A Home Deferred: Revisiting Langston Hughes’ Harlem Brownstone
By Kevin Cepero |
Have you ever heard of what happens to a “dream deferred”? Well a home deferred is no different. Harlem, a large section of the borough of Manhattan, is predominantly a black neighborhood. It has been home to thousands of black families since they migrated north during the early twentieth century. Due to drugs, poverty, lack of education, and gentrification, Harlem is and will no longer be the same. One house on the East side of 127th Street, however. does remain unchanged and pure to its Harlem roots. The former home of the internationally-known poet Langston Hughes was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982 (National Register of Historic Places). It is an Italianate-style, three-story rowhouse faced in brownstone built in 1869. As the world changes in Harlem, the house of Langston Hughes remains untouched to preserve its integrity.
Langston Hughes wrote two special poems that are often read in secondary and college classrooms today, “A Dream Deferred” (1951) and “I, Too” (1925). These poems address the limitations of the American dream for African Americans due to racial injustice. “A Dream Deferred” asks a rhetorical question after each line: “What happens to a dream deferred? / … Does it stink like rotten meat? / Or crust and sugar over— / Like a syrupy sweet?” During this time of segregation and injustice, the search for fulfilled dreams and safe places to call home was difficult. Hughes’s poem “I, Too” is written in free verse and features short lines and simple vocabulary. Hughes writes this one from the heart, claiming his right to feel patriotic towards America as a black man. The majority of Langston Hughes poems are demands for acceptance and equal freedom.
During the Roaring Twenties, Harlem became home to thousands of black Southern folks fleeing north in search of the home deferred and denied them in the South. The transition north during the early twentieth century was called the Great Migration. As black Southerners migrated to northern industrialized cities, they brought along with them a culture like no other. A renaissance was on the verge of emerging and in fact closing out the teens entering the early ‘20s, we have ourselves the Harlem Renaissance. The Harlem Renaissance was an explosion of culture that blew through Harlem: Music, Dance, Fashion, Art and Literature all in one place. Harlem was home to many historical icons such as Zora Neale Hurston, Marcus Garvey, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Louis Armstrong. If you were alive at the time, there was no place like home and you were proud to be from Harlem. As the times changed and life got rougher, Harlem just wasn’t the same anymore. Drugs, poverty, violence, racism, and ignorance plagued the natives of Harlem leading to self-hate and low expectations. Yet through it all, Harlem retains a special flavor. Our experiences of Harlem are never the same, but we all have our Harlem stories.
As a New Yorker from the Bronx, my first encounter with Harlem was at a basketball game in Rucker Park. I’ve played in many parks but the atmosphere at Rucker Park, a court on 155th Street where many streetball and NBA greats got their start, was astonishing. Even though the world around us was in shambles, we forgot all about it for that brief hour on the court. Hundreds of faces and not one frown; it was all love. The atmosphere was incredible; everyone came together for a bigger cause. My first taste of the Harlem experience blew my mind. So just imagine how Langston Hughes, migrating from Missouri, experienced the wonderful culture of Harlem in the 1920s with other African Americans who came together for an even greater cause.
Getting more familiar with Harlem, I was blessed to experience iconic sites like the Apollo Theater, Sylvia’s Restaurant, the Studio Museum, the Graffiti Hall of Fame, and Minton’s Playhouse. But of all these historical sites, the house of Langston Hughes holds the greatest significance. In 2015, I was fortunate enough to meet the caretaker of the house and enter the home. I could picture myself during the Harlem Renaissance embracing the culture. It was a magical experience. The greatest part was speaking with elderly folks from the neighborhood who were alive at the time and remember Langston Hughes as a friend. Those who remembered Langston Hughes remembered his charm the most, stating, “If you ever had any troubles or needed a reason to smile, you would just look over at Langston and for a quick second that seemed like forever, all your troubles were gone.”
“Home of Langston Hughes 20 E 127th Street New York, New York.” National Register of Historic Places. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Nov. 2016. <https://www.nps.gov/nr/>.
Hughes, Langston, Arnold Rampersad, and David E. Roessel. The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes. New York: Knopf, 1994. Print.