As many critics have noted, the literature from the Harlem Renaissance displayed a wide variety of themes and topics; in fact, some have blamed this lack of cohesion for its supposed failure to maintain its momentum much past the early 1930s. However, there were a handful of themes and issues that commonly appeared in many of the writers’ works.
Race and Passing
The issue of skin color is of critical importance in most of the novels, stories, and poetry of the Harlem Renaissance. For example, a quick examination of the titles included in Cullen’s first collection of poetry, Color, indicates that he is very conscious of his race and its defining connotations in America: “To a Brown Girl” and “Black Magdalens” are two of the titles in the collection. In another one of the collection’s poems, “The Shroud of Color,” Cullen writes of his race and of the experience of being a second-class citizen because of his skin color:
Lord, being dark, forwilled to that despair
My color shrouds me in, I am as dirt
Beneath my brother’s heel.
In addition, many of the period’s authors refer to a phenomenon known as “passing”—a lightskinned black person living as a white person. In Larsen’s Passing, the heroine faces tragedy when her white husband becomes aware of her African- American background. In another of Larsen’s books, Quicksand, the mixed-race heroine struggles to find a place in society where she can feel comfortable and welcome. She feels restricted when she attempts to settle in black society but experiences dissatisfaction and discontent while passing as a white woman.
Many of the period’s authors highlighted their African heritage. Some viewed Africa in a romantic light and as an ancient place of origin and therefore a prime source of artistic insight. For example, Hughes, in his poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” refers to the thousands of years of...
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