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The Harlem Renaissance was an explosion of African-American creativity that began shortly after the end of World War I and ended in the 1930's. Several factors contributed to this flowering of African-American culture. While immediately after the Civil War, African-Americans became free and gained some ground economically and politically in the South, they lost ground with the advent of Jim Crow laws, which took away their rights and segregated them horrifically. This led to a great migration to the North, particularly to urban areas, where there were better prospects of work and fewer restrictions based upon race. New York was one such place, and Harlem began to become an African-American community in the early 1900's. Additionally, Black immigrants from other countries often settled in Harlem, where they found a receptive community. McKay, born in Jamaica, was one such immigrant. This critical mass of African-Americans, who had endured slavery, segregation, and even death, led, in the "free" North, to a flowering of expression in Black culture, artistically and politically. For what was probably the first time in American history, a congregation of African-Americans openly and proudly embraced their blackness and fought back against racism with words, art, music, and dance.
Two poets, Claude McKay and Langston Hughes, can be said to represent the political aspect of the renaissance. Claude McKay's poem, "If We Must Die," is one such expression, its subject being the fight of the African-American against racism. The title of the poem is not simply a metaphor, since African-Americans did die, for simply being African-Americans, and this poem was written after the Red Summer of 1919, during which there were horrific deaths caused by racism in at least three American cities. McKay exhorts his audience to die for a cause, if there must be death, so that death will have some meaning for the African-American community. One has to wonder also whether or not he had World War I on his mind, a war in which so many died for what seemed to be no reason at all. Langston Hughes was another poet who wrote of the plight of the African-American, in poems such as "Democracy" and "A Dream Deferred." He was not as militant as McKay, but he was heavily critical of the circumstances in which African-Americans lived in the United States, being deprived of the American Dream in so many ways. Why McKay was so militant while Hughes was not could be the result of their respective personalities or the fact that McKay was an "outsider" who brought the perspective of someone who had been raised in fairly comfortable circumstances and was shocked by the racism he encountered in the United States.
There was, of course, more to the Harlem Renaissance than political expression, with much beautiful art, music, and literature created, but on some level, it was all political because of the backdrop of slavery and Jim Crow.
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