Hughes and Mckay: Harlem Poetry Term Paper

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Harlem Renaissance

Harlem's Poets

Claude McKay and Langston Hughes became like two poster boys for the Harlem Renaissance. They burst from the "Harlem Shadows" and underground jazz world into the mainstream, crossing the racial divide to find support and fame not only in America but all over the world. Their poems, however, like African-American music, were co-opted by white culture and exploited for aims entirely divorced from the ethnicity that justified the poems existence in the first place. And, as McKay's own life shows, when the poetry took a deeper, less visceral, more theological turn, the poet was rejected by that same white (Protestant) establishment, which seemed to only want a "jungle fever" type of poetry. This demand of the surrounding white culture is what led the Harlem poets to have a "double consciousness" regarding their poetry. To make it to the top, they still needed the support of the very culture they wanted to criticize.

Just as Countee Cullen longed for a "black Jesus" with whom he could identify, so too did McKay long for a religion that was not "white." McKay had been raised Protestant and these same Protestants now served as his patrons -- but he rejected their "white" religion, like many other poets in Harlem, who sought to find a new identity. This accounted for the "doubleness" that Cullen experienced in his poetry: on the one hand, the poets saw something true and good in God, but on the other hand they could not identify with the "white" God of the Protestants. McKay would later in his life convert to Roman Catholicism, a religion in which race played less of a role than in the WASPy religion of America. But by that
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point, McKay was out of fashion and his religious experience was of no use to those WASPs who were primarily interested in "fashion" -- as Langston Hughes put: "Negro was in vogue" (Sayre, 2012, p. 1176).

The two primary themes represented at this time was the "jazz" mentality, that new outpouring and expression of "free loving" black music, which all wanted to experience. It was "freedom" of everything, represented by a musical, poetic movement -- freedom from the past, freedom from the old rules, freedom of the blood. Hughes shows in his poem "Jazz Band in a Parisian Cabaret" just how jazz was being embraced all over: "Play that thing! Jazz Band…" which plays for everyone regardless of rank, creed, or color. Soon the poem is using different languages, English, French, German, to show the universality of jazz's acceptance at the cultural epicenter of the world -- Paris. This was the novel and "vogue" sensation that the black experience was enjoying, which Hughes described when he said "Negro was in vogue." Negro was a fad, something new, something hip, something alive, something different, swinging, wild, that could lure people out of themselves for a moment. It was also, as E. Michael Jones (2000) has shown, a movement supported for the very reason that it conveyed a revolution against moral order: it elevated the sensual and diminished the spiritual. The other theme, represented in McKay's "If We Must Die" was the theme of Negro pride, defiant, strong, independent, fierce, and "all out." McKay's poem is a call to arms, for the black culture to stand up to the WASPy white: "If we must die -- oh, let us nobly die…Like men we'll face the murderous, cowardly pack." There is a sense that blacks…

Sources Used in Documents:

Reference List

Hricko, M. (2013). The Genesis of the Chicago Renaissance. NY: Routledge.

Jones, E.M. (2000). Libido Dominandi: Sexual Liberation and Political

Control. IN: St. Augustine's Press.

Sayre, H.M. (2012). The Humanities: Culture, Continuity and Change. NY: Prentice Hall.

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