Poetry and Politics 101: Poetry of the Harlem Renaissance
This series encounters poetry from the last two centuries to consider a fundamental question: what role does poetry play in political society? Poetry’s societal duty is a study that has often been neglected in favour of poetry’s relationship to language and emotion. Poetry and Politics 101 seeks to revitalise poetry in order to engage with its capacity to act as an agent of social and political change. Can poetry affect change? Can it influence people’s opinions? Can it offer a form of guidance in uncertain political times? It will also consider how poetry’s role has changed over time. Once possessing the title of the most widely read form of literature, circulated in newspapers and periodicals, and existing as a dominant feature of cultural response and reaction, poetry’s role in society started to dwindle as new forms of media began to dominate in the late 20th century. This series will work chronologically through significant time periods to consider the evolution of poetry’s role in politics and society over time.
This series will be divided into seven chapters:
Poetry and Politics 101: Victorian Poetry I - The Female Voice
Poetry and Politics 101: Victorian Poetry II - The Male Voice and the Vote
Poetry and Politics 101: Poetry of the Harlem Renaissance
Poetry and Politics 101: Contemporary Contexts
The Harlem Renaissance
The Harlem Renaissance, whose origins aligned with the end of the First World War (1914 – 1918) continuing into the 1930s, was a period of intense artistic creativity within the African-American community. Encompassing prose, verse, painting, fashion, music, and dance, the movement was highly influential and impactful. Notable figures of the movement include Langston Hughes, Claude McKay and Jean Toomer, though the Renaissance harboured a multi-faceted canon of talented and versatile writers and artists that transcribed a variety of voices and perspectives. Significantly, the movement saw a proliferation of racial pride, communal voices, and a reclamation of identity. The community was a predominant marker of the Harlem Renaissance, with writers striving to speak to a communal conscience, express empowerment, and inspire their community with evocations of pride, self-worship, and strength.
It has been critically noted that the designation of “Harlem” can be geographically dismissive, though it is important to recognise the city as a “race capital” which “made it the acknowledged locus of the movement” (Hull, 1987, p. 2). The poetry of the movement birthed a self-reflexive appreciation for what it meant to be black in the face of historical and contemporary narratives that consistently defined their reality as a fact of otherness. As Langston Hughes writes:
“We […] intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too” (Hughes, 1999, p. 57).
In a reclamation of stolen identity – an identity used against racial groups, to define and justify white superiority and difference – the Harlem Renaissance produced art that was unashamed and proud and proposed a voice that had, for too long, been suppressed.
The migration from the South to the more affluent North has been identified as a key factor in the development of the Harlem Renaissance. The settlement of African American communities into dense urban areas such as Harlem provided economic opportunity and a sense of belonging in a community. In the artistic sphere, the expansion of black-owned businesses, publishing houses, music companies and theatres contributed significantly to the rise in artistic opportunity and the mood of communal expression.
Nathan Huggins refers to the Harlem Renaissance as a “channelling of energy from political and social criticism into poetry, fiction, music, and art” (Qtd in Hull, 1987, p. 1). This is a significant demarcation of the movement. Writers and artists of the Harlem Renaissance were fundamentally concerned with the political in their poetry, yet their dedication to the poetic and the artistic created an intense focus not just on political criticism, but on creating an artistic space that encouraged “race solidarity, and pride, and a conscious connection with the African homeland” (Hull, 1987, p. 1). It was art that spoke for the community, signified a devotion to their culture and heritage, and encouraged boldness, pride, and the exploration of both the beauty and pain of their historical and contemporary experience.
Langston Hughes is a key figure of the Harlem Renaissance. Arthur P. Davis (1952) designates Hughes as the “poet-laureate” (p. 275) of the renaissance, an individual dedicated to the communal cause of self-representation, pride, and celebration of race. As Hughes writes:
“I live in the heart of Harlem. I have also lived in the heart of Paris, Madrid, Shanghai, and Mexico City. The people of Harlem seem not very different from others, except in language. I love the color of their language: and, being a Harlemite myself, their problems and interests are my problems and interests” (QTD in Davis, 1952, p. 276).
As James Presley (1963) writes, Hughes’ cultural heritage was “a proud and lively one” (p. 381) – a pride he consistently expressed within his verse, which sought to evoke a collective consciousness of pride, overcoming a history of racial segregation and prejudice to appreciate the beauty of one’s racial heritage.
I, Too (1926) by Langston Hughes I, too, sing America. I am the darker brother. They send me to eat in the kitchen When company comes. But I laugh, And eat well, And grow strong. Tomorrow, I'll be at the table When company comes. Nobody'll dare Say to me, “Eat in the kitchen,” Then. Besides, They'll see how beautiful I am And be ashamed— I, too, am America.
I, Too by Langston Hughes is a canonical example of Harlem Renaissance literature. A poem that asserts the significance of the black voice, and encourages a subversive dominance and authority that has long been denied to a group of people violently suppressed and discriminated against throughout history. Its tone is unabashed pride, and its statement is powerful. The future of black celebration and inclusivity is the present for Hughes, as he declares “tomorrow [...] nobody’ll dare say to me/eat in the kitchen” (lines 8-13). The decisive clarity of his statement is archetypal to the verse produced out of the Harlem Renaissance.
The subversive tone of the poem is subtle; his oppressors lack identity in a powerful subversion of roles. Designated only as “they”, or as “company” (line 10), the focus of the poem is clearly directed to black appraisal and identity. The opening inclusion of “company” is quickly dismissed as the poem moves fluidly to focus on the black perspective. They may send him to “eat in the kitchen” (line 3) as Hughes declares, “but I laugh/and eat well/and grow strong” (lines 5-7). His “but” signals the revival of the black identity and experience, with the positive verb structures defying cultural attempts of segregation and submission.
Crucially, the political fact of the poem – segregation – is dismissed by Hughes in yet another subversive attempt. As with the effect of “but”, the abruptness of the summative section of the poem: “besides,/they’ll see how beautiful I am/and be ashamed” (lines 15-17), again directs the focus towards cultural pride and celebration. It mirrors Hughes’s expressed intention to write of “our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or pain” (Hughes, 1999, p. 57). “White people” are not the subject of the poem, nor are they the concern of it. This follows Hughes’s ambition for the art of the Harlem Renaissance movement, towards a construction of black identity undefined by white culture. He writes of the duty of young artists to:
“Change through the force of his art that old whispering “I want to be white”, hidden in the aspirations of his people, to “Why should I want to be white? I am [...] beautiful!” (Hughes, 1999, p. 56).
The poem opens with “I”, and ends it with “too”, announcing a restoration of lost identity – a declaration of significance against a history of forced cultural submission. Interestingly, though not suggested by Hughes, the “I” of the poem takes on a collective meaning, welcoming an inclusive declaration that speaks to a race systematically stripped of their cultural and collective belonging. The insertion of the speaker into a space of belonging, with the declaration “I, too, am America” (line 18), brings with it a collective understanding of Hughes’s intention. A didactic message is sent to his community, an inclusive declaration that insists upon their belonging.
An unashamed and bold poem, “I, too” reclaims the black narrative, insisting upon the beauty, pride, and strength of a race in the face of consistent subjugation. Forceful verbs such as “dare” incite a reclaimed power, alongside a clear sense of one’s own identity and beauty, that sources the poem as one written directly against historical and contemporary attempts of subjugation, self-depreciation, and forced weakness. The poem acknowledges this dark history without lingering on it, welcoming instead a new consciousness of power, revival, and cultural appreciation. It is a “rejection of white culture” (Honey, 2006, p. xxxiv) in its most subversive way: a denial of the space that they themselves had denied, a reclamation of black space, voice, and identity.
Gwendolyn Bennett, though a lesser-known figure of the Harlem Renaissance, was a “significant writer and artist” of the movement, “who remained a powerful advocate for African Americans living in and around Harlem” (Wheeler, 2018, p. 1). Like Hughes, Bennett’s desire for verse was the reaching for a communal experience, a solidarity fostered in the arts that inspired pride, attention to heritage, and power. As Belinda Wheeler (2018) writes, “Bennett’s artistic output [...] fostered community [...] and her constant emphasis on youthfulness paralleled her vitality and vision for the development of the African American race” (p. 1). As with many poets of the Harlem Renaissance, Bennett reinvigorated historical narratives, evoking negative experiences of oppression and subjugation as a site of renewed power.
To A Dark Girl (1927) by Gwendolyn Bennett Something of old forgotten queens Lurks in the lithe abandon of your walk, And something of the shackled slave Sobs in the rhythm of your talk. Oh, little brown girl, born for sorrow’s mate, Keep all you have of queenliness, Forgetting that you once were slave And let your full lips laugh at Fate! (lines 5- 12)
That Bennett chooses to write of “old forgotten queens” (line 5) as the predominant signifier of a black girl’s history, choosing to subjugate the image of the “slave” (line 7) to a secondary symbol, is significant. Whilst Bennett does not shy away from darker aspects of her cultural past, she ensures that the suppressed areas of history – eras of power and dominance are not so easily forgotten. There is in “Dark Girl” a lamentation deeper than we might find in Hughes’ poem. It serves as an act of writing that embraces complex cultural histories, as opposed to ignoring them. Though Bennett speaks of the “sobs in the rhythm of your talk” (line 8) as a signifier of the girl’s cultural history of slavery, it must be considered that in the first stanza of her poem, Bennett declares “I love you for the breaking sadness in your voice” (line 3). As with the evocation of queenship before the mention of slavery, Bennett is certain to ascertain the ways in which a cultural history can be empowering before she points to darker, oppressive histories. It is in this way that Bennett finds a cohesive balance between empowerment and recognition of her oppressive past, between power and the history of disempowerment.
Racial pride is a defining feature of “To a Dark Girl”. As Sandra Govan suggests, “the sense of shared sensibilities, mutual responsiveness and group inspiration was [...] a dominant modus operandi among younger artists of the Harlem Renaissance” (qtd in Churchill, 2022, p. 3). A communal sense of inspiration is significant to understanding the poetry of the Harlem Renaissance, which fostered a strong encouragement of pride and the embracement of race. The poem takes a didactic turn, a comforting encouragement of expression without “fear or shame”. The speaker narrates, “keep all you have of queenliness,/forgetting that you once were slave” (lines 10-11). Whilst Bennett’s evocation of forgetfulness here may seem troubling, her meaning is clear. Bennett is all too aware of the pressing need to remember dark histories of slavery, segregation and oppression.
What Bennett intends with her revelation of forgetfulness seems more in regard to identity than to racial history. It is as if Bennett commands the “little brown girl” to not become defined by the pain of the past, even though she must remember it – hence, its forceful inclusion within the poem – but rather to reclaim the power and strength often neglected from racial narratives. The idea of forceful inclusion of historical narratives is significant in consideration of Bennett’s evocation of the body within the poem. Unconscious mannerisms such as walking and talking surface as predominant symbols of the poem, highlighting Bennett’s understanding of history as being influential and inescapable. The power, for the little girl of the poem, comes in her defiance, in reclaiming her identity and choosing to express herself without fear or shame. In a defiant reclamation of once stolen identity, Bennett encourages her community to define their selves – to choose the parts of their history that give them power – as opposed to letting others define their identity for them.
As is evidenced in the poetry of Hughes and Bennett, the language of the Harlem Renaissance centred heavily on the reclamation of power, voice, and identity. Significantly, Harlem Renaissance poets took it upon themselves to inspire a racial community, to give them an empowered sense of belonging, encouraging them to see the beauty in themselves and rewrite their identity against historical narratives of subjugation, oppression, and prejudice. Hughes’s evocation of an expression of self without fear or shame of the repercussions is a significant marker of the empowerment the Harlem Renaissance provided, and the solidarity that poets and artists found in their communal experience, fostered by an urban hub. Neither Hughes nor Bennett neglects the dark aspects of their historical past and contemporary experience of oppression. Significantly, however, they both seek to rewrite the power, to place racial pride at the forefront of their poetry – to speak to their community and encourage an appreciation for their race that had long been denied by the oppression of voice that had long operated throughout history.
Bennett, G. (1927). “To a Dark Girl”. Opportunity, p. 299.
Churchill, S. W. (2022). “The Whole Ensemble: Gwendolyn Bennett, Josephine Baker, and Interartistic Exchange in Black American Modernism“. Humanities, 11(74), pp. 1 - 28.
Davis, A. P. (1952). “The Harlem of Langston Hughes' Poetry“. Phylon, 13(4), pp. 276-283.
Honey, M. (2006). Shadowed Dreams: Women’s Poetry of the Harlem Renaissance. Rutgers University Press.
Hughes, L. (1994). “I, Too“. The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes. Random House Publishing.
Hughes, L. (1926). “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain“. Keeping Time: Readings in Jazz History, Oxford University Press.
Hull, G. (1987). Color, Sex, and Poetry: Three Women Writers of the Harlem Renaissance. Indiana University Press.
Presley, J. (1963). The American Dream of Langston Hughes. Southwest Review, 48(4), pp. 380–386. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43467552
Wheeler, Belinda. (2018). Heroine of the Harlem Renaissance and Beyond: Gwendolyn Bennett’s Selected Writings. Penn State University Press.
Figure 1: Hulton Archive. (1942). People walking in Harlem, New York City [Photograph]. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/event/Harlem-Renaissance-American-literature-and-art/images-videos
Figure 2: Drewes, W. (1930). Harlem Beauty [Woodcut in Black]. Retrieved from https://www.nga.gov/learn/teachers/lessons-activities/uncovering-america/harlem-renaissance.html
Figure 3: Van Vechten, C. (n.d.). Langston Hughes [Photograph]. Retrieved from https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/02/23/sojourner
Figure 4: Lewis, N. (c. 1938). Jazz [Painting]. Retrieved from https://www.nga.gov/learn/teachers/lessons-activities/uncovering-america/harlem-renaissance.html
Figure 5: NYPL Digital Archives (c. 1940). Gwendolyn Bennett [Photograph]. Retrieved from https://www.harlemworldmagazine.com/harlems-gwendolyn-b-bennett-visual-artist-writer-and-journalist-1902-1981/
Figure 6: Wells, J.L. (1928). Looking Upward [Painting]. Retrieved from https://www.nga.gov/learn/teachers/lessons-activities/uncovering-america/harlem-renaissance.html