The Harlem Renaissance

Harlem became the center of African American life only in the second decade ofthe twentieth century, when the great migration ofblacks from the rural south to the industrialized north brought a large black population into New York City. Between 1910 and 1930, the black population of New York increased from under 100,000 to over 300,000. The mass exodus from the south had several causes: a deteriorating racial climate (including an increase in lynchings), an economic depression, and such natural catastrophes as cotton boll weevils and floods. While other northern cities such as Chicago, Detroit, and Cleveland also saw dramatic increases in their black populations, none ofthem became centers for African American culture in the way New York City did.

By 1920, Harlem had become, as James Weldon Johnson put it, "the greatest Negro city in the world."4 A self-contained community of over 100,000 blacks, it was a "City of Refuge" from the racist attitudes of white America and from the threat of racial violence which was a constant presence in the Southern states. Harlem was a locus of migration not only for black Southerners, but also for foreign-born blacks, especially from the Caribbean. Equally important was Harlem's status as a cultural center where artists, writers, musicians, intellectuals, and various other individuals could feel free to meet, express themselves, and test their creative energies in an environment undisrupted by white America. There was for example A'Lelia Walker, an heiress who gave legendary parties in her Harlem mansion. There were other gatherings at the homes of such luminaries as James Weldon Johnson, the novelist and critic Jessie Fauset, and the painter Aaron Douglas. There were journals such as Negro World, Crisis, and Opportunity, as well as a wide range ofblack newspapers. There was the American Negro Press, founded in Harlem in 1919. And there was an active nightlife, with music and dancing at places like the Sugar Cane Club - which boasted performers like Bessie Smith, Duke Ellington, and Louis Armstrong - as well as a number of speakeasies, ginhouses, and jazz bars.

The centrality of Harlem as a symbolic site of African American life and culture is demonstrated by the extraordinary number of poems and books of the 1910s, 1920s, and 1930s that include the word in their titles: "Harlem," "Harlem Dancer," "Harlem: The Black City," "Harlem Street Walkers," "Harlem Life," "Harlem Wine," "Harlem Night Club," "Harlem Night Song," Harlem Shadows, Home to Harlem, and Harlem: Negro Metropolis. Langston Hughes arrived in New York in 1921, drawn to the city mainly by the allure of Harlem, and enrolled in the fall of that year at Columbia University. He soon met W E. B. Du Bois, editor of Crisis, as well as Jessie Fauset, the journal's literary critic. A year later, Claude McKay was to publish Harlem Shadows, the first book ofpoems to display the new sensibility ofthe Harlem Renaissance.

McKay was born in Jamaica in 1889, and published two books of dialect poems, Songs of Jamaica and Constab Ballads, in 1912. His next volume, Spring in New Hampshire and Other Poems, was published in England in 1920, but by that time he had already led an eventful life, studying agriculture, opening a restaurant, working as a railroad dining-car waiter, and washing dishes in a boarding house. "The Harlem Dancer," first published in 1917, is arguably the earliest Harlem Renaissance poem. McKay focuses on an exotic dancer objectified by the "applauding youths" and "young prostitutes" who watch "her perfect, half-clothed body sway." For the poem's speaker, however, the prurient attitude of the audience which "devour[s] her shape with eager, passionate gaze" can never reach the essence of the dancer, whose deeper selfis expressed in the more innocent comparison ofher voice to "the sound of blended flutes / Blown by black players on a picnic day" and of her body to "a proudly swaying palm / Grown lovelier for passing through a storm." McKay concludes with lines that make reference to the disillusionment of his own immigrant experience: "But looking at her falsely-smiling face, / I knew her self was not in that strange place." While McKay's use of the sonnet form is traditional, his poem is one of the first to capture the pathos -as well as the gritty reality - of black life in the urban ghetto. In this respect at least, it is a significant step beyond the poetry of Dunbar and Johnson.

It was the publication of the poem "If We Must Die" in 1919 that established McKay as a leading figure of the Harlem Renaissance, and the poem was quickly to become a cause célèbre within the African American community. McKay's sonnet is a powerful declaration of racial anger, particularly given its historical context: that summer, deadly antiblack riots in Chicago and other cities had caused many to grow pessimistic about the place of African Americans in postwar society. In the poem, McKay describes urban blacks as "hogs / Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot," while whites are referred to as a pack of "mad and hungry dogs" who "mock at our accursed lot." The poem's speaker vows to avenge the brutality of the attacks on black citizens: "Like men we'll face the murderous, cowardly pack / Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back." Never before had the social antagonism between the races been expressed so directly in poetic form.

Despite its celebrity, "If We Must Die" is more effective as propaganda than as poetry, and its stilted diction and awkward phrasing ("Though far outnumbered let us show us brave") detract from its success as a poem. A more accomplished protest poem is "The White House":

Your door is shut against my tightened face, And I am sharp as steel with discontent; But I possess the courage and the grace To bear my anger proudly and unbent. The pavement slabs burn loose beneath my feet, A chafing savage, down the decent street; And passion rends my vitals as I pass, Where boldly shines your shuttered door of glass.

Here the language is less stilted than in "If We Must Die," and the images more nuanced. McKay chooses his words carefully, creating ironic contrasts which comment on the situation of blacks excluded from full participation in the American dream. In line 6, for example, McKay contrasts the "chafing savage" with the "decent street," pointing to the racist attitudes of middle-class whites who view him as a "savage" merely because of the color of his skin. Later in the poem, he inserts another irony when he asks for the "superhuman power" to obey "the letter of your law." The laws created by the "White House" are "your law"; they serve white society while defending various forms of discrimination against blacks. The poem ends with a final irony, as the speaker must "keep my heart inviolate / Against the potent poison of your hate." The black man is allowed only to "bear [his] anger,"

while holding himself back from expressing the "hate" he feels toward his white oppressor.

McKay left the United States in 1922 and did not return until the 1930s. In his absence, Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes competed for the position as the "poet laureate" of Harlem. Cullen and Hughes were in many ways direct opposites as poets: where Cullen preferred to write in traditional forms like the sonnet, Hughes used free-verse forms inspired by blues and jazz; where Cullen's favorite poets were Keats, Shelley, and A. E. Housman, Hughes preferred the American tradition of Whitman and Sandburg; where Hughes was attracted to Africa and the Caribbean, Cullen preferred the classics and French culture; where Cullen had a strong religious background (his adoptive father was a Methodist pastor in Harlem), Hughes' spiritual roots lay in the history of African and African American folk culture.

Finally, Hughes and Cullen displayed very different attitudes toward their racial identity. Hughes celebrated his color, writing in his essay "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain" (1926) that black writers should express their "individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame." In his famous early poem, "A Negro Speaks of Rivers" (1921), Hughes identifies with the Euphrates and the Congo as well as the Mississippi:

I've known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins

Cullen, on the other hand, was highly ambivalent about his race, either avoiding the racial theme altogether or expressing his racial identity as a purely negative factor. In "Yet Do I Marvel" (1925), for example, the speaker accepts various natural and mythical horrors, from the blinding of the mole to the torture of Tantalus and Sisyphus, but he remains puzzled by his situation as a black poet:

Yet do I marvel at this curious thing: To make a poet black, and bid him sing!

Ofthe two poets, it was Hughes who was to become the leading voice of the Harlem Renaissance and the most important African American poet of the twentieth century. Hughes was born in Joplin, Missouri, in 1902, and grew up in Kansas and Illinois before attending high school in Cleveland, Ohio. By 1918, he was publishing poems and stories in his high school magazine. After graduation, Hughes went to live for a year with his father in Mexico before moving to New York City to enter Columbia University. He withdrew from Columbia after one year and worked a series of jobs before traveling on a steamship to the west coast of Africa, later traveling by another ship to Europe. In 1925, he won the first prize in a literary contest sponsored by Opportunity magazine for his poem "The Weary Blues," which the following year became the title poem of his first volume.

"The Weary Blues" remains one of Hughes' most frequently anthologized poems, in part because of the way it incorporates blues lyrics into its structure. The poem describes a nightclub blues performer who plays and sings "to the tune o' those Weary Blues." The incorporation of the blues song within the poem itself is a crucial innovation by Hughes, who saw the juxtaposition of blues forms with more traditional poetic forms as a kind of literary syncopation, much like the "drowsy syncopated tune" the bluesman himself plays. Significantly, this is no famous performer but an anonymous "Negro," who plays with such deep feeling that he transcends his surroundings, making the "poor piano moan with melody." The poem gradually moves from a more humorous vision of the man - a "musical fool" who plays a hopeful blues about putting his "troubles on the shelf" - to a darker vision of the man's weariness, his lack of satisfaction, and his desire to die. After his second blues, which conclude with the singer's wish to die, we move beyond the artificial confines of the club and the blues songs to a glimpse of the collective weary blues of blacks in America:

And far into the night he crooned that tune.

The stars went out and so did the moon.

The singer stopped playing and went to bed

While the Weary Blues echoed through his head.

He slept like a rock or a man that's dead.

It is only the tradition of the blues that gives meaning to the singer's life; when he goes home to sleep he is associated with an inanimate object and a dead man. The last line brilliantly transfigures a common expression ("I slept like a log") into a more disturbing image. The triple rhyme of the ending (bed / head / dead) contributes further to the feeling of finality expressed in the final lines (also echoing the triple "thump, thump, thump" of his foot on the floor).

In the 1930s, Hughes' poetry became more explicitly political in content and more clearly ironic in tone as he emphasized the need for radical political and social action. Some of his most powerful denunciations of racism and racial violence are "Christ in Alabama" (1932), a bitterly ironic poem on the subject of race; "Let America Be America Again" (1935), an ironic anthem about racial and social divisions during the Great Depression; and "A Bitter River" (1942), a trenchant commentary on lynching in the Southern states. "Bitter River" concerns the lynching of two black youths in Mississippi. In contrast to the vision of the river as a source of spiritual solace in "A Negro Speaks of Rivers," the "bitter river" of this poem is a symbol of the practice of lynching that has "poisoned" the South:

There is a bitter river Flowing through the South. Too long has the taste of its water Been in my mouth. There is a bitter river Dark with filth and mud. Too long has its evil poison Poisoned my blood.

The river speaks in the voice of a Southern white uttering platitudes about "patience" on the part of blacks, but such patience is useless in an environment where social conditions do not change:

"Work, education, patience Will bring a better day." The swirl of the bitter river Carries your "patience" away.

In the poem's penultimate stanza, Hughes sums up the problem in a language that is forceful and immediate:

You have lynched my comrades Where the iron bridge crosses the stream, Underpaid me for my labor, And spit in the face of my dream. You forced me to the bitter river With the hiss of its snake-like song -Now your words no longer have meaning -I have drunk at the river too long.

The parallelism between the lynching of the speaker's "comrades" (the two black youths murdered by whites) and the exploitation of his "labor" suggests that the speaker's "dream" involves economic equality and class solidarity as well as an end to racial violence. Hughes intensifies the power of his rhetoric by the use of concrete images: the "iron bridge" that looms as an uncrossable connection between black and white, and the river as a snake whose shape and "hiss" evoke the slaver's whip and foreman's lash as well as the "forked tongue" of those who seek to urge patience while exploiting and perpetrating violence on African Americans.

Two other poets - Jean Toomer and Sterling Brown - are often grouped with the Harlem Renaissance writers even though they did not live in Harlem and were not an active part of Harlem literary life. Toomer, who was born and raised in Washington, D.C., spent the summer of 1921 in rural Georgia. This trip to the South inspired his most important literary work, a collection of poems and stories that was published as Cane in 1923. Cane was not only a major contribution to African American literature, but it remains one of the most powerful and challenging works by any twentieth-century American writer.

The poems in Cane dramatize the conditions oflife for blacks in the rural South rather than those living in the urban and industrial North. "Reapers," for example, places the actions ofSouthern agricultural workers in the larger context of nonhuman activity:

Black reapers with the sound of steel on stones Are sharpening scythes. I see them place the hones In their hip-pockets as a thing that's done, And start their silent swinging, one by one. Black horses drive a mower through the weeds. And there, a field rat, startled, squealing bleeds. His belly close to ground, I see the blade, Blood-stained, continue cutting weeds and shade.

While the reapers prepare for the harvest by sharpening their scythes, a mower, driven by black horses, cuts through the weeds with indifferent violence, destroying a rat with its blades. The poem can be read both as a minutely detailed description of an agricultural scene, or as a densely symbolic poem about the contrast between the purposefulness ofhuman beings and the automated disinterestedness ofmachines. The poem's latent symbolism is suggested by the association of these "black reapers" with the "grim reaper" traditionally signifying death. Yet at the same time the "field rat" -cut to death by the turning mower - might be associated with the black field hands who themselves are destroyed by the oppressiveness of the social and economic system operating in the Southern United States. Finally, the ominous and deadly progress of the mower may represent the change in the rural South from the simpler way of life represented by the reapers sharpening their scythes with "hones" (stones used for sharpening blades) to the more mechanical mower. Toomer's skillful use of sound (particularly the alliteration of the "s" sounds in lines lines 1, 2, and 6), his compact presentation of images, and his economical syntax ("squealing bleeds," "his belly close to ground"), all contribute to the eerie naturalism of the poem.

Like Toomer, Sterling Brown grew up in Washington, D.C., and wrote about the experience of black life in the "Cotton South." Brown attended Williams College and Harvard, where he was exposed to the modernist poetry of Frost and Carl Sandburg. In his college teaching jobs during the 1920s, he was also exposed to the dialect and black folk traditions of the Southern countryside. His first book, Southern Road, was not published until 1932, and as a result it did not receive the kind of attention paid to volumes published during the 1920s by McKay, Cullen, Toomer, and Hughes. Nevertheless, it is one of the most important volumes published during the period ofthe Harlem Renaissance. Unlike the other major Renaissance poets, Brown wrote primarily in dialect. Brown's use of dialect went beyond that of Dunbar: he was interested not only in capturing the black folk tradition, but also in using dialect as a way of pointing out cultural differences and in ironizing the conditions of racial and social oppression.

In "Old Lem," Brown chronicles the condition oflife under the economy of the cotton crop, where whites maintain brutal domination over black workers. Apart from the first two lines, the poem is in the voice of a speaker named "Lem," an older black man who describes the severity oflife and the relentless demands and brutality of whites.

They weigh the cotton They store the corn

We only good enough To work the rows; They keep the commissary They keep the books

We gotta be careful For being cheated.

Brown establishes a contrapuntal play between two groups: "we" (the black cotton pickers) and "they" (the white clerks, lawyers, and store-keepers who seek to maintain their power through racist domination).

In the next stanza, Brown uses anaphora to reinforce the domination of "they":

They got the judges They got the lawyers They got the jury-rolls They got the law

They don't come by ones They got the sheriff They got the deputies

They don't come by twos They got the shotguns They got the rope

We git the justice In the end

But they come by tens

The irony of the stanza's final lines is made clear in the anecdote Lem tells about his "buddy" who is killed by a gang of whites after he refuses to leave the county. Not only is there no "justice" for Southern blacks - who are forced "to slink around" like "hangtailed hounds" - but the whites are portrayed in the poem's refrain as cowardly men who can only exercise their domination through superior numbers: "They don't come by ones / They don't come by twos / But they come by tens."

Brown is perhaps most famous for his poems in the Slim Greer series, which were based on the adventures of a comic folk hero. In Southern Road, Brown presents the first three poems of the series - "Slim Greer," "Slim Lands aJob?" and "Slim in Atlanta." The poems present the trickster figure of African American folk culture, who can both circumvent social restrictions and use them for his own gain. Slim uses his rhetorical skills to diffuse oppressive or dangerous situations, thus satirizing the racist norms of white society. In "Slim Greer" he dupes a "nice white woman" into thinking he is white, but ironically reveals his racial identity when he plays the blues too well and has to escape from an angry white mob. In "Slim in Atlanta," Brown ridicules segregationist laws, here represented by a law enacted in Atlanta, Georgia, to prevent blacks from laughing in the street. When Greer finds out that the city's black citizens are only permitted to laugh "in a telefoam booth," he is so amused that he puts himself in the booth and cannot stop laughing. In order to return the situation to normal, the authorities are forced to send for an ambulance and pack him out of town.

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