Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.

A Dream Deferred

The speaker opens the poem by asking, “What happens to a dream deferred?” (line 1). This question drives the rest of the poem, in which the speaker presents a catalog of possible outcomes. Significantly, however, the speaker never clarifies what dream has been deferred. Indeed, they speak in a generalized, even detached way that makes it seem like their discussion of a dream deferred might be purely hypothetical. Hence, to understand the symbolic significance of the dream, it’s necessary to recall the poem’s title: “Harlem.” Though the speaker makes no explicit references to the historically Black neighborhood in Upper Manhattan, the title cues us readers to understand everything the speaker says in relation to Harlem. With that in mind, it’s reasonable to assume that the dream being deferred relates specifically to the Black community of Harlem. Recall, too, that Hughes wrote the poem in the early 1950s, nearly thirty years after the advent of the Harlem Renaissance. The Harlem Renaissance marked a period of Black artistic and intellectual flourishing that seemed destined to improve the lives and livelihoods of Black people in Harlem and elsewhere in the United States. It’s precisely this dream of racial uplift that has been deferred.


Although no real explosion takes place in “Harlem,” the poem ends with the speaker imagining the possibility that, when deferred long enough, a dream might explode. This imagined explosion plays a central symbolic role in the poem, as indicated by the use of italics: “Or does it explode?” (line 11). This line concludes the poem, and it’s noteworthy for the way it differs from the other rhetorical questions the speaker poses. In the previous stanzas, the speaker describes processes of erosion that unfold over long periods of time, such as desiccating, festering, stinking, or crusting over. Here, however, the speaker imagines a sudden, violent event. The fact that the speaker concludes the poem with this unique vision suggests that they believe an explosion is a likelier outcome than any of the degenerative processes described in previous stanzas. That said, the significance of such an explosion remains ambiguous. What does it mean for a dream deferred to ultimately explode? On the one hand, such an explosion could unleash chaos and destruction. On the other hand, it could involve a liberating release of built-up tension that enables radical renewal.