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


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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