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Dream Deferred by Langston Hughes

Being a nation of nations, America does not provide equal access opportunities for all ethnical, racial and national groups. African population in the USA faces the most of racial discrimination compared to other national minorities. They are discriminated in every sphere of life, including education, career development, safe environment, etc. The Langston Hughes’ poem “Dream Deferred” is an exclamation and appeal for elimination of social injustice, and pursues of aspirations and dreams without hesitation and delay (Hughes, 1951). Most of his works he has focused on the depiction of every day life of common African Americans of his time, making an emphasis on the hardships of working class people.

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Poetry of Hughes Langston is sometimes criticized for its unsophisticated nature. It is often argued in the literature that he brings up only whishing expressions and ideas. A poem “Dream Deferred” is a particular example of the wishful character in his works. In the course of his life, Hughes Langston came across miscellaneous feedback to his work. A lot of black skinned scholars criticized him for his simplistic manner of portraying life. However, on the other hand, works of Hughes found support among many readers and critics in his communication of racial problems present in the society. According to Startwell (1958), Hughes said replying to both streams of feedbacks on his works, that he had a feeling that common people had so much experience and emotions that they could “put into books” (p.151) just like those who were more successful and had more opportunities to work at better jobs, get better education. He also emphasized that he “knew only the people he had grown up with” and even that they were mostly poor, still, they had rich world of emotions, feelings and wisdom of life.

Racism and Social Injustice in the Society in the Poem by Langston Hughes

In a “Dream Deferred” poem of Hughes Langston, his dreams, aspirations, and motivation to live a better life are deferred and oppressed due to racism and social injustice in the society.

Hughes Langston was born in 1902, in Joplin, Missouri. Most of his childhood, he has spent in Kansas with his grand mother, Mary Langston. His father, James Hughes, was a shopkeeper and his mother, was a school teacher. They have divorces when Hughes was little. When he didn’t live with his grand mother, he was following his mother when she was moving from one place to another looking for a job in Indiana, Colorado, Mexico, Ohio, New York, etc. Hughes was in the high school, when he first started writing. Poor living conditions in his childhood had substantial effect on his development. His grand mother was old and could not provide Hughes with all the attention he needed. Moreover, rejection of both of his parents to live together has caused deep feelings of insecurity and lack of confidence during his youth and adulthood.

Soon after death of Hughes Langston’s grandmother, he moved in to live with his mother and her next husband in Lincoln, Illinois. At that time he was thirteen years old. However, Hughes was forced to move to Ohio with his family after living in Illinois for only one year.

After graduating from high school, Hughes Langston was admitted to the Columbia University in 1921. Though he has stayed there for only one year, during that time Hughes got involved into the cultural and art life of Harlem. He has become a prominent member of the Harlem Renaissance. Hughes Langston published his works regularly in the magazines “Crisis” and “Opportunity”. His poem “The Weary Blues” received first award of the 1925 “Opportunity” magazine literary contest in the poetry section. It was a start of his literary career.

Hughes Langston wrote the poem “Dream deferred” in 1951 featuring the peach of Harlem development. The author was using rhetorical questions as a literary device to depict and analyze the life and conditions that he faced. At the same time, in the poem Hughes used similes, for example, “like raisin in the sun”, in order to give additional emphasis to his ideas. Moreover, metaphor applied at the end of the poem “does it explode” poses a final emphatic question.

The poem “Dream deferred” is opened up by a rhetorical question “What happens to a dream deferred?” However, instead of providing answers and explanations about the deferred dreams, Hughes is setting a set of additional rhetorical questions. Considering every question closer and analyzing it, it is clear what the author is thinking about postponed opportunities and desires.

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Hughes Langston defines a dream as a goal that person pursues and attempts to attain during life. Goals and incentives are directing people to move forward, accomplish and attain better living conditions, work, and life satisfaction overall. They are the driving force of the cultural, social and economic development of a person, community, society, and country at large. Therefore, dreams are crucial in achieving successful outcomes. However, once accomplishing a dream is postponed and dream is deferred then this considerably threatens well being of a person, as well as society. Hence, Hughes Langston describes what consequences people can face once their dreams are deferred.

Posing rhetorical questions in every line is a deep philosophical method of description consequences and effects of the dream’s deferral. Each question raised in the poem provides a read with an opportunity to analyze and come to the conclusion about various upshots once dream is deferred.

In particular, in the first question, Hughes Langston wonders what happens to the dream “Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?” Symbolism of raisin underlines in its qualities. Clearly, a raisin is already dried fruit. It is very valuable for human health as it is full of vitamins and other useful elements. Overall, raisins are very useful and important. However, if a raisin is kept on the sunshine for to long period of time, it will dry up to the extent when it will become too hard to be consumed. Keeping it on the sunshine abusively long would eliminate and destroy its useful qualities and value. Therefore, if a dream is postponed or deferred for a considerable long period of time, people will lose their motivation and incentives in achieving their previously desired goals and dreams. Hence, it is vital to work on the achievement of goals and dreams on time (Grimes, 2007).

In the social setting of life, dreams and goals are facilitators of cultural and economic development. For example, a dream to get good education, high paid job, safe environment, etc. In the situation when this kind of dreams are postponed or even questions of ever coming true, this seriously threatens life satisfaction, social justice and overall happiness of people. Hughes Langston raises this question to show how dreams of black people in particular were questioned, and how their possibilities and opportunities to obtain a better life were constantly limited. Majority of the black population in the United States were forced to accept jobs that were available in the market. Having low paying job in the majority of cases was a prohibitive condition for them in getting education as means of potential improvement of their life in future.

Another consequence that might come as a result of dream deferral is that if it does not dry up like raisin in the sun, then it can “fester like a sore, and then run”. Literary Hughes Langston is saying that in case if disease is not treated timely, then it brings a lot of complications, and it takes considerably more time for this condition to be treated. Therefore, translating this to the context of a dream, author implies that if a person does not work on a dream when it appears, then within time if it is postponed, it will be a lot harder to deliver efforts and attain a dream. At the same time, deferred accomplishment of a dream can be also accompanied by severe complications that can even question its ultimate attainment (Grimes, 2007).

In the social background, complications associated with deferred dreams and goals can be numerous. For instance, dissatisfaction of life, work at the jobs that pay low wages, limited opportunities for obtaining good school degree, all can bring a person to the socially undesirable behaviors, including criminal activity or strikes. Therefore, creating equal opportunities for all people in the country, would serve not only as a sign of social justice, it can also eliminate undesirable complications from dissatisfaction of certain groups of people.

Next, Hughes Langston poses a similar in nature question if a deferred dream is like “crust and sugar over, like a syrupy sweet?” Literary this comparison means that if a little amount of sweet syrup is left unused for a long period of time, it ultimately gets crusted and covered with sugar. Hence, if not used timely, syrup loses its qualities and can no longer be consumed. Deferred dream is going through a similar patter, when over a long period of time dream is dissimilating into various useless and harmful thoughts, ideas and goals that no longer comprise original target (Grimes, 2007).

In the second stanza Hughes Langston does not rhetorical questions. Instead, he is making a comparison of the deferred dream to sag that is only a “heavy load” for a person. When a person is carrying heavy sag, he cannot move fast. Instead, heavy load lowers the movement and makes a person to be clumsy. Similarly to heavy sag, a postponed dream can become an emotional burden for a person that can bring him numerous sad and depressing ideas about life.

People that live in poor conditions and have limited opportunities to improve their life and accomplish their goals, at the same time they face a lot of emotional burdens. Frequently, they question their lost opportunities in the unjust society and wonder what they could have achieved in life if conditions and environment was different. Often, this kind of ideas and thoughts bring a lot of people to depression or even mental lethargy (Grimes, 2007).

In the last stanza, Hughes Langston is coming back to the original question and wonders again what happens to the deferred dreams. However, at the end of the poem he is using metaphor in his questions and asks if deferred dreams explode. Obviously, explosion is a strong negative metaphor that is associated with the explosion of a bomb. Latter bring numerous destructions and ruins. Hence, Hughes is emphasizing that once a dream is deferred then it can bring to destructive consequences.

Social injustice, total discrimination at work, school, and even in the streets are prohibitive factors for a lot of people in the United States to attain their dreams timely. Deferral of dreams brings numerous complications and drawbacks for community. Moreover, author is emphasizing that ultimately, if the conditions remain unchanged, then this can bring destructive social consequences (Grimes, 2007).


To sum up, Hughes Langston was one of the most prominent participants of the Harlem Renaissance in the United States at the beginning of the twentieth century. He was born in a poor family and his complicated childhood had a strong impact on his life and creative work. Hughes’ works were mostly devoted to the depiction of the hardships and every day life of African Americans in the United States. Even though his manner of writing was questioned by scholars, a lot of readers and literary critics gave positive feedback on his work. A poem “Dream deferred” depicts racial discrimination, social injustice and other hardships in the life of African Americans. Even not describing them directly, rhetorical questions posed by Hughes Langston help the reader to assess the real philosophical idea between the lines.

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