Study Guide

Harlem (Dream Deferred) What's Up With the Title?

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What's Up With the Title?

Hold onto your hats. This poem actually has two titles. Hughes first titled it "Harlem," but later called it "Dream Deferred." Some people even refer to it by its first line, "what happens to a dream deferred?"

As the poet laureate of the Harlem Renaissance, Hughes was deeply involved in and concerned with the Harlem community (a community which was composed of one of the largest black populations in the country). In the wake of World War II and in the very beginning of the Civil Rights Movement, he noticed a disillusionment threading throughout Harlem born out of racial intolerance that troubled the country. He explores this disillusionment with this poem, and provides a kind of call to arms, inciting his community to never let go of his dreams.

Each title tells us something different about what the poem might mean. "Harlem" guides our focus to this vibrant city, which was a hub of intellectual thought and artistic innovation. "Dream Deferred" focuses on a greater philosophical question plaguing all humans. Which title do you prefer, and why do you think Hughes would have given this poem another title in the way that he did?

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