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The tone of “Harlem” is anticipatory and prophetic. Everything the speaker says in the poem is oriented toward what will happen in the future. This orientation toward the future may not seem immediately obvious, considering how the speaker asks a series of rhetorical questions that concern what appears to be a hypothetical question: “What happens to a dream deferred?” (line 1). Because it isn’t initially clear whether the speaker is referring to a specific dream that has, in fact, been deferred, the reader might interpret the speaker’s opening question as purely conjectural. To paraphrase: “If a dream were to be deferred, then what would happen?” But the poem’s title alerts us to the fact that the speaker’s inquiry isn’t merely hypothetical. Indeed, their question relates specifically to Harlem and to the dream of a better life for those who live there. With this in mind, the rhetorical questions that make up the bulk of the poem should be understood as mapping a series of concrete possibilities for Harlem’s future. In other words, the speaker isn’t simply imagining what could happen if conditions of life for Black folks in Harlem don’t improve. They’re anticipating what will happen.