By M. Keith Booker
With the rise of a new form of consumer-oriented capitalism at the beginning of the twentieth century, American industry saw a dramatic expansion, especially in the North, leading to a rapidly growing need for more workers. Some of this need was filled by immigrants from Europe; some of it was filled as African Americans began to migrate northward in large numbers in search of both economic opportunities and greater civil liberties than they could have in the Jim Crow South. As this northward shift in the African American population proceeded, the upper Manhattan neighborhood of Harlem became a burgeoning center of African American cultural production, attracting black writers from both the United States and the Caribbean. This phenomenon peaked in the 1920s and 1930s in the movement that eventually came to be known as the Harlem Renaissance, though it was originally known as the “New Negro Movement,” after the 1925 anthology The New Negro, edited by Alain Locke. The writers associated with the Harlem Renaissance were not necessarily located in Harlem, but the neighborhood nevertheless became a strong base for the movement. The fiction and poetry produced during the Harlem Renaissance involved an unprecedented concentration of African American cultural production that continues to exercise a strong influence on American culture to this day.
The Harlem Renaissance was a complex phenomenon that was fed by a number of different intellectual and ideological streams, including leftist politics and the wave of modernist innovation that was sweeping through Western culture as a whole at the time. But the principal emphasis was on race and on the role of African Americans in American culture and society—and especially on the effort to generate a new African American cultural identity amid the rapid changes that the United States as a whole was undergoing at the time. Indeed, the movement has sometimes been criticized for putting so much emphasis on innovation that it failed fully to acknowledge the African American culture that came before—though similar criticisms were sometimes leveled at modernist art as a whole.
Several novels produced by writers associated with the Harlem Renaissance—such as Jean Toomer’s Cane (1923), Langston Hughes’ Not Without Laughter (1930), and Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937)—continue to be read and taught in twenty-first century America. But it is probably for their poetry that the Harlem Renaissance writers are best remembered.
Langston Hughes (1901–1967)
Born in Joplin, Missouri, Langston Hughes grew up in the Midwest but moved to New York at the beginning of the 1920s in order to study at Columbia University. Finding the atmosphere at Columbia rather hostile to black students, Hughes soon dropped out of college and moved to nearby Harlem, where he sensed the growing energies of the cultural scene, while also becoming interested in radical politics. Hughes was one of the younger members of the Harlem Renaissance, but he also emerged as one of its leaders, as when his essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” (1926) became something of a manifesto for the movement. Hughes was also the most important poet to emerge from the movement, remaining an important poet and African American cultural icon until his death, becoming an important influence on the thought of Martin Luther King, Jr., among others. Hughes’ 1925 poem “The Weary Blues” is a good illustration of the important influence of African American music (especially blues and jazz) on the literature of the Harlem Renaissance. Indeed, this poem not only incorporates the sound and rhythm of blues music but is specifically about blues music, as the speaker describes their experience in observing a blues performance by a black musician. In so doing, the poem captures much of the essence of black blues music, expressing both the hardship of life and the courage and perseverance with which African Americans have historically endured that hardship.
The Weary Blues
Droning a drowsy syncopated tune,
Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon,
I heard a Negro play.
Down on 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.
With his ebony hands on each ivory key
He made that poor piano moan with melody.
Swaying to and fro on his rickety stool
He played that sad raggy tune like a musical fool.
Coming from a black man’s soul.
In a deep song voice with a melancholy tone
I heard that Negro sing, that old piano moan—
“Ain’t got nobody in all this world,
Ain’t got nobody but ma self.
I’s gwine to quit ma frownin’
And put ma troubles on the shelf.”
Thump, thump, thump, went his foot on the floor.
He played a few chords then he sang some more—
“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.”
And far into the night he crooned that tune.
The stars went out and so did the moon.
The singer stopped playing and went to bed
While the Weary Blues echoed through his head.
He slept like a rock or a man that’s dead.
Hughes was also one of the most politically committed of the Harlem Renaissance writers, his views often aligning with those of the Communist Party. One of Hughes’ most overtly political poems, “Let America Be America Again” (1936), notes the way in which the American dream has not been made available to the working-class people who built the nation, having been hijacked by the wealthy. But it is also an optimistic poem that, though written in the midst of the Great Depression, expresses a confidence that America still has the potential to become the land of freedom and quality that visions of the American dream have pictured it to be.
Let America Be America Again
Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.
(America never was America to me.)
Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.
(It never was America to me.)
O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.
(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)
Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?
I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.
I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!
I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.
Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become.
O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home—
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”
Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay—
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.
O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.
Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!
Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!
Claude McKay (1890–1948)
Born in Jamaica, Claude McKay first came to the U.S. in 1912 to attend the Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University). In 1914, he moved on to New York, which became his permanent home base, though he traveled widely and spent most of the 1920s abroad. Active in leftist politics, McKay was a member of the radical labor union The International Workers of the World (IWW), and his political commitments tended to be expressed more in terms of class than race. He was also briefly a co-editor of The Liberator, a pro-communist magazine edited by Mike Gold, one of the major figures of the American literary left.
McKay was perhaps the most successful novelist of the Harlem Renaissance. His first novel, Home to Harlem (1928), was the first novel by an African American to become a best-seller. As such, it did a great deal to establish McKay as a successful novelist. He followed in 1929 with Banjo, another successful leftist novel, though some consider his next novel, Banana Bottom (1933) to be his finest. Banana Bottom, however, shows the result of a gradual shift in McKay’s emphasis from class to race in his thinking and writing.
McKay first became known as a poet. One of his best-known poems, “If We Must Die” (published in The Liberator in 1919), clearly expresses his commitment to emancipatory politics. It is primarily a call for the working class to rise up against their rich masters, expressing a willingness to envision a violent proletarian revolution in order to end the exploitation of workers by the rich. However, it has since become something of an anthem for oppressed peoples of all kinds.
If We Must Die (1919)
If we must die, let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursèd lot.
If we must die, O let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
O kinsmen! we must meet the common foe!
Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one death-blow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!
Georgia Douglas Johnson (1880–1966)
One of the leading women writers of the Harlem Renaissance, Georgia Douglas Johnson was not only an important poet but also one of the first important African American women playwrights. She was born in Atlanta to mixed-race parents and lived most of her life in Georgia until she and her husband moved to Washington, D.C., in 1910. There, Johnson pursued her interest in writing poetry, publishing her first volume of poems, Heart of a Woman, in 1918. Many of Johnson’s poems express her struggles as a mixed-race woman attempting to care for her family (especially after the death of her husband in 1925, leaving her with two sons to raise), while developing her potential in a world that placed serious constraints on her in terms of both race and gender. Johnson’s poems, however, are more personal and less overtly political than those of Hughes or McKay. They also often focus more on gender than either race or class, though Johnson herself was politically active, especially in the anti-lynching movement.
One of her best-known poems, “The Heart of a Woman” (1916), expresses both the nobility and the difficulty of a woman’s struggles in a patriarchal world and has become for some a sort of feminist anthem.
The Heart of a Woman (1916)
The heart of a woman goes forth with the dawn,
As a lone bird, soft winging, so restlessly on,
Afar o’er life’s turrets and vales does it roam
In the wake of those echoes the heart calls home.
The heart of a woman falls back with the night,
And enters some alien cage in its plight,
And tries to forget it has dreamed of the stars
While it breaks, breaks, breaks on the sheltering bars.
On the other hand, the poems of Johnson’s last book, Share My World (1962), tend to express a more positive and affirmative view, emphasizing, not the difficulties of the struggle, but the rewards to be gained from it. The poem “Your World” exemplifies this shift, which can perhaps be attributed to the fact that Johnson, by this time, had achieved considerable success and recognition as a writer. As opposed to the failed dreams that lie at the center of “The Heart of a Woman,” this poem suggests that dreams can, indeed, be fulfilled, if the dreamer only dreams big enough dreams.
Your World (1962)
Your world is as big as you make it.
I know, for I used to abide
In the narrowest nest in a corner,
My wings pressing close to my side.
But I sighted the distant horizon
Where the skyline encircled the sea
And I throbbed with a burning desire
To travel this immensity.
I battered the cordons around me
And cradled my wings on the breeze,
Then soared to the uttermost reaches
With rapture, with power, with ease!