Harlem Renaissance Poets

Introduction

The First World War created a shortage of employment in American industries. For African-Americans leaving the south, rural-urban migration to Northern cities such as Chicago, Detroit, and New York provided new opportunities, both, artistic and economic. New York City, with Harlem, in particular, became the epicenter of the artistic explosion. Harlem Renaissance (1920s – mid-1930s) is the artistic, intellectual and literary movement that watered the new black cultural identity. Much of the literature focused on the authentic portrayal of black life. Its intent was aesthetic rather than political. The call for racial equality was secondary. The markers of the movement included Alain Locke, Arna Bontemps, Claude McKay, Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes. This essay explores the role of two Harlem Renaissance poets, their poems and themes of poetry written during this period. The essay focuses on Claude McKay and Langston Hughes.

The Role of Claude McKay and Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes (1902 – 1967) was an accomplished poet, journalist, public speaker, historian and playwright (Poetry Foundation, 2015). In fact, Hughes is one of the markers of the Harlem Renaissance. He gained recognition as a key literary figure and a spokesman for the black race in the 1920s. The Weary Blues by Hughes is one of the most outstanding and popular poems associated with the era. The poem is a narration about a black pianist alienated from both, white and American culture. As for Claude McKay (1889–1948), he conveyed profound and detailed thoughts in his poems covering personal and shared African-American identity (Poetry Foundation, 2015). McKay is also one of the most influential figures of the Harlem Renaissance. McKay’s work ranged from the celebration of peasant life in his native land (Jamaica) to poems that challenged racism in the United States. Apart from that, McKay wrote tales about the life of Africans in both, America and Jamaica. Further, he wrote philosophical stories addressing intellectual or instinctual duality that was central to the African-American approach to racism. Essential to this essay is McKay’s poem entitled America. The poem describes the personas pain-pleasure and love-hate relationship with the United States.

Elements that Illustrate Double Consciousness

Literature and poetry were important elements of the Harlem Renaissance (A&E Television Networks, 2015). Poets and writers of the era urged African-Americans to be authentic like white writers in their work. Poets like McKay and Hughes comment on double consciousness. Double consciousness is one of the central pillars of the Harlem Renaissance that had an immense influence on the African-American culture. In the Weary Blues, Hughes explores double consciousness. In the poem about a lone pianist, the persona (Hughes) points out that he is black. Also, Hughes points out that he is singing the blues because there is no one in his world. This is an illustration of the alienation of the pianist from both, white and black cultures. In America, McKay juxtaposed pain and pleasure as well as love and hate. He describes the United States as “a cultured hell,” but still admires and loves the country (Poetry Foundation, 2015). The duality, as well as the irony of the poem, is that the speaker had chosen America over Jamaica as his new home. In both poems, it is evident that African-Americans were alienated from themselves and from within individuals.

Themes of the Poems Written During the Harlem Renaissance

Poems that were written during the Renaissance were typified with symbolism or allegory. The central themes included music, immigration, racism and ethnicity, identity, politics and modernization among others. In America, McKay illustrates the theme of determination to fight inequality in the society along economic and racial ground. To McKay, equality is a right which is worth fighting for at all costs. He says, “…as a rebel fronts a king in state, / I stand within her walls with not a shred…” McKay’s poem mirrors the excitement and the hope of African-Americans during the Harlem Reconnaissance era (Poetry Foundation, 2015). The hope was mixed with both, pain and struggle for emancipation and pleasure. Hughes personifies the piano, as means of illustrating the significance of music in the life of African-Americans. McKay also personifies the United States as he compared it with a female, depicting his love for or dependence on America. The poem America was written in 1920s and served as an inspiration to African-Americans struggling to gain respect and identity among the whites. Despite the hostility of the society or America back then, the speaker took a personal initiative to fight for his right in a similar fashion to rebels.

Poem

The Colored Lady

The old lady has found new admirers from the East,

Her beauty is celebrated by the black angels and white beasts,

Her prolonged fists enable her to greet and feast with men and women of color

As the sun rises, her white and black skin conveys valor

Sunset makes her face blue as she struggle her new fight

The pain in my heart is unbearable,

However, my love for her is unbendable;

So I put on my Sunday suit, and vow never to quit fighting beside her

Because the night is coming to an end

Conclusion

Harlem Renaissance spanned between 1920s and mid-1930s. For African-Americans, the 1920s was a decade of rejuvenation. Langston Hughes and Claude McKay were prolific poets whose work had a significant influence on the movement and years that pursued. After the fall of the stock exchange in 1929, America fell to the Great Depression, and the Harlem Renaissance began to fall. However, the Harlem Renaissance had a strong impact on arts and served to influence future generations of African-American writers.

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