Introduction (Critical Survey of Poetry: Topical Essays)
The Harlem Renaissance, also known as the New Negro movement and dating from approximately 1919 to 1935, is recognized as one of the most important and productive periods in the history of American literature, art, and culture. From the movement came some of the finest music, literature, and art of the twentieth century.
At the end of World War I, black veterans returning to their southern homelands found little change. Despite having served their country, they were afforded no special recognition for their sacrifices and were faced with the same poor living conditions and threats of lynchings and public humiliation that existed before the war. Meanwhile, urban areas in the North and West had profited somewhat from the war with an upswing in new industries. In addition, the decline in immigration from Europe had created a severe labor shortage, which opened up employment opportunities.
In search of economic stability, better lives, and better education for their children, African Americans left the South for industrial centers such as Pittsburgh and Detroit and for cities such as Chicago and New York City. The greatest number of African Americans went to New York City, which had always been a cultural mecca and already had a large black population in Harlem. Harlem’s boundaries had been greatly expanded in 1910 when African American real estate agents and church groups had bought large tracts of land, so housing was available to the black migrants, though they faced greatly inflated rental charges. This influx brought problems. Established residents did not embrace the change, seeing the newcomers as interlopers who would try to take their jobs. Eventually, the wide variety of people from different backgrounds provided opportunities for cultural growth and diversity.
Harlem had already been a center for political activism, where silent marches—and some louder ones—protesting injustice had taken place. Marcus Garvey, charismatic leader of the Back to Africa movement, had his headquarters there, and both the National Urban League and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) had offices there. The National Urban League’s Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life, a periodical designed to stimulate pride in past racial achievements and hope for the future, and the NAACP’s Crisis, edited by historian, journalist, and social critic W. E. B. Du Bois, both provided avenues for sharing ideas. Many writers had come to Harlem intending to turn the lives of migrants into novels and short stories. Alone, these writers might not have created the Renaissance community. However, two very influential leaders—Alain Locke, philosopher, writer, and educator, and Charles Johnson, the director of research for the Urban League—orchestrated a...
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The writers and their works (Critical Survey of Poetry: Topical Essays)
The poetry of the Harlem Renaissance was the most celebrated, coming from the minds of sensitive, culturally aware, honest, and skilled poets who, by virtue of the genre, had to make each word count. Sometimes those words cut deeply, though not without reason. They opened eyes to outrages and called for action. There were no dominant themes in the poetry, though much of it explored Harlem and race in the United States. Some works protested racial injustice, but most avoided overt protests or propaganda, focusing instead on the psychological and social impact of race. At the time, writers were more interested in acquainting the white public with the lives of African Americans. They wanted to demonstrate these individuals’ great capacity for deep thoughts, for grappling with problems, and for seeking truth, justice, and beauty.
This period of artistic and cultural blossoming was sometimes fraught with problems, mainly among those African Americans who were concerned with their public image now that works by black writers were receiving wider white readership. The purpose of writing and the obligations of writers came into question. Poets in particular seemed to divide into three groups: those who wanted to pattern their works after the great masters, thinking it made little sense to try to improve upon perfection; those who wanted to write in the language of the people, to stick with the vernacular of the common man and woman; and those who favored telling the truth about African American life, the delights as well as the horrors.
Many African American poets modeled their works on literary classics, especially favoring allusions that required readers to work toward understanding. Some writers were accused of catering to the white taste for seedy tales of degradation. They presented African American life as it was lived by a portion of the community: scam artists, gamblers, heavy drinkers, and carousers. Hughes was criticized for writing of the “low downs,” the ordinary people. Hurston used black dialect to convey the essence of her characters and was told that she was bringing the race down.
Du Bois had high expectations and rules for writers, saying that they had a social responsibility to present African Americans in their best light and that their works should be “uplifting.” He thought that all writing should be propaganda. He found the new realism too gritty. However, the new writers felt the constraints too limiting. They wanted their literary talent to discredit the stereotypes. Mainly they wanted to counteract the postcard images of happy darkies in the cotton fields grinning instead of tending to the wounds, invisible to the public, created by the sharp briars of the plant. They wanted the balance of a bookie or a pimp, acting as some real people act. The concept of creating works that were spiritually uplifting went against the artistic ideal of showing life as it is, and some writers would not yield to pressure from the intellectuals.
Poet Countée Cullen liked traditional verse forms such as the sonnet because his mainstream education exposed him to the literature he loved. He became known as the black John Keats. His works appeared structured, even gentle, but his words conveyed the system of discrimination so prevalent in those days. In “For a Lady I Know,” he slaps at white womanhood, while undoubtedly delighting service workers. He says, “She even thinks that up in heaven/ Her class lies late and snores// While poor black cherubs rise at seven/ to do celestial chores.” In “Incident,” the subject is far more painful. He tells of riding in a public conveyance in Baltimore when he was a boy, just eight, and smiling at another...
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A black awakening (Critical Survey of Poetry: Topical Essays)
While courted by wealthy whites and invited to parties, most of the black poets stayed true to their form and did not let their messages be toned down. Not fearful of losing their popularity, they portrayed life as it was and kept their patronage. In poetry, African Americans found a way to further the oral tradition and the stories told through hymns and folk music. No longer necessary were the seemingly innocuous lyrics of such works as “follow the drinking gourd” (look to the Big Dipper for the escape route to the North) or musical maps to the Underground Railroad. Now poets could speak truth and reflect the reality of black life. They produced some remarkable works that went beyond the horrors that African Americans experienced and to the heart of all who have suffered, felt lost and afraid, and been hurt by life circumstances or unfairness.
The Harlem Renaissance was called a period of great cultural, artistic, and literary achievement, but it was also a time of awakening, when blacks, seeing chances for better lives, took them; when pride in being black became a factor; and when celebrations and recognition of black artists gave the general populace good feelings. Many of the stars of the Harlem Renaissance were either homosexual or bisexual, but for the most part, their sexual proclivities remained hidden, lest publishers or readers wane. The silent awareness among them fostered a strong bond that helped to unite them in their writings on particular themes. They could allude to their sexual feelings without letting the public in on their secrets. Works required much reading between the lines.
The Harlem Renaissance changed the way African Americans were perceived by others and how they viewed themselves. It produced poetry and fiction that will endure because these works went beyond skin tone to the hearts of humanity and to the human condition that weathers external changes.
Bibliography (Critical Survey of Poetry: Topical Essays)
Chapman, Abraham. “The Harlem Renaissance in Literary History.” CLA Journal 11, no. 1 (September, 1967): 38-58. A personal accounting of Chapman’s dismay at the scant attention paid to the Renaissance and its writers.
_______, ed. Black Voices: An Anthology of African American Literature. New York: New American Library, 1968. The introduction to Chapman’s classic collection still stands as one of the most comprehensive statements regarding the long history of blacks in literature.
Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, eds. Harlem Renaissance Lives, from the African American...
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