Yesterday began Black History Month in the USA! The Harlem Renaissance-themed Classics Circuit began yesterday as well, and I hope you follow along as bloggers unite in reading classic works by African-Americans.
Although this post is not for the Circuit, in preparing for that Classics Circuit, I did a lot of preliminary reading about the era and I really wanted to dabble in the poetry. I meant to post this weeks ago, but it never happened and now it’s already February! It works well, though, because I’d like to write at least one post about African-American literature each week in February.
In my library shelf searches, I could not find a comprehensive collection of Countee Cullen and Claude McKay and any of the other, less well known African-American poets of the Renaissance. I still haven’t really found a comprehensive Harlem Renaissance poetry anthology at my library, but I did find an out-of-print 1941 anthology of poetry for children that met my needs. (Thank goodness for my library’s reciprocal borrowing program with 15 other libraries!). This allowed me to read a number of different poets who were writing during the Renaissance and before.
Although Golden Slippers was edited and prepared for a “young readers” audience, it’s applicable to all, and while the poetry in it is not my favorite, it seems to have an important overview of some of the poets of the near-contemporary age to the Renaissance. Researching online, I found more poems by each poet. I also focused on Langston Hughes a little bit in the past few weeks.
When I say the poetry in Golden Slippers was not my favorite, I mean that the “traditional” dialect-written poetry seems a little bit stereotypical (a number of poems in the volume were labeled “traditional”). I struggle to read dialect. Not all the poems were dialect though, and I understood those more.
A few of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poetry was dialect poetry in the Golden Slippers anthology. He died in 1906 (age 34), 14 years before the Harlem Renaissance actually began, and his poetry paved a way for other poets. I believe his poetry is more impressive than this volume illustrates, and according to Wikipedia, he was often held back from writing his preferred standard English poetry because publishers wanted to see black dialect poetry. He resented that, and I don’t blame him. His non-dialect poetry is amazing. I went and found more of it online (in the public domain). I most appreciated “Dawn” (in Golden Slippers), “Sympathy” (with the first line of “I know why the caged bird sings”),”Dreams,” and “Emancipation.” The last three aren’t in the Golden Slippers children’s collection. They are wonderful and I think children today could relate to the themes of dreaming, feeling trapped, and ultimately overcoming.
I also loved the poetry of James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938) included in Golden Slippers: “Lift Up Every Voice and Sing” and “The Creation.” The first has been called the “Negro National Anthem” because of its motivating message. The second is a clever retelling of the creation of the world. I would like to revisit James Weldon Johnson in the future, because as with Dunbar, I suspect there is a lot more here to enjoy than the first glance reveals.
Countee Cullen (1903-1946) was greatly influenced by Johnson’s poetry, and “The Wakeupworld” has a biblical element to it as Johnson’s “Creation” did (it’s the story of a bird who missed Noah’s ark). Cullen also hearkens back to the other poets of his era in “For Paul Laurence Dunbar” and “For a Poet” (the later is, I suspect, Langston Hughes.) He also comments on the race inequalities of his day in “Incident: Baltimore” (a sad story) and “For a Lady I Know” (in which he ponders the afterlife for a lazy lady he knows.) Browsing on the web, I also found some other Cullen poems I really like: “Lines to My Father” and “Saturday’s Child” (this is so good, although very sad!).
Claude McKay (1889-1948) wrote a few poems in Golden Slippers: the ones that stood out to me were “Under the Mistletoe” and “After the Winter.” Other notable poets represented in Golden Slippers were Georgia Douglas Johnson (“I Learned to Sing,” “Tomorrow’s Men,” “Youth,” “Guardianship,” “Benediction,” and “My Little Dreams”),Waring Cuney (“No Images”), and Helene Johnson (“Bottled: New York”). Many of these did not seem race or time limiting, and anyone can relate to the emotions and encouragements given in them. I’m not that familiar with poetry in general, so maybe that can be my excuse for not having heard of them before.
And then I save the best for last. I loved Langston Hughes’ contribution to the Golden Slippers anthology, and I also purchased the Poetry for Young People volume (which turns out to have been a 2007 Coretta Scott King illustrator honor winner). Then I found some award-winning children’s picture books at the library. I really should do a completely separate post on Langston Hughes because his poetry is so wonderful – and I’ve only read a couple dozen of his poems! I will definitely be revisiting Hughes at some point. Actually, all the poets I’ve mentioned are wonderful, and I think it’s too bad I’ve only read a few of each of their poems.
(Side Note/Rant: I think it’s a sad commentary on the Poetry for Young People series editors that there are only two volumes by African Americans; the other is Maya Angelou. Why not one of Dunbar or Johnson or Cullen? But then again, maybe I’m the only one seeking these out.)
Just as with the other poets I tasted briefly through Golden Slippers, it seems Langston Hughes’s poems focus on dreams and the fulfillment of them. Some are positive (like the wonderful “I Dream a World” and “Dream Keeper” and “Dreams”) and some are more negative (“What happens to a dream deferred?/ Does it dry up/ Like a raisin in the sun?” from “Harlem”). He looks to the future of youth and tries to help them define themselves in poems like “Merry-Go-Round” and “Theme for English B” and “I, Too, [Sing America].” Hughes also seems to impart his advice (“Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair” from “Mother to Son”) and optimism (“We have tomorrow/ Bright before us/ Like a flame” from “Youth”).
The illustrations for the Poetry for Young People volume reminds me of the Harlem Renaissance art I found: it’s very appropriate. It’s not my favorite style, but illustrator Benny Andrews is obviously talented at capturing the African-American experience Hughes writes about. I am so glad this is a part of my Poetry for Young People library. And now I need to read the full collection of Hughes’ poetry: I’m sure I’m missing some great ones!
As I’ve had Langston Hughes in mind this month, I also noticed two award-winning children’s picture books of his poems!
The Negro Speaks of Rivers, illustrated by E.B. Lewis, was recently awarded the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor. It captures Langston Hughes’ titular poem with gorgeous, sweeping watercolors: “My soul has grown deep like the rivers.” It perfectly captures the modern and ancient echoes of Langston Hughes’ musing on the African heritage. I really enjoy the illustrations: they were so much more than illustrations.
This year’s Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award winner was also for a Langston Hughes poem. My People, photography by Charles R. Smith Jr., captures Langston Hughes’ thirty-three word poem with stunning black and white photographs of African-Americans of all ages. I love this: it is so beautiful. My son also loved looking at the photos. “Eyes!” “Hands!” “Hair!” he pointed out. Langston Hughes’ brief poem is also beautiful. Together, the book is a true celebration of African-American art and beauty.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Langston Hughes was my favorite: after all, I read more of his poetry than of any of the others. I sincerely enjoyed my brief foray into Harlem Renaissance and early African-American poetry, and I look forward to reading more in the future.
What are you reading to celebrate Black History Month?