According to Du Bois & Edwards (2008), the Harlem renaissance is an important period in the event that American poetry is being discussed. The poems composed during this period were characterized by a great awareness of the living conditions experienced by African-Americans, lyricism of the poems were similar to blues music, the African-American folk assertive nature and the poems’ unique structure and form. The renaissance period was an era where African-Americans were undergoing segregation and was legalized whereby the African-Americans lacked employment, were lynched and were not allowed to access public spaces. However, with the World War I happening, the opportunities initially belonging to the whites were freed up and the Great Migration occurred, in that African-Americans relocated to cities in the Northern side of the USA, with the district of Harlem in New York being at the center of all of the places from which African American culture emanated. The African American culture encompassed of Jazz, blues, art, poetry, dance, fiction and theater. The Harlem renaissance therefore, marked a period of the emergence of many African American writers and Creatives.
Some of the renowned poets during the Harlem renaissance era are Langston Hughes, the brains behind the poem, “Fine Clothes to the Jew” and Countee Cullen with “Heritage”. Notably, Hughes was critiqued by both African-American and White literary commentators. The African-American ones confronted him for displaying their lives as unpleasant in his poems. The intellectuals in the African-American community desired to have their culture depicted as polished, and they consequently were very sensitive about what he was writing about their race. One of the critics confronted Hughes by mentioning that he sees no reason as to why a fellow African-American would give a bad perception of the other people in the community. However, Hughes responded by stating that he will not write about the polished African Americans because he is not familiar with their lifestyles, as he himself had grown up as a plain African American. Hughes displayed in his poems the nuances in the lives of African Americans. The ‘plain’ African American according to the title of the poem would pawn their clothes to shops that at that time, mostly belonged to the Jews (Hughes & Kennedy, 2009).
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Hughes during the renaissance period played the role of revealing the injustices happening to the African American folk especially at a time when there was a slight shift. Many intellectuals of African American descent wished to have that part of history avoided and forgotten, especially within literary works, but Hughes did not do so. The importance of Hughes’ role was to remind African Americans that even though their situation had slightly improved, not all of them were comfortable as there were still a huge percentage of African Americans who were poor. The role that Countee played was to express the distance that African Americans felt especially those born in America and never been to Africa. The only reminder they had of Africa was the color of their skin (Hughes & Kennedy, 2009).
The aspect of “double consciousness” was introduced by Du Bois who in his article, expressed the conflict faced by African Americans on whether to be African or American. Langston Hughes primarily stood as African and this is evident in his poem “The Weary Blues”. During this era, also called the age of jazz, Africans were beginning to produce literary works, including poetry, which were already rooted in the American culture and therefore, there was need to come up with “Africanized” poetry. Hughes wrote his poetry while in leisure places, where both the Americans and African Americans sat and listened to jazz music. His poetry notably has the blues rhythm in it as well as other kinds of rhythms such as four-beat in line couplets, evident in the European form of style (Schwarz, 2003).
“ Drowning a drowsy syncopated tune
Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon
I heard a Negro play
Down on the Lenox Avenue the other night
By the pale dull pallor of an old gas light
He did a lazy sway…
He did a lazy sway…
To the tune o’those Weary Blues”
Evidently, the rhythmical structure in the quoted poem above is now in use on other forms of arts that are not European, such as rap and Hip-hop. The aspect of “blues” is evident at the periphery of the poem
“ I got the Weary Blues
And I can’t be satisfied
Got the Weary Blues
And can’t be satisfied-
I ain’t happy no mo’
And I wish that I had died”
Hughes additionally adopted the three line structure evident in blues
I got the Weary Blues, and I can’t be satisfied
I got the Weary Blues, and I can’t be satisfied-
The theme of oppression and the theme of slavery are established in the poems composed during the Harlem renaissance. As a characteristic of the blues too, the speaker in the poems would describe their miserable and oppressed situation. For instance in Cullen’s poem “Heritage” he states “From three centuries removed…from the scenes of his fatherhood.” This clearly refers to slavery. Hughes on his part, in his poem “Weary Blues”, states that, “I ain’t happy no mo’…And I wished I had died.” This also calls the period of African American enslavement and oppression into memory.
Unlike Hughes, Cullen does not pride in the identity of being an African American. Hughes therefore, desires to retain his African self, while Cullen chooses to embrace the European form. In order to determine “double consciousness”, Du Bois seeks to discover if the artist, “merges his double self into a better and truer self, wishing in this merging neither of the older self.” Hughes attempts to maintain his African identity and adopt some European forms without fully submitting to the same and on the other hand, Countee Cullen chooses to identify with just being a poet and not African American, with his poems purely taking a European form. An excerpt of the poem below establishes that:
Of three centuries removed
From the scenes his father loved,
Spicy grove, cinnamon tree
What is Africa to me? (Schwarz, 2003).
Below is a poem that has the characteristics of one that would have been composed during the Harlem renaissance.
I am lost yet found
In a strange land living
I have to call it home
But they don’t want me home
But they don’t want me home
My skin is my curse
Du Bois, W. E. B., & Edwards, B. H. (2008). The souls of black folk . Oxford University Press.
Hughes, L., & Kennedy, A. P. (2009). The Negro speaks of rivers . Disney Jump at the Sun Books.
Schwarz, A. C. (2003). Gay voices of the Harlem Renaissance . Indiana University Press.
(Hughes & Kennedy, 2009).