Friday, April 13, 2012

Harlem Renaissance

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The Harlem Renaissance, also known as the New Negro Movement started


at the end of World War I, but only began to get recognized around 14. The


Harlem Renaissance was made up of chiefly writers and was considered a


phenomenon. This movement started at a time when racism was still at large.


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African Americans had to deal with the KKK and other racial prejudices in


society. The Harlem Renaissance was significant because it was the first time


African Americans expressed their views on racism and their self-love for one


another, using lyrical styles that was never seen before in African American


writing. Two of the most prominent poets of the time were Arna Bontemps and


Langston Hughes.





The Harlem Renaissance happened fifty seven years after the Emancipation


Proclamation. Previously, African Americans didn’t have much education or a


chance to make their mark in the literary world. They didn’t have much of a


chance because they were still looked upon as inferior. They were also thought


not to have a distinct cultural heritage.


The United States got involved in World War I in the year 117. At that


time, race riots were happening and lynchings were frequent. After World War I


ended in 118, African Americans started coming to the North hoping to escape


the racist treatment in the South. Unfortunately, life in the North wasn’t that much


greater. In the South, more and more race riots occurred and many black people


were beaten and killed-- this was known as “Red Summer” (Anderson, pg. 16).


Also, the number of lynchings were increasing. This is what spurred the outbreak


of African American artists. They grew tired of keeping quiet and focused their


emotions into their writing. “The emergence of the New Negro symbolized black


liberation and the final shaking off of the residuals of slavery in mind, spirit and


character. This new man shed the costume of the shuffling darky, the subservient


and docile retainer, the clown; he was a man and a citizen in his own right


intelligent, articulate, self-assured and urban.” (Lightner, 16) The Harlem


Renaissance started to fade between the stock market crash and the Great


Depression.


Arna Bontemps was born in Alexandria, Louisiana. He and his family


moved to Los Angeles when he was three, because of racist incidents in


Alexandria. Bontemps dropped out of a white boarding school, because his father


told him not to “go up there acting colored”. He didn’t like the idea of hiding his


racial heritage and transferred to Pacific Union College. A year after he


graduated, he started to publish his poetry. Bontemps was influenced by fellow


poets, Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen. In many of his poems, Bontemps


draws from folklore-- spirituals, blues, and jazz (Bengtson, 000). In his poem,


“A Black Man Talks of Reaping” Bontemps bitterly presents the black man’s


experience. He implies that the black race forever plants, but never reaps what


they sow-- labor without reward. In Bontemps eyes he always felt black people


were working overtime to be equal with whites, but their hard work was for


nothing. He felt their social capacity didn’t change significantly. An example of


this was during World War I, when blacks were called to serve in the war, but


were still treated as second class citizens. They were still segregated and didn’t


get the same treatment as white soldiers. A verse from “A Black Man Talks of


Reaping” is “Yet what I sowed and what the orchard yields/ my brother’s sons are


gathering stalk and root/ small wonder then my children glean in fields/ they have


not sown and feed on bitter fruit.” (Bengtsson, 000). In another poem,


Bontemps writes about a different issue, he describes the dark despair during


slavery. This poem was called “Southern Mansion”. Lines like “chains of


bondmen dragging on the ground” gives the poem an eerie tone.


Arna Bontemps did not just write poetry, he wrote novels and essays also.


Black Thunder Gabriel’s revolt Virginia 1800 was set during the slave uprising in


year 1800. It was said to be “the only novel dealing forthrightly with the historical


and revolutionary traditions of the Negro people” (Bloom, pg. ). The way


Bontemps wrote the protagonist, Gabriel was inspiring. Even when he was caught


for the uprising, he still possessed hope and courage. Gabriel fought when his


fellow slaves ran for their lives. The novel establishes the concept of freedom, and


is found in later works of Bontemps. Black Thunder surpassed the boundaries and


ideology of “the Negro novel”.


One of the most well known poets during the Harlem Renaissance was


Langston Hughes. He was born in Joplin, Missouri. He has written many poems


and stories. His style was of a jazz and blues flavor. Hughes was one of the major


poets to break the tradition of African American literature. Instead of just writing


about racial prejudices, he also celebrated the Black lifestyle. “There is so much


richness in Negro humor, so much beauty in black dreams, so much dignity in our


struggle and so much universality in our problems, in us--in each living human


being of color-- that I do not understand the tendency today that of running away


from us, of being afraid to sing our songs, paint our own pictures, write about


ourselves.” says Hughes. (Bloom, pg. 70) It was clear that Hughes stood by this


statement, because it showed in his work. In “My People”, Hughes calls African


Americans beautiful-- using the endearing term “my people”. He compared their


eyes to the stars and their souls to the bright sun. It was well known that Langston


Hughes was very proud of who he was.


Hughes also wrote about the hardships of being Black. In some of his


writings, racist issues and the lack of equality in America were discussed. Hughes


believed in the American Dream, and was proud to be an American.


Unfortunately, the American Dream didn’t pertain to African-Americans-- they


weren’t treated equally, despite what the laws implied. In his poem, “Democracy”


he says “I tire so of hearing people say/ Let things take their course/ Tomorrow is


another day/ I do not need my freedom when I’m dead/ I cannot live on


tomorrow’s bread.” (Knopf, pg. 85) In 11, Hughes visited the South for a tour


and saw the treatment of blacks there. He also recognized the differences between


blacks in the South and blacks in the North. The Southern blacks didn’t agree with


Hughes’s American ideals. Hughes’s book Magnolia Flowers is a collection of


poems that explores the black man’s lack of freedom with references to lynchings


in the South. One of the poems in the collection was “The South”. “Its masculine


aspect the South is bestial, sub-human, a predator and scavenger, and in its


feminine aspect a degenerate femme fatale, a syphilitic whore.” (Gates, pg. 144)


The poem’s metaphors relate to history because the usual excuse for lynching a


black man was because he was accused of raping a white woman. Most of the


times, the accusations were false. At the end of the poem, the narrator says he will


go to the North because it’s nicer there. A verse from “The South” is “And I, who


am black, would love her/ But she spits in my face/ And I, who am black/ Would


give her many rare gifts/ But she turns her back upon me.” (Knopf, pg. 17)


The Harlem Renaissance was an extraordinary time for African Americans.


Writers of that time shocked the world. The vernacular and jazzy language that


was used in the writings were extremely revolutionary. The selection of these two


poets/novelists wrote about the issues that were present at that time. In their


writing you can feel what they feel-- that is why the Harlem Renaissance is so


important. The writing brought so much life to the topics they wrote about.


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