The Harlem Renaissance was a period of cultural activity by African American artists in the early 1900s that began in Harlem, New York (a neighborhood of New York City). Today, we will take a closer look a few poets who had an impact during this time. A few of these poets consist of Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Jean Toomer, and Claude McKay.
First, we’ll take a look at the tension between Hughes and Cullen. For class, we read Hughes’ “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” (1920), and Cullen’s “Heritage” (1925). There are some similarities between these works, but there are also many differences. Both poets discuss Africa and focus the attention on the history of their families and themselves. They dissect the land and what it has done for them, as well as their experiences there. However, Hughes explains being in Africa, and specific experiences of being present there. He repeats the line, “My soul has grown deep like the rivers” twice in the poem. Perhaps he is emphasizing that his soul resides in the rivers of Africa and will always be there because he sees his history in the Mississippi River. He is very in touch with Africa whereas Cullen appears very removed. He talks of the land with a wispy tone, creating a dreamlike description of the place. Another contrast between the poets is the writing itself. Hughes writes with a very concise, modern, and accessible language. Cullen, however, uses long descriptions, and has a higher poetic diction that isn’t as accessible to the average reader. Although the poets discuss the same topic, it is very interesting to see the different approaches and techniques used between them.
Next, let us discuss Jean Toomer and his poem “Portrait in Georgia.” The poem describes a woman, her hair, eyes, lips, breath, and body. Yet it leaves readers asking one very specific question, “What is her race?” My interpretation is that she is white, but her race is being described by the ash of those of color. This expresses how they are tangled, one in the same, going hand-in-hand. Reflecting back to my previous post on T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, the Earth and everything that has stemmed from it was made from dust, and in the end we will all return to dust. The only difference is the color of our skin, no matter what life we live, we are all made of the same matter and are the same on the inside – why does the outside matter? The poem could also represent the discrimination against African Americans. The poem consists of very drastic comparisons. The woman’s hair is described as braided chestnut, “coiled like a lyncher’s rope.” Her eyes, “fagots.” Her lips, “old scars.” Her breath, “the sweet scent of cane.” Her body, “white as the ash of black flesh after flame.” These comparisons show the differences between how white people treat themselves and how white people treat African Americans. Toomer does this by describing the beautiful aspects of a human, then immediately describing the horrific and inhumane actions humans can do to each other.
Finally, we will take a closer look at Claude McKay’s sonnet “The Harlem Dancer.” The poem describes a nightclub scene where white men gawk at a black woman performing. In the last line, McKay describes the scene as a “strange place.” One reason for this could be that the woman performing holds the power in the room. Everyone’s eyes are on her as she sings and dances gracefully. The white men are “tossing coins in praise,” visually finding pleasure in her work – and that’s what this is to her. Work. The last two lines read:
“But looking at her falsely-smiling face,
I knew her self was not in that strange place.”
This expresses that the woman is performing because she has to, this is her means of surviving. Everyone around her is having fun, but she is doing this as a job. Although the “prostitutes” are laughing with “applauding youths,” the women are still providing a service. This shows that there is still a separation between the white men and black women. Even though the black women have their bodies and hold the power in the club, the white men have their money and hold the power in the country.