Harlem Renaissance is also known as the period of renaissance and development of Black art and writing in the United States. Literature was used as a means of promoting and projecting the realities of social oppression that African-Americans felt at the time. Literature was also one of the modes of expression that was used to articulate the complex emotions that many African-Americans felt in an oppressive society. On a related level, the Harlem Renaissance was, in essence, the search for identity and meaning as well as for the expression of cultural roots of Black people in the United States. There were a number of writers and artists who became famous as propagandists of the search for Black identity and meaning. One of the most well-known was Langston Hughes, whose poetry will be discussed as an example of the literature of the Harlem Renaissance.
The meaning of the Harlem Renaissance.
In order to understand the Harlem Renaissance, one has to understand the underlying vigor, hope and dynamism that formed a major part of searching for the self and Black identity that was manifested by the artists, writers and poets of that period. The following quotation goes some way to illustrating the atmosphere of this Renaissance, which took place during the 1920's and 1930's when Jazz and blues become an integral part of American culture and there was a sense of cultural integration and interaction between the different racial groups to form a unified American identity. It was a time of the "new urban Negro," ... when speakeasies were filled with both blacks and whites dancing to the 'rhythms of life' set out by the saxophone, trumpet, and drums; when the "New Negro" was setting his mark in politics, art, literature, music, science, the social sciences and every aspect of American life into which he could win his way; when the industrial North seemed to call forth African-Americans out of the agrarian South and when the African-Americans responded to the call in droves, fleeing the violence and racism of the KKK and lynch law and the abject poverty of share-cropping; when it seemed as if the urban North, in cities like New York, Chicago, and Detroit, was a place where the American Negro could finally find respite from racial prejudice, could finally hold a decent job with decent pay, could finally become an un-harassed property owner, and could finally go out dancing Saturday night without fear of having men in white sheets shatter his fun. (The Harlem Renaissance)
The Harlem Renaissance was a focal point of the aspirations and dreams of the African-American people to throw off the perceptions and biases of the past. The Renaissance, from a literary and artistic point-of-view, was the resurgence of the expressive capabilities that would be unique to the Black people of the country.
Another important aspect of this renaissance was the search for cultural identity and liberty from the restrictive norms and values that had been foisted on Black people in the United States. There was a strong and urgent movement within the literature that emanated for the Harlem Renaissance towards a sense of historical and cultural 'roots' or heritage. If the writing of Hughes and others are to be seen as "propagandist," then the aim of this propaganda was to awaken American society and the world to the rich history and heritage of all Black people. Therefore, it is important to point out that the Renaissance was more than just a literary movement. One of the centre purposes of the literary and artistic output of the Renaissance was to exalt and publicize the "unique culture of African-Americans." (The Harlem Renaissance 2)
Another aspect that bears on the understanding of what the writers of the Harlem Renaissance were intending to convey can be seen in the "notion of twoness." This concept was introduced by W.E.B. Du Bois early in the Twentieth Century, to express the essential division that Black people felt within themselves. On the one hand they were Americans, and on the other they belonged to an extensive African cultural heritage. It was felt that Black people in America had a divided sense of identity that needed to be resolved in a new and more integrated perception of what it meant to be Black. It is this sense of inner division and the search for integration of the self in both a psychological as well as social sense, which was one of the central aims of the Black writers and poets of the time. "One ever feels his two-ness - an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled stirrings: two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder." ( Reuben P.)
There were writers at that time such as Jean Toomer, who inspired many other writers with his portrayal of Black life of in the novel Cane (1923). "Cane describes people frustrated by their conflicts with social customs and by psychological conflicts within themselves." (The Literature of the Harlem Renaissance) There were many other famous writers involved in the Harlem Renaissance, such as Zora Neale Hurston and Countee Cullen. However, possibly the most well-known of the writers of the Renaissance was Langston Hughes. A brief analysis of some of his poetry will provide an overview of how literature was used as a means of propaganda during this period.
3. Langston Hughes
Langston Hughes is often referred to as the Poet Laureate or Shakespeare of the Negro Race. He was also one of the main artists responsible for the development of African-American literature and was a chief exponent of the ideals of the Harlem Renaissance. The poetry of Langston Hughes is representative of a period that saw cultural growth and expansion in consciousness, and the increase of self-identity issues of the Black or Negro culture in the United States. The way in which Hughes used literature to promote and convey the African-American search for identity and meaning is expressed in the style, rhythms and content of his poetry.
As mentioned above, one of the central aspects of the Harlem Renaissance, besides the question of racial prejudice, was that the Black artist as an African-American was concerned with was the question of identity. One of Langston Hughes's most anthologized poems, The Negro Speaks of Rivers, was an attempt to describe this search for identity and the depth of heritage that belonged to the American Negro.
In the opening line of the poem the poet explores the deep African roots that provide the link to his origins. The essential atmosphere and imagery used refers to time and the depth of historic ages. The river, as a symbol of enduring generations, refers the reader back to the origins of the African people - back to the very origins of the African-American in the geographic past of Africa.
The protagonist in the poem states, "I have known rivers." This direct statement is very important in the context of the poem. It refers to the fact that the origins of the river are as old as the oldest rivers in the world, implying a respect and pride in the African heritage that forms part of his Negro identity. The word "known" refers to genealogy and racial history. His knowledge is deep and extends further than just ordinary everyday knowledge. The concept of the river is also a symbol of passing and enduring time; as well as an implied reference to the passing of knowledge and culture over countless generations. The sense of the rich and extensive history of the Black people in Africa is suggested in this poem.
I've known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.
The poem also implies that the Negro as a Black man with this ancient heritage should be respected within any society. The heritage of the past and the dignity of the Negro heritage demands justice and equality with any other nation or race. The protagonist as an African-American is the son and the inheritor of the rich and enduring cultural background.
The poem juxtaposes the growth and development of America as a modern civilization with an African past. The rise of the modern technological world of the 20th Century is contrasted with the past and the heritage of the Black man. In the final line of the poem the protagonist states, "My soul has grown deep like the rivers." This establishes the richness and depth of his cultural heritage that provides him with his present contemporary identity in the modern technological and developed world. His "soul" has "grown" - implying that as a modern Black man he is enriched by the vast wealth of his cultural background. It also implies that this proud cultural tradition is the central factor that provides the Black man with his identity and foundation in the modern world.
Black identity is a pervasive theme in much of his poetry. In another Poem, Theme for English b Hughes explores the…