found insightful, by situating it along with the poems it was originally published, in Hughes’ Montage of a Dream Deferred. About the last line, Challenger writes:
In the larger context of the book, however, two other meanings of explosion are in play—the rapid growth of a population and the breakdown of a misconception, as when someone or something “explodes” a cultural myth, fantasy, or deeply held assumption.
When I read that last line, I always read it as referring to a riot. Not that Hughes was calling for violence, more as an almost scientific question. What happens when pressure is continuously applied, beyond a breaking point? Challenger’s interpretation adds extra layers to my understanding of the poem.
Still: 2023 began with yet another killing of a Black person by the police in the US. It will continue to be a time of stagnating social conditions, worsening economic conditions, an intensifying backlash. I can’t help but wonder: Is not just the dream, but also the explosion endlessly deferred?