The title of A Raisin in the Sun comes from the poem “Harlem: A Dream Deferred” by Langston Hughes (1951). Hughes was a prominent black poet during 1920s Harlem Renaissance in New York City, during which black artists of all kinds_ musicians, poets, writers_ gave innovative voices to their personal and cultural experiences. The Harlem Renaissance was a time of immense promise and hopefulness for black artists, as their efforts were noticed and applauded across the United States. In fact, the 1920s are known to history as the Jazz Age, since that musical form, created by a vanquard of black musicians, gained immense national popularity during the period and seemed to embody the exuberance and excitement of the decade. The Harlem Renaissance and the positive national response to the art it produced seemed to herald the possibilities of a new age of acceptance for blacks in America.
[Read: 3 Themes in The Blood of a Stranger]
Langston Hughes was one of the brightest lights of the Harlem Renaissance, and his poems and essays celebrate black culture, creativity, and strength. However, Hughes wrote “Harlem” in 1951, twenty years after the Great Depression crushed the Harlem Renaissance and devastated black communities more terribly than any other group in the United States. In addition, the post-World War II years of 1950s were characterized by “white flight”, in which whites fled the cities in favour of the rapidly growing suburbs. Blacks were often left behind in deteriorating cities, and were unwelcome in the suburbs. In a time of renewed prosperity, blacks were for the most part left behind. The poem reads:
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore_
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?
(c) copyright Langston Hughes
In the poem, Hughes creates vivid images of what happens when a dream becomes postponed, or lost. It dries, it rots, it festers, it sags and it explodes. There is a frustration and sadness in the inability to bring a dream to fruition. The images all seem to drag the speaker down, except for that last one where the frustration potentially bubbles in an explosion.
“Harlem” captures the tension between the need for black expression and the impossibility of that expression because of American society’s oppression of its black population. In the poem, Hughes asks whether a “dream deferred”_ a dream put on hold_ withers up “like a raisin in the sun.” His lines confront the racist and dehumanizing attitude prevalent in the American society before the civil rights movement of the 1960s that black desires and ambitions were, at best, unimportant and should be ignored, and it worst, should be forcibly resisted. His closing rhetorical question_ “Or does it (a dream deferred) explode?”_ is provocative, a bold statement that the suppression of black dreams might result in an eruption. It implicitly places the blame for this possible eruption on the oppressive society that forces the dream to be deferred. Hansberry’s reference to Hughes’s poem in her play’s title highlights the importance of dreams in “A Raisin In The Sun” and the struggle that her characters face to realize their individual dreams, a struggle inextricably tied to the more fundamental black dream of equality in America.
Samuel C. Enunwa aka samueldpoetry
(the Leo with wings flying)