What Is the Tone of Hughes' Poem "Harlem"?
Langston Hughes, an African-American poet who also wrote fiction and plays, was a crucial contributor to the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. "Harlem", one of his briefest poems, is taught throughout middle schools, high schools and college English classrooms. By themselves, the imaginatively posed questions in the poem are significant; however, the social, historical and political context of the poem--in particular slavery and racism--further enrich the questions being posed. Hughes manages, through an artistic use of imagery, to creatively explore a tragic social phenomenon.
What Is Tone?
The tone of any work of literature is essentially the speaker's attitude toward the subject or the audience. The tone can also be felt by the reader as a mood. The writer controls the tone through their diction--or word choice--and the phrasing, line breaks and imagery they employ. The tone of a poem can remain consistent throughout, or it can shift as the piece progresses.
Examples of words that describe tone are: pessimistic, hopeful, angry, playful, serious, gloomy, lustful, pious and joyful.
One of the tones of the poem "Harlem" is frustration. The poets uses negative words like "fester" and "run", and phrases like "stink like rotten meat" to convey his frustrated tone. At the root of all the questions in the poem is the fact that most African-Americans were living in extreme poverty, oppression, and persecution on a social and institutional level. As a result of this, no matter how intelligent, talented, skilled or capable the citizens of Harlem were in the 1920s, it was highly likely that their talents and dreams would be squashed in the absence of opportunity. To know these circumstances existed for both children and adults was very frustrating, as conveyed in the tone of the poem.
The speaker of the poem conveys a tone of reflection when pondering the fate of the unrealized dreams of Harlem's inhabitants. To reflect on something is to think deeply or carefully about it; here Hughes takes the common problem of social and economic repression in the African-American community in the early- to mid-1900s, and reflects on the consequences of all the squandered ambitions and goals of his peers. This adds another layer of tragedy to the text as the reader is left to wonder about the sad fate of an abandoned dream.
Though the questions are posed in a child-like tone, they are by no means juvenile or innocent. Their child-like quality comes from the creative tone and the personification of the dreams. In another of Hughes' poems, more explicitly titled "Dreams", the poet writes:
Hold fast to dreams For if dreams die Life is a broken-winged bird That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams For when dreams go Life is a barren field Frozen with snow.
Here Hughes is directly advising the reader to hold fast to their dreams, akin to what a parent may do. However in the poem "Harlem", Hughes adopts the question-asking structure that is a common practice for young children. In that way the poem bears a child-like tone as well.
Soheila Battaglia is a published and award-winning author and filmmaker. She holds an MA in literary cultures from New York University and a BA in ethnic studies from UC Berkeley. She is a college professor of literature and composition.