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Symbolism in Octavia Butler's Novel ‘Kindred’ and Langston Hughes' Poem ‘Harlem’

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In the novel, ‘Kindred’ by Octavia Butler, and the poem ‘Harlem’ by Langston Hughes, they both use symbolism to communicate how racism destroys the dreams and ambitions of those affected by its grasp.

The poem ‘Harlem’ by Langston Hughes uses symbolism to communicate how racism destroys the dreams and ambitions of those affected by its grasp. Hughes opens the poem by saying, “What happens to a dream deferred, does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?” (Harlem, 1-3). Hughes uses symbolism to compare a dried up raisin to the dreams of African Americans of the time period. A raisin begins its life as a large, plump, juicy grape that is full of life. This can be compared to the freshly conceived dreams of African Americans for equality among their fellow peers. However, the dream does not reach fruition but rather has all the life sucked out of it, thus rendering it a dried up old raisin. This relates to how all the dreams and ambitions have been sucked out of the dreamers by the racist opposition until they have nothing left to hope for. Hughes goes on to make another analogy, discussing, “What happens to a dream deferred, [...] Maybe it just sags like a heavy load” (Harlem, 1, 9-10). Hughes uses symbolism once more to describe how the deferred dreams of African Americans are like a heavy load that sags. Rather than how the dream began, seeming relatively light and easy to carry out, it has now transformed into a heavy load that weighs down those who still have hope of accomplishing it. Once again, the grasp of racism has transformed the dream of freedom into more of a burden than a possibility, weighing the dreamers down to the point where there is no longer a point of holding onto the dream, encouraging the dreamers to simply let go and abandon their ambitions of equality.

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The novel ‘Kindred’ by Octavia Butler also uses symbolism to communicate how racism destroys the dreams and ambitions of those affected by its grasp. In the novel, Nigel describes to Dana what it's like to have children on the plantation, saying, “‘It’s good to have children’, - he said softly. ‘Good to have sons. But it’s so hard to see them be slaves’” (209). Birthdays symbolize the cruel cycle of slavery. For the slaves on the Weylin plantation, the birth of children is truly a mix of emotions. Although the birth of a child brings with it great joy and happiness, it is also the cause of great suffering. The necessity of caring for an child links the parents more to the plantation, making it nearly impossible for them to even consider escape. As the infants grow, the parents must suffer from knowing that their children will become slaves and must live in constant fear that a member of their family will be sold and they will never be able to see them again. Their ambitions of seeing their children grow up free and live a normal life will never reach fruition as their dreams are crushed by the cruel grasp of slavery and racism. They are damned to watch their children suffer the same fates as they have with no foreseeable chance of escape anytime in the near future. At another point in the novel, Rufus and Dana get into a bit of an argument. Dana needs Rufus to mail a letter for him, and in return for the favor, Rufus says: “Listen, if you want me to get that letter to town soon, you put that map in the fire too” (142). To slaves in the Antebellum south, maps symbolize the possibility of freedom. For this reason, it is very dangerous for a slave to possess a map. When Rufus forces Dana to burn her map, she is burning her only ability to navigate through the south, and thus, her only possibility of freedom. Along with the map, Dana is also throwing all of her hopes and ambitions of escape into the fire as well because without the map, she has no chance of escape. Rufus’ racists tendencies of ordering Dana to do things that he wants has evidently crushed all hopes and dreams of escape that Dana could have ever had.

While ‘Harlem’ uses metaphors such as comparing an overbearing load or a dried-up raisin to the deferred dreams of African Americans, ‘Kindred’ tends to use actual material items as symbolizations of greater ideas in the text. For example, in ‘Harlem’ by Langston Hughes, the speaker once again makes a comparison to the deferred dreams of African Americans, saying, “What happens to a dream deferred, does it [...] fester like a sore” (Harlem, 1, 4). Rather than subtly communicating how an object in the text can communicate a bigger meaning as is evident in ‘Kindred’, Hughes explicitly relates a festering sore to a deferred dream. A sore is like a dream deferred in that the longer that you wait, the worse it becomes. Just as a sore festers and becomes infected, the dream can become so distorted and influenced by the ideals of the racist opposition that it eventually turns into a gross mockery of what it oncewas, nearly unrecognizable from the original. The dream when unattended to will become less and less of a reality, destroying the hopes and ambitions of the dreamers with each passing day until it is nothing but a memory, a distant scar of the past. In ‘Kindred’, we see a more subtle use of symbolization as Dana’s encounter with a whip is described. She says: “I screamed, convulsed. Weylin struck again and again until I couldn’t have gotten up at gunpoint [...] I thought I would die on the ground there with a mouth full of dirt and blood and a white man cursing and lecturing as he beat me. By then, I almost wanted to die. Anything to stop the pain” (107). Although the use of symbolization is not as clear and concrete as its use in ‘Harlem’, the same message of how racism destroys the dreams and ambitions of those affected by its grasp is still present. A whip in the hands of a white man symbolizes all of the evil that exists in the Antebellum South. The way the whip functions symbolizes the slow, soul-crushing effect of slavery and racism. Whips have the ability to kill, but unlike a gun, they kill slowly. They are instruments of slow and painful torture. In the same way that slavery and racism kills the soul piece by piece, whips slowly kill and dehumanize a human being with every striking blow, destroying any ambitions and hopes that the victim has until their only hope is for the sweet escape of death.

To conclude, in both ‘Harlem’ by Langston Hughes and ‘Kindred’ by Octavia Butler, symbolism is used to communicate how racism destroys the dreams and ambitions of those affected by its grasp. Although they each use a different approach for communicating this, they succeed at presenting this same central message with the use of symbolism.

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Symbolism in Octavia Butler’s Novel ‘Kindred’ and Langston Hughes’ Poem ‘Harlem’. (2022, December 15). Edubirdie. Retrieved March 1, 2024, from
“Symbolism in Octavia Butler’s Novel ‘Kindred’ and Langston Hughes’ Poem ‘Harlem’.” Edubirdie, 15 Dec. 2022,
Symbolism in Octavia Butler’s Novel ‘Kindred’ and Langston Hughes’ Poem ‘Harlem’. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 1 Mar. 2024].
Symbolism in Octavia Butler’s Novel ‘Kindred’ and Langston Hughes’ Poem ‘Harlem’ [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Dec 15 [cited 2024 Mar 1]. Available from:
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