Themes

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 834

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.

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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.

African Heritage
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 African experience inside him when he writes:

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep

One of Cullen’s best-known poems, “Heritage,” celebrates the rich cultural legacy being discovered by many of the Renaissance artists. In the poem, he ponders the meaning of Africa to himself and to other American blacks.

In his anthology, The New Negro: An Interpretation, Locke encourages young black artists and writers to look for inspiration in their own African heritage—as separate from the dominant white American-European heritage. The book closes with an essay by Du Bois suggesting that American blacks reach out to blacks in Africa and around the world, initiating a Pan-African movement. In fact, The New Negro and other books published during the Renaissance were decorated with African-inspired motifs and designs.

Conflicting Images of Blacks
One of the most difficult issues writers dealt with during the Renaissance was how to portray African-American life. On one hand, many writers and intellectuals had a keen desire to illustrate black society only in the most positive fashion, writing stories filled with middle-class, educated characters working to become successful in a whitedominated America. Others believed that white perceptions of black society should not matter and that all sides of the African-American experience should be exposed and celebrated in the literature. Adding to this dichotomy was the concern that the more sensationalist or primitive images of blacks in literature were the ones that sold—especially to white readers.

Many black intellectuals condemned, for example, the first and only issue of the literary magazine Fire!!, published by Walter Thurman. The issue contained stories and poetry by some of Harlem’s most famous young writers, but much of what they were writing about did not fit the positive image of the race that black thinkers such as Du Bois and Benjamin Brawley considered appropriate. In fact, after reading the issue, which included pieces about prostitution, homosexuality, hatred of whites, and conflicts between lower-class black men and women, Brawley allegedly burned his copy. Hughes responded to the idea that black writers should be circumspect in what they produce in his 1926 article “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” proclaiming, “If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. . . . If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn’t matter, either.”

One writer who was often condemned by members of the black intelligentsia for portraying blacks in a negative fashion was McKay. His novel Home to Harlem upset many who believed that his story, set amid the nightclubs and speakeasies of Harlem, catered to the image many whites had of blacks as primitive savages who, even when dressed in fine clothes, were ready to succumb to their baser urges at a moment’s notice. Some black critics also charged Hurston with writing stories that were unnecessarily bawdy and crude, but she argued that her work accurately reflected the folktales she collected in black rural areas.

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