Harlem Renaissance Poetry

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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?

Reviewed on February 2, 2010

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • Great post; thanks, Rebecca! Interestingly, I was just last night reading a Paris Review interview with Maya Angelou, who referenced Johnson as one of the poets she turns to to remind her of all that English can do. (She also goes into her writing habits, which are delightfully bizarre – apparently she rents hotel rooms to write in, goes to them during the day and writes on the made bed morning after morning, refusing to let the hotel staff change the sheets.)

    Besides Cane, I’m thinking February might be a good time to plunge into the Nella Larson collection sitting on my shelves. 🙂
    .-= Emily´s last blog ..Cane =-.

  • I’m not the biggest poetry person in the world – it’s only in the last few years I’ve started getting into it. I used to have this CD of poets reading from their own work (I think Robert Browning was the earliest one), and I loved listening to Langston Hughes. His voice didn’t sound at all the way I expected – I always imagine guy poets having deep, resonant voices – but he read well. Not always true of poets reading their own work.
    .-= Jenny´s last blog ..The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien =-.

  • Back in high school, I was more in the habit of reading poetry than I am now, and I have fond memories of reading several of the poets you mention. James Weldon Johnson’s poem about creation was a favorite. Somehow though I completely missed that he wrote “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” We sang that at church on the Sunday before Martin Luther King day. It has a wonderfully rousing tune.
    .-= Teresa´s last blog ..Time to Join the Fellowship! =-.

  • It’s interesting to me, that you bring up how few black poets are in the poetry for young people series (which is, otherwise a GREAT series!), and it made me remember how few we talk about in school, either. Not being, mind you, an expert on the subject, the only black poets I remember being mentioned EVER in school were Hughes and Angelou. Angelou was just mentioned offhand, and I never read (and never have, actually). Hughes, we read a few of his poems – and in talking about them, we talked only about how he was black, and how black was like this, and such.

    Now, I don’t want to argue that Hughes’ blackness didn’t inform his poetry, or that we should ignore what was, without a doubt, one of the most cogent facts of Hughes life, and certinaly the most common outward subject of his poems, that I know of. But, the thing about it was, to me, I felt like this was the ‘token black guy.’ When we, a class of all white kids in a small town in Wisconsin read Langston Hughes, we read him as something different, foreign, a window into a world that wasn’t ours. It was something like American history – learning about slavery, is a process of talking what we (Americans) did to black people (not Americans, but slaves), rather than what we, Americans, did to Americans (and Africans, who we forced to be American. Better yet, what we humans did to humans). There is a sense in our education system that this X is our history, our literature, whatever, and that that Y is their history, the history we did to them, the poetry we crushed out of them, etc.

    Langston Hughes, for all that he was writing from a perspective vastly different from my own, wrote so clearly and beautifully that what he wrote still ahs to do with me. I hesitate to say this, because I know it could be taken wrong but, in some sense, I think everybody has a blackness, a thing in themselves that the world tells them is ugly, that they must be crushed for, something indelibly them that they must proclaim the rightness of in the face of everything else. And everyone is looking for the ‘America [that] was never was America to me’. I wish we could read Hughes the way we read any other poet -as a human, talking about what it is to be human, not ‘just’ a black person talking about what it is to be black.
    .-= Jason Gignac´s last blog ..To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf =-.

  • I picked up the Norton Anthology of African-American Literature at the library, and while it only had a section on the Harlem Renaissance, it got me interested in Claude McKay. If We Must Die is an amazing poem, and I’m not much for poetry.
    .-= Suzanne´s last blog ..On re-reading =-.

  • Jason, based on my high school experience I totally agree with your comment. Black authors were all presented as “others” that we needed to “research” in order to, like, earn our multi-cultural badge or something – not as human beings to whom we could relate and with whom we could empathize, whose experience would speak to us directly. I think that’s a real shame. When I studied Hughes, Toomer, McKay, Sterling Brown, Zora Neale Hurston, etc., in college, while we discussed race issues for sure, we also applied the same toolkit of critical approaches we would to any other author, and talked about universal themes as well as their structural strategies. It was so much more rewarding, and (I like to think) closer to the way the authors themselves would like to be read (at least, if Hughes’s “When the Negro was in Vogue” is any indication).
    .-= Emily´s last blog ..Cane =-.

  • Emily, I’ve heard great things about Nella Larson too!

    I think Johnson should be more recognized. I’ve only read a bit here and there, but it is great! I need to read Maya Angelou’s poetry. I’ve only read Caged Bird.

    Jenny, I’d love to listen to poetry like that! Great idea. I’ll have to see what my library has.

    Teresa, I didn’t know “Lift Up every Voice” was a song too,but it makes sense! I’m making a conscious effort to read more poetry this year.

    Jason, Thank you for the long comment. It makes me happy.

    I think you are completely right: As I read these poems, I was struck by how universal they were. And it made me sad to think that people only read each author because of the racial issues. They are so much more, and we need a similar “poetry for young people” volume that looks at the poems as poems, not as African-American poems.

    I don’t remember ever hearing of Langston Hughes in school. I read Angelou’s Caged Bird but never the poetry. Not even in American Literature. I remember lots of Emerson and Thoreau and then Great Gatsby. Why not some of these Harlem Renaissance poets too? Not because they are African-American but because they are universal. It’s making me mad thinking of this…

    Suzanne, I really like the McKay poetry I enjoyed. I may have to find a volume like that because as Jason says, it seems certain poets are sometimes recognized while we don’t know about the others.

    Emily again, As I said, I don’t remember studying any Black authors in school — really, I can’t think of any. But these were so universal. It’s a horrible shame (Again, this is making me mad thinking about that gap in my high school education….)

  • I’m really surprised you didn’t study Langston Hughes in high school. I know in my freshman English class, we did a massive poetry unit that included Hughes; and then in my junior year, for American lit, we did more of Hughes’s poetry and read several things by Cullen, and a bunch of Zora Neale Hurston.
    .-= Jenny´s last post on blog ..The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien =-.

  • Part of it, I wonder, might have to do with the way we think of and categorize ‘black’ literature. Even today, when I go to Borders, there is an ‘African American Interest’ shelf, that just has fiction about black people. The books are frequently not talking about racism or anything, just happen to feature black people as the main characters. Why is that? Why, if I’m browsing for a book, would I need to decide ‘I think I want to read about black people, today’. Similarly, why do we learn about The Harlem Renaissance as this little island in culture, disconnected to what is going on around it? Ms Emily pointed out in her review of Cane, that the book is closely linked with Modernism, for example. Why don’t we learn about these writers in the context of their time? The underlying message is that the context of race is the one that matters – that the others are secondary, that these authors are black first, members of humanity second, in a way.

    In a sense, I suppose this is unavoidable. After all, the authors seem to have a sense THEMSELVES of being members of the Harlem Renaissance – but then they also struggled with that, hence, for instance, Toomer refusing to claim any particular race. It’s an odd balance.
    .-= Jason Gignac´s last post on blog ..To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf =-.

  • I get to teach Langston Hughes in my classes now and then, and the students love him. This is a very useful post — there are many authors you mention that I would like to read more of. Maybe I could do a short Harlem Renaissance unit in my classes.
    .-= Dorothy W.´s last post on blog ..New Books =-.

  • Jenny, seriously, I can’t remember ever reading these authors in school. We read A Raisin in the Sun, I think, and I read Maya Angelou. But no black poetry in a huge poetry unit. That’s so sad. You’re in England (right?) and you studied it!!

    Jason, I see what you’re saying. As I’ve been reading about the Harlem Renaissance, I too have wondered why we don’t study it as a part of it’s time. It wasn’t an island. I agree also that they were seeing themselves as different, but still, they are a part of America too and it would be nice to see it in context. How I wish my high school took this into it’s curriculum!

    Dorothy W., Very awesome! As we’ve been talking in the comments, this definitely belongs in school!

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