The title and first line of “Harlem” establish the poem’s context and its central question. The title places the poem in a particular location, a historically black American neighborhood in New York City. In the early 20th century, millions of black Americans migrated from the rural south to urban areas in the midwest, west and north of the country, including Harlem. In the 1910s and 1920s, during and immediately after the Great Migration, the neighborhood became the seat of the Harlem Renaissance, an outpouring of black literature, art, and music that sought to explore and express the experiences of black people in America.
The poem’s title also evokes the racial injustice that inhabitants of Harlem have endured. At the time the poem was written, in 1951, black people had fought for the U.S. military in World War II, yet still faced state-sanctioned racism, segregation, police brutality, pervasive unemployment, and white supremacist violence at home. These conditions led to the Harlem Riots of 1935 and 1943, as well as to the Civil Rights Movement, which was, in the early 1950s, beginning to take stronger shape.
The title works, then, to establish the geographical, political, and cultural context within which the poem’s questions are explored, and its first line understood. This opening line, “What happens to a dream deferred?” is the only line that is completely left-aligned; the rest of the poem is indented. In this way, the formatting connects the poem’s first question to the title, almost as though it is an extension of the title.
The “dream” of the poem’s first question, read within this context, acquires inevitable connotations; from the outset, it is clear that the poem is not just about a personal, individual dream, but about a larger dream of social justice held by those in Harlem who have, for so long, endured inequality.
At the level of language, the opening question is concise and direct, inviting the reader to immediately engage with and try to answer it. In a sense, the question involves and implicates the reader in the problem of what will happen to the dream. This sense of involvement, which is sustained by the questions throughout the poem, connects readers to the dream and to what is at stake, suggesting that the dream is important, not just for the people of Harlem, but for everyone.
The opening line also juxtaposes the conversational quality of “What happens” with the compression and musical qualities of the phrase “dream deferred.” In this second phrase, the alliteration of the /d/ sounds and the consonance of the long /e/ sounds (in “dream” and the first syllable of “deferred”) tie the words together, suggesting that the dream is, by default, “deferred” or continuously put off.
Yet this phrase is also, in certain ways, disjunctive. Readers might expect the phrase to read “a dream that is deferred,” but in the poem the connecting words (“that” and “is”) are omitted. The shorter /e/ sound in the second syllable of “deferred,” meanwhile, shifts the phrase out of its apparent musical unity.
Finally, “deferred” is not a word usually associated with dreams. “To defer” literally means “to postpone” or “to put off.” “Deferment” is a word that has been connected with the military draft, including during World War II: someone eligible for a draft deferment would not be drafted or deployed right away.
The word, as it appears here, sounds strangely technical and bureaucratic, contrasting sharply with the visionary, humane idea of a “dream.” This disjunction at the level of sound and meaning introduces tension and irresolution at the poem’s outset.