"The city may hold out the promise of anonymity, but equally offer the excitement and possibilities of social encounter." How would you respond to this idea based on the following poems: "Not a Movie," "The Weary Blues," "Trumpet Player," "Summer Night," "Harlem Night Song," "Dimout in Harlem," "The Heart of Harlem," and "Harlem" by Langston Hughes, and "When Dawn Comes to the City" and "Subway Wind" by Claude McKay. Which poems best show anonymity and social encounters?

"Harlem Night Song" is a great example of "the possibilities of social encounter" in a city, as the speaker is giving an invitation to "roam the night together / Singing." This suggests that the music and cultural activities in cities create a sense of community and connection. In contrast, "Not a Movie" suggests that cities can provide anonymity and by extension safety. McKay's "Subway Wind" also explores anonymity and how small individuals are in the crowds of the subway.

Expert Answers

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This quote about the various promises of the city reflects the subjects explored in all of the poems listed by Langston Hughes. Most of these poems, while they feature suffering figures, suggest that the city, particularly the neighborhood Harlem, is a place where they can find solidarity with others. His poem “Harlem Night Song” explores the possibilities of social encounters. It repeats the phrase “come, let us roam the night together / Singing.” This is an invitation for people to join together, and it suggests that the music of the night creates a sense of connection and community in Harlem.

In contrast, “Not a Movie” speaks to the promise of anonymity in a city. It describes how a man who was beaten for trying to vote crossed the Mason-Dixon line between the North and the South and now lives on 133rd Street in New York. It ends with:

And there ain’t no ku klux

On a 133rd.

This ending suggests that by living on 133rd, he is safe from the violent racism of the South. It implies that living in the urban North will allow him to be safer than living in the South. In this new region, he has a chance to be more anonymous and not targeted by hate groups.

Both of the Claude McKay poems also touch on urban anonymity by featuring a speaker observing the movements around him in the city. “Subway Wind” in particular evokes the feeling of anonymity as he observes how the laugher of children is “swallowed” in the subway wind’s “deafening roar.” This suggests that individuals are small in comparison to the large crowds in the packed hustle and bustle of the subway and that they can easily remain anonymous.

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