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Analysis of the Harlem Renaissance

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Published: Mon, 02 Oct 2017

The movement raised significant issues affecting the lives of African Americans through a variety of literature, art, music, drama, painting, sculpture, movies, and protests. The outburst of creativity among black writers of this period was the productof the many moods and circumstances of the time. Therefore, the Harlem Renaissance was more than a literary movement; it was anexciting cultural expression of racial experience which extendedinto every area of black life. The significance of this movement to African American literary art lies in the efforts of its writers to praise the legacy of African Americans and to use their unique culture as a means toward re-defining African American literary expression

Harlem Renaissance was the era when African-Americans for the first time had a real reason to experience pride and rejoice in their identity. In Harlem they found something that was uniquely their own. African-American literature, art, music, and beliefs were respected, appreciated and recognized on a national level. African-Americans were first time regarded as intellectuals before Harlem renaissance Afro Americans were generally considered a stereotype from the outside. This stereotype was an individual servile, unqualified, unskillful and with little potential other than as a laborer. After many years of suffering through imprisonment and domination by the White man, African Americans began to come together to express their strong beliefs of racial pride and self-identity. This movement increased self confidence of Afro Americans and made them feel proud and happy. For the first time, all publishers and critics took Afro American literature seriously and Africans Americans started to work with white people. The Harlem Renaissance was a turning point in African American literature; it was no longer read mainly by black people, but started to be absorbed into the whole American culture. Due to all reasons mentioned above Harlem Renaissance stands as one of the most celebrated movements in African-American culture and American history. It is known as the golden period of African American art and literature.

The purpose of the Harlem Renaissance was for African Americans to express their need for racial equality. Civil Rights activists such as W.E.B. Du Bois, who helped to establish the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), decided that instead of using direct political means to achieve their goals of racial equality, that they would employ artists and writers of their culture to achieve their goals.

During the Harlem renaissance there was an outburst of artistic creation in all fields including visual arts, literature and poetry, music and dance that both represented and gave voice to the afro American thoughts. Even Newspapers and magazines such as The Messenger, Crisis, and Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life, were also highly important because they exposed the evils of discrimination. African Americans looked to these pieces of literature for leadership and direction.

The main goal of the writers of the Harlem Renaissance was to show the Negro as a talented individual, worthy of the same respect given to white Americans. Writers such as Claude McKay and Langston Hughes not only changed the way Negros have been portrayed in theaters throughout history but also blazed the path for the future generations to follow. The Harlem Renaissance was a transitional time when poetry changed a state of African-Americans to outstanding heights. It was one of the most vital expressive vehicles used for the promotion and celebration of African American history, culture and political awareness.

The presence of many lower and middle-class blacks in theNorthern ghettoes who could buy books and magazines and go totheaters and clubs provided the financial backing to support thecreative blacks who contributed to the Harlem Renaissance.

One of the chief poets who emerged from the period was Langston Hughes. He was born in 1920 in Joplin, Missouri and spent most his youth in the American Midwest. He first came to New York in 1921 to attend Columbia University. A year later he shipped out as a salesman and cook’s helper on a tramp steamer to Africa and Europe. He lived and worked in Paris and Italy and then returned to the United States, where he took a job as a busboy in a Washington DC, hotel. There in 1925, he was discovered by the poet Vachel Lindsay, who praised Hughes’s poems and advised him to devote himself to literature.

His first books, The Weary Blues (1926) and Fine Clothes to the Jew (1927) won poetry prizes and brought him wide acclaim. Unlike many of his peers who were turning inward for poetic expression. Hughes explored the expressive validity of black vernacular in urban and rural black lifestyle. His dynamic and insightful representation of African-Americans touches the souls of many. His poetry paints a picture of the complications faced by African-Americans with a mixture of music, culture, happiness and environmental struggles.

Langston Hughes lived ina society that was completely dominated by White men. Heremembers the company of his grandmother, “She…held mein her lap and told…stories about people who wanted to makethe Negroes free….” (Emanuel19). Thus, not only social atmospherebut his family experiences have also made him touse poetry as a weapon by which he could give an effectiveexpression to cultural and ethnic qualities of his black race inorder to shape a society. “He has asserted his voice of selfacceptance”(Berry 87). For the first time, there has been aman on the literary scene to glorify his “Blackness” and not tofeel ashamed of his being Black.

Hughes is most famous for his poetry but he contributed to numerous forms of literature and nonfiction throughout his long career.His first novelNot Without Laughter appeared in 1930. Hughes had a wide range of talent. He was a successful humorist and a historian of the lives of blacks. He wrote proudly and sanguinely about the African American conditions. His most famous fictional character is Jesse B. Semple, nicknamed Simple, who uses humor to protest and satirize the existing injustices. Apart from poems and novels he also wrote short stories, children’s books, song lyrics and operas. He translated foreign writers and wrote numerous plays, three of which were produced on Broadway. Langston Hughes in his essay “The Negro Artist and The Racial Mountain” (1926), expressed the new rebellious mood of the Renaissance writers:

Let the blare of Negro jazz bands and the bellowing voice of Bessie Smith singing Blues penetrate the closed ears of the colored near-intellectuals until they listen and perhaps understand. Let Paul Robeson singing “Water Boy,” and Rudolph Fisher writing about the streets of Harlem, and Jean Toomer holding the heart of Georgia in his hands, and Aaron Douglas drawing strange black fantasies cause the smug Negro middle class to turn from their white, respectable, ordinary books and papers to catch a glimmer of his own beauty.(Ervin 48)

Much of his best writing was journalistic. In 1937 he served as a foreign correspondent covering the Spanish Civil war for the Baltimore,Afro American news –paper. His most popular works were news paper sketches written for the Chicago Defender in the 1940s .The sketches recounted the adventures opinions of an innocent downtrodden Negro, “Simple,” whose penetrating views of blacks and whites provided Hughes with the means for making broad satirical and critical commentary on society and government.

Hughes was a worldly cosmopolite who lived an almost nomadic life. He traveled to Mexico, Cuba, and the Caribbean, to Africa, Western Europe, The SovietUnion, China and Japan.

But he was most influenced by his American experience, by his black heritage, and by the vivid life of New York’s city and Harlem, with its blues and jazz music that so influenced the structure and rhythm of such poems as “The Weary Blues”.

He was the first black American to support himself as a professional writer. In all, he produced more than sixty books. He was also one of the first American writers to receive extended and serious critical attention for realistic portrayals of black Americans. Through his poetry, fiction, and essays, he became one of the dominant voices speaking out for the significance of black culture at the core of life in the twentieth –century America. In the Twenty-first century his work still proclaims, “I, too, am America.” He created a new literary art form called jazz poetry.He was perhaps the most original of African American poets in the breadth and variety of his work and assuredly the most representative of African American writers. He believes in the ideals of liberty,equality and universal brotherhood. His creative oeuvrereflects that how he constantly struggled for the dignity andequal rights of African Americans.

Claude McKay, from Jamaica, was another most influencing poet of the Harlem Renaissance. He was born on September 15, 1890 in, Clarendon Parish, Jamaica, and West Indies. Youngest of eleven children he was sent to live with his oldest brother at an early age so that he could be given the best education. McKay was an avid reader who began to write poetry at the age of ten. Much of his writings are a reflection of that shock he felt about American racism. With the publication of two volumes of poetry, Spring in New Hampshire (1920) and Harlem Shadows (1922), McKay emerged as the most militant voice of the Harlem Renaissance. His poetry gained a lasting admiration among African-Americans during the Harlem Renaissance and addressed social and political concerns.

McKay wrote three novels: Home to Harlem (1928), a best-seller which won the Harmon Gold Award for Literature, Banjo (1929), and Banana Bottom (1933). He also authored a collection of short stories, Gingertown (1932), and two autobiographical books, A Long Way from Home (1937) and Harlem: Negro Metropolis (1940). His book of poetry, Harlem Shadows (1922) was among the first books published during the Harlem Renaissance. His book of collected poems, Selected Poems (1953), was published posthumously.

Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen identified McKay as a chief inspiring force, even though he did not put pen to paper for modern verse. His poem “If We Must Die” earned excellent remarks for him from fellow writers such as James Weldon Johnson and Walter White. Lines from his poem, “If We Must Die,” indicate the spirit of protest:

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 accursed 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!


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