SEMINAR NOTES #12C: POETRY OF THE HARLEM RENAISSANCE

AFRICAN AMERICAN LITERARY HISTORY

African American literary history, evidently a post-Civil War phenomenon, is normally divided into several periods arranged as follows (writers who were primarily poets are denoted by an *):

For further details, consult The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., et al.

POETRY: GENERAL COMMENTS

For most literary historians, poetry written by African Americans constitutes a distinct vein of poetry within, even though not entirely separable from, the broader current of American literary history.  The first major African American poet was Paul Lawrence Dunbar but the first major group of poets emerged during the Harlem Renaissance and included Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, and Sterling Brown.  These poets did not constitute an organised or intellectually cohesive group or movement.  They are most often discussed together primarily because they produced their major works around the same time and in the same place resulting in the sudden, unprecedented emergence of talented black poets.  Moreover, notwithstanding differences between individual poets, what united them was their determined commitment to: 

Content:

The content of the best poetry produced during the Harlem Renaissance was largely a response to the aftermath of slavery (racism, etc.) as it was personally experienced by black Americans.  The most outstanding poet of the period, Langston Hughes, wrote a kind of poetry the themes of which were were undoubtedly indebted to Walt Whitman and Carl Sandburg principally and reflected a commitment to democratic, populist and, later, Marxist ideals.  In the 1920s, there was much disagreement as to whether black poetry should deal with specifically racial experience, adopt distinctive idioms and forms, and address itself primarily to a black audience, or whether such criteria would perforce be too restrictive would alienate black poets from the mainstream of American poetry.  However, the best poetry of the period was written out of a racial feeling or identification, race being, as James Weldon Johnson put it, "perforce the thing that American negro poet knows best" (qtd. in Perkins, 394).

Form:

The form of poetry produced during the Harlem Renaissance varies with a division existing between the older, technically more conservative poets and the newer, more innovative poets.  Around the turn of the century, (today mostly unknown) black poets wrote in the conventional style of the age, declaiming noble emotions in the style of Victorians like Tennyson or Swinburne or earlier Romantic poets who sought to celebrate the tranquility of nature.  Although they rejected racist stereotypes and refused to allow negro poets to be restricted solely to racial issues, they were arguably frightened to discuss racial questions in anything but the most hushed tones.  In the manner bequeathed by Wordsworth, early dialect poets such as Dunbar wrote of the simple joys and sorrows of usually rural life, its poor but happy inhabitants (black characters who voiced no racial protest), and all in a perfectly conventional style.

Much of this changed in the 1920s with the emergence of several very talented poets.  In many ways, the poetry of McKay and Cullen followed traditional (white) styles and techniques (e.g. the widespread use of the sonnet form and traditional diction) but for the first time, a strong note of social protest was sounded.  The poetry of Hughes and Brown was more innovative because modelled on the spirituals and field songs of Southern blacks as well as black musical forms such as blues and jazz and other forms of popular culture.  Whatever might be their particular stylistic bent, all poets sought less to renew the (white) poetic tradition than to "express . . . black people, their attitudes, experiences, ways of life, and imaginative styles, in forms that would speak to them because they were theirs" (Perkins, Vol. 1, 392).  As a result, "black poets were not "battling each other over new or old forms and styles.  On the whole, one accomplished black poet was ready to welcome another, whatever his style, for the accomplishment was what mattered for racial pride" (394).  The two main techniques employed by many of these poets included:

CLAUDE MCKAY (1890-1948)

Biography:

Born of Jamaican farmers Thomas Francis and Hannah Ann Elizabeth Edwards, Claude McKay was the youngest of 11 children.  His life which spanned 58 years (Sept. 15 1890 to May 22 1948) was a testimony of the emergence of a political analyst, novelist, essayist and poet, one of the most prominent figures of the Harlem Renaissance.

Among his philosophy, McKay believed that a poet's job is to politically inform the minds of the people.  as such, he spoke out against institutionalised racism of governments, especially in the world's most powerful countries like the U.S.A and England.  he also travelled, studying the oppression of different peoples and advocating political change.  These political ideas were exemplified very early in his literary career by the presence of dialect and island culture in his poetry.  His fiction however, often captured the working class black who struggled to make it in his allotted life.  

These first 23 years were marked as the formative years in the life of the poet.  With a  father who awakened in him a distrust of the white man and an interest in the customs of their ancestral land, there were two other people who were instrumental in McKay's definitive years.  These were his brother who was an elementary school teacher and a mentor who insisted that he read the works of all the great poets, (from Elizabethan, Milton, Pope, Victorians…).  He was sent to school at the age of 6 under the tutorship of his brother who encouraged him to read "free-thinking books."  McKay himself claimed to have "devoured Huxley and Lecky, Haeckel and Gibbon…" and as such he began writing his own poetry at the age of 10.

At the age of 16 he became friendly with as Englishman domiciled on the island, Walter Jekyll, a collector of Jamaican folklore.  Jekyll who later became the poet's mentor, encouraged him to read German philosopher Schopenhaver, whose work Jekyll was translating at the time.  More significantly, he encouraged McKay to write poems in the speech of the island's country folk, and to give up writing in English.

An apprentice's scholarship one year later from the Jamaican government sent McKay to Kingston where by age 19 he ended up serving with the island's police force for ten months. This stay in Kingston was most instrumental in revealing to McKay the brutality of the race prejudice.  It also brought him face to face, for the first time against the realities of a caste hierarchy based on colour.  This experience became the source of inspiration for most of his latter poems, in particular those that were published in his first two collections, Songs of Jamaica and Constab Ballads, both of which were published in rapid succession in 1912, with the help of Walter Jekyll.

These two collections constitute a diptych of McKay's  experience in Jamaica.  The first/first side is an  epitome of the years of childhood and young manhood spent in the mountains.  The second is in direct opposition to the former.  It reveals the disillusionment and pessimism that he felt when he lived in the capital.  All the same the success of these works caused him to receive a substantial stipend that enabled him to study in the U.S.

During this time, McKay pursued his study of agriculture at Kansas State College which he abandoned after two years and found himself owner of a restaurant and married to his childhood sweetheart Eulalie Imelda Lavars by the year 1914.  Neither venture lasted a year and his wife returned to Jamaica to give birth to their daughter.

Later, McKay became editor of a magazine, The Liberator, which became an outlet for several of his poems from 1919.  It is during this time of racial violence against blacks, known as the "Red Summer," that McKay wrote his best known poems, among which is the famous "If We Must Die," otherwise known as an anthem of resistance.  This along with "Baptism," "The White House," and "The Lynching" exemplify the poet's finest protest poetry.

During this time McKay travelled widely, London, Belgium and Holland.  In 1920 he published his third volume of poetry, Spring in New Hampshire and returned to New York in 1921 long enough to write the collection entitled Harlem Shadows (1922).  He then travelled to Russia, Paris, Morocco, Medi, Nice and Spain where he had a stint with Catholicism.  In 1927 he finished his novel on life in Harlem entitled Home to Harlem.

McKay returned to Harlem after a 12 year absence.  These latter years were spent fairly `low-keyed'.  In 1937 he published an assemble of his collections called A Long Way from Home.  However, he never managed to regain the stature he had achieved during the 1920s.   Finally, between 1941 and 1942 he was weakened by high-blood pressure and heart disease.  This physical decline caused him to abandon his life of agnosticism and embrace Catholicism in October of 1914, after which he taught until his death in May 1948.  He never returned to Jamaica.  

(McKay's biography compiled by Shanda Sandy)

Poetry:

In style, McKay was old fashioned.  His poetry most often voices personal feelings very directly with many 'oohs' and 'aahs' and the occasional 'alas!'  He was not adverse to using such poetic clichés as the "sable sheet" of night and "Peace, O my rebel heart," the stable stuff of poetic fare.  His sonnets owe much to nineteenth practitioners such as Wordsworth, Keats and Shelley.  In eight poems, he offered impressionistic descriptions of Harlem life.

Whatever the derivativeness of his style, McKay's content was very influential upon subsequent writers, not least his ambivalence about white American culture and his resounding defiance in the face of white racism in poems such as "If We Must Die" (which was written about the 1919 race riots).

COUNTEE CULLEN (1903-1946)

Biography:

Countee Leroy Porter, a name that was later changed to Countee Cullen, was born on May 30 1903.  Both his parents (unnamed) died when he was very young, after which he was adopted by a Methodist Minister with homosexual tendencies, Reverend Frederick Asbury Cullen, and his wife Carolyn Belle Mitchell.

Cullen's first poetic efforts date at the age of 14, from his high school years, which were spent at the De Witt Clinton High School in New York.  Among his first 'pieces' were "To the Swimmer," a school assignment and "Life's Rendezvous"[1] which was awarded first prize in a competition organised by the Federation of Women's Clubs.  Both poems were written in the year 1918.

He started attending the New York University in 1922, where most people believe that his vocation as a poet was confirmed.  In October of that year the poem "Christ Recrucified" was published on Kelley's Magazine.  From then until 1925 Cullen was afforded a vast amount of invitations and opportunities to write and publish his work in all of the major magazines: Poetry, Opportunity, Harper's, Century Magazine, and The Crisis, the latter of which he was under the direction of W.E.B DuBois.

The year 1925 however marked his 'big break' so to speak.  "The Ballad of the Brown Girl," written in 1923 won him several awards, notably the Witter Bynner Undergraduate Prize.  Most especially however, this is the year that Harper published Cullen's first collection of verse entitled Color.  This saw Cullen elevated to the summit of renown by his own people and made him "the most widely acclaimed poet of all Negrodom,' according to Wagner, 1973.  The following summer he received his M.A from Harvard University after which he travelled to Europe and the Holy Land in the company of Yolande DuBois, daughter of W.E.B DuBois.

A somewhat disappointing second volume of poetry, Copper Sun, was published in 1927, a compilation which was deeply inspired by his affection for Yolande who later became his wife in April of the following year (April 9th 1928), and who divorced him in the fall of the following year (1929).

Not surprisingly, Cullen's own writing also took a plunge with his failed marriage.  The poems that he wrote thereafter crassly confess to a disillusioned love.  However, he did attain some inner depth which is marked in his writing of "The Black Christ."  This poem too marks a kind of 'finis' to Cullen's work as a poet.  Although his productive years were somewhat short-lived, what he wrote was evidence that  Cullen thought long and hard in his poems about his own African-American identity.

In the last twelve years of his life (1935-1946) Cullen taught French in Frederick Douglass Junior High school,  where his contact with children inspired him to write two children books, The Lost Zoo (1940) and My Lives and How I Lost Them (1942).  He made a final attempt at publishing an anthology of his poems, On These I Stand, in 1945, however his suffering from high blood pressure grew worse in 1946 and he died on January 9th of that year, before the book was published.  

(Cullen's biography compiled by Shanda Sandy)

Poetry:

In terms of style, due in part to this education at Harvard, Cullen also followed the well-beaten path laid out by English and American predecessors, not least Keats whom he particularly admired.

LANGSTON HUGHES (1902-1967)

Biography:

The most important poet of the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes was raised by his grandmother until the age of 13, at which time he moved to live with his mother and her husband in Ohio.   He started Columbia University in 1926 spending only one year before he left to travel to Europe and Africa.  During this time he occupied himself with odd jobs as a seaman, busyboy, cook and launder, until in 1929 he completed his college degree at Pennsylvania University.  By this time he had already launched his literary career with the poem "The Negro Speaks of Rivers."  This heralded the existence of a mystic union of Negroes in every country and every age.  His first book of poetry, The Weary Blues (1926) and the other Fine Clothes to the Jew (1927) showed his devotion to music; a fusion of jazz and blues with traditional verse.

Most of his poetry also drew from traditional sources and individual voices, and his experiments in for reflect an attempt to capture the myriad colours known as "black".  His opus speaks not for Hughes the man, but for the race as a whole.  These themes are also portrayed in his short stories, plays and novels.

For most of his adult life he accepted his vocation "to explain and illuminate the Negro condition in America."  His personal credo was "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain."  This spoke about poets and artists "who would surrender racial pride in the name of false integration."  This led to harsh attacks on him by the press.  In its defence, in The Nation, Hughes argued for the need for race pride and artistic independence. 

His first novel in 1930, Not Without Laughter, won Hughes the Harmon Gold medal for literature.  It was supervised by his patron / godmother, Mrs. Charlotte Mason, with whom he had an affair which collapsed by the time the novel was published.

The years 1932-1933 were spent in the Soviet Union, then one year later in California led to a collection of short stories The Ways of White Folk (1934) which showed Hughes' pessimism about race relations.  He then wrote a play Mulatto, about parental rejection and miscegenation which opened on Broadway in 1935.  A year later witnessed the launching of Little Ham (a comedy) and Emperor of Haiti (a historical drama).

Although most of his work strongly attacked racial segregation, it generally reflected his people's culture and included both their suffering (especially that of lower class blacks), and their love for music, laughter and language itself.  Among his major influences were Walt Whitman, Paul Lawrence Dunbar and Carl Sandburg, `aka' his "guiding star" who was decisive in leading Hughes towards free verse.   Hughes died from complications from prostate cancer on May 22 1967 in New York.

(Hughes' biography compiled by Shanda Sandy)

Poetry:

Principal Qualities: directness, vitality, inventiveness, actuality, humour

Form: 

In terms of current Afro-American popular music and the sources from which it has progressed--jazz, ragtime, swing, blues, boogie-woogie, and be-bop--this poem on contemporary Harlem, like be-bop, is marked by conflicting changes, sudden nuances, sharp and impudent interjections, broken rhythms, and passages sometimes in the manner of the jam session, sometimes the popular song, punctuated by the riffs, runs, breaks, and distortions of the music of a community in transition.  (qtd. in Wagner, 414)

Content: 

SECONDARY SOURCES / CRITICISM


[1] The title is a pastiche (a piece of writing, music that is deliberately made in the style of another artist) of that of Alan Seeger's poem "I Have a Rendezvous with Death".