The first three decades of the 1900’s were the first time that the African American culture was taken seriously by the Caucasian community. Several factors, including the Plessy vs. Ferguson case which allowed racial segregation in 1896, led to what is known as the Great Migration. Job opportunities and far less amounts of racism were significant reasons for more than seven million African Americans moving to northern states. The concentration area of the Great Migration was Harlem in New York City. This district of New York was originally intended for white laborers who preferred to commute to the city rather than live there. The housing developers were over ambitious and had created far too much living space that white middle-class Americans were not interested in and as a result, the properties were sold to African American real estate agents who, in turn, rented the apartments out to black tenants. Between 1900 and 1920 the black population in Harlem had doubled and became known as “the Black Mecca” (Biography.com).
Not only did African Americans bring their labor skills to New York City, they brought their culture and their talents in art, music, and poetry. Their talents in these areas opened the eyes of their Caucasian counterparts and helped their fight for racial equality. With the excitement of these new and different ideas in the arts that finally had gotten the opportunity to emerge, the Harlem Renaissance was born. Two of the major contributors to this era were authors, (James) Langston Hughes and Claude McKay, who both, among a vast array of works, wrote poetry pertaining to the sufferings and strengths of African American culture. Although they had many of the same ideas and messages to get across in their poetry, their delivery was extremely different. Hughes’ poetry took a calm approach in which he talked about the beauty of the African American culture, while McKay was almost violent, talking about fighting for their rights rather than waiting for them to come.
Hughes was born in 1902 in Joplin, Missouri and was bounced around all over the country and Mexico between his mother, father, and grandmother. He began writing at an early age and published his first book in 1926. By the time he died in 1967, Hughes had written an impressive number of books of poetry, novels, plays, musicals and operas, children’s poetry, among others, and had become one of the major contributing authors of the Harlem Renaissance (Jackson).
Expressing the talents, culture, and need for African American equality was a major theme in the poetry of Langston Hughes. In his first published poem, The Negro Speaks of Rivers, Hughes metaphorically compares the soul of an African American man to a river, saying they are both deep. Rivers are often personified in poetry and used as symbols of both life and death. The rivers mentioned in this poem, the Euphrates, Congo, Nile, and Mississippi are all significant foundations for the cities that have formed near them. Using these specifically, Hughes is trying to portray the importance African Americans have had in setting the foundations in American culture.
The Negro Speaks of Rivers is also greatly about African American heritage and the strength within that heritage, which the rivers also signify. The histories these rivers hold go hand in hand with the history and ancestry of African Americans. The Congo and the Mississippi Rivers both hold negative connotation with the African American slave trade but they still contribute a significant amount of depth, like the others, to the soul of the speaker, the entire African American race.
The heritage of the rivers resembles the heritage of the African American people and their wisdom and strength which helped them overcome a vast array of adversity, particularly within the last couple centuries which consisted of slavery and extreme racism. The poem is also known as a tribute to the African American culture which Hughes said came from his own life. In his autobiography, The Big Sea, Hughes talks about a racist man he encountered while crossing the Mississippi River on a journey to see his father. The experience upset and frustrated him, but also got him to think about his father’s distaste for their race and Hughes’ own pride and admiration for what Hughes calls the “bravest people possible — the Negroes from the Southern ghettoes — facing tremendous odds” (Hughes). He then thought of the Mississippi as a symbol for bravery and mentioned his admiration for it in The Negro Speaks of Rivers when he talks about it turning golden as a result of Abraham Lincoln’s work in the abolition of slavery.
Another poem in which Hughes talks about his pride for his African American culture is I, Too. In this poem, Hughes talks about how one day the white community will be able to see the true beauty of an African American “And be ashamed” (17) of how they acted in the past. The pride he has within this poem for his culture is tied back to The Negro Speaks of Rivers. This shows that he consistently incorporates his pride in the African American community within his poetry.
The main purpose of I, Too, is to express the need for equality between the separate races. He starts the poem off by declaring that ‘I’ (meaning African Americans) am an American, just the same as a white person. The second stanza talks about African Americans having to eat in the kitchen when company comes over. This stanza is talking about the segregation that is in place. When Hughes says “But I laugh, And eat well, And grow strong” (5-7), he is saying that being segregated does not bother the African American community. They are, in fact, becoming stronger people internally and in the last stanza, he makes it clear that they know that one day the segregation will be over, and they will be eating with the white people at the dining room table with the company. Hughes also says that nobody will dare tell any African Americans to eat in the kitchen, but besides, they will not want to, for they will be able to finally see and appreciate how beautiful African Americans are. They, too, are America.
The poetry of Langston Hughes was a significant part of the Harlem Renaissance that expressed the importance of African American culture and the need for legal equality between the races. His poetry took a passive stance that looked toward the future, where he talked about the beauty African American culture holds and waiting for what is right to come to them. He did not want to violently fight for social freedom, he felt it would all come in time. The works of Claude McKay, however, took a more assertive, sometimes aggressive motion towards racial equality. He urged his readers to stand up for what should belong to them and to not let anyone get in their way.
McKay was born in Jamaica in 1890 and published his first book of poetry at the age of 22. During his life, he moved to the United States, Russia, France, and finally settled in Harlem before his death in 1948. He studied Communism and wrote several poems and novels pertaining to the sufferings of African Americans (Giles). His aggressive stance that the African Americans should take on the heavy amount of racism made him an extremely important factor in the Harlem Renaissance. Growing up outside of America made the racial tension within the states more of a dramatic experience for him. After seeing the effects of the 1919 Chicago race riots that resulted in the deaths of 15 Caucasians and 23 African Americans (Essig), McKay was compelled to write a poem in response to it.
The harsh language used in If We Must Die shows McKay’s sincere distaste for the way his people are being treated. The main message in this poem is that if the white America insists on persecuting African Americans, they must not surrender, but fight for their true freedom until the end. He compares the weaknesses that they have previously shown to hogs being helplessly corralled into holding areas to wait to die.
In this poem, he clearly states that he is aware that the whites will probably end up murdering all of the African Americans who resist them. Even though this is true, McKay wants them to fight back, “Like men we’ll face the murderous cowardly pack, Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back” (13-14), he says. Unlike Hughes, he has no intention of waiting around for his lawful rights to come to him.
He is best known for his poem, The White House, in which he describes the frustration he feels for being kept out of the white population and not having a voice within the country. The first line says “Your door is shut against my tightened face.” He immediately points out the purpose of the poem, to indicate his dissatisfaction with the Caucasian American population. They will not let him in to all of the rights and liberties he is owed.
In the next few lines, he says that he is okay with this being shut out, because it is only making him stronger and more courageous to face these difficulties. All the sufferings that the American government has imposed on him will only make him a stronger man and make him more prepared to fight for what he feels he deserves. “Oh, I must keep my heart inviolate, Against the poison of your deadly hate” (13-14). In these last two lines, McKay is saying that even though it is going to be a long journey, in which the African American community will have fight against the extreme racism of the American government, they will keep their emotions under control and continue to pursue what it right.
Occurrences like the race riots in Chicago fueled the fire for African American authors during the Harlem Renaissance era, like Langston Hughes and Claude McKay. It inspired them to write the pieces that are still read today, nearly 100 years later. The vast differences the messages their poems held are a large reason for their poetry being so dynamic and able to reach all different typed of people. Although they suffered tremendously, they were able to get their frustrations and feeling out on paper and become the iconic Harlem Renaissance writers they are known as today.
Biography.com. “Harlem Renaissance – Black History Milestones on.” Biography.com. A & E Television Networks, 2010. Web. 08 Apr. 2010.
Essig, Steven. “Race Riots.” Encyclopedia of Chicago. The Newberry Library, 2005. Web. 09.
Giles, Freda. “Claude McKay’s Life.” Welcome to English « Department of English, College of LAS, University of Illinois. Oxford University Press, Feb. 2000. Web. 09 Apr. 2010.
Hughes, Langston. The Big Sea: An Autobiography. New York: Thunder’s Mouth, 1986. Print.
Jackson, Andrew P. “Langston Hughes.” The Red Hot Jazz Archive. Jazz Is Timeless Records. Web. 08 Apr. 2010.