The phenomenon of Harlem Renaissance appeared as a cultural movement. This period is not called literary school because it was not formal. It appeared in virtue of Great Migration, when a large number of black people moved to the neighborhood of New York City, Harlem. This district was full of talented people among which were artists, musicians, dancers, writers, and poets. The period of Harlem Renaissance started at the end of the World War I. It lasted until the late 30s of the 20th century, and had its own peculiarities.
First of all, people, who are considered to belong to this period, were African Americans. As for Harlem Renaissance poets, Paul Dunbar, Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, James Weldon Johnson, and many others were among them. Secondly, poetry of Harlem Renaissance period was characterized by specific topics. As a rule, one can find three main topics in the poems of authors of that period. The first topic is art and politics. It is evident that poems with such theme cover the issue of influence of politics on art. The second topic covers the problem “whether the black experience could best be caught in innovative structures, traditional forms, or more socially conscious, strictly realistic ones” (Gray, 2011, p. 342). The third topic is racial inheritance. It covers the issues of African American traditions. It explores whether the poets of Harlem Renaissance should keep with them. One more feature of Harlem Renaissance poetry is the phenomenon of double consciousness. It is regarded as “the dilemma of Afro-American identity” (Huggins, 1976, p. 135). The essence of double consciousness lies in the fact that Afro-American people try to understand who they are. Their roots are African but they live in America. Therefore, they contain two different worlds. That is why they are searching for the answer.
As it was mentioned above, there were a great number of Harlem Renaissance poets. However, the contribution of two poets, who influenced the development of this literary period, should be emphasized. These poets were Paul Laurence Dunbar and Langston Hughes. Paul Laurence Dunbar is considered to be the first African American, whose work as a poet was praised in America. He began his literary activity while studying at school. His collections of poetry Oak and Ivy, Majors and Minors made him famous. At a later date, the poet continued his career in Washington, DC. Paul Laurence Dunbar was not only a poet – he also wrote short stories, novels, essays, and even a play. Moreover, some of his poems were set to music. His works are famous by dialectic language, as well as by Standard English style of writing.
The second famous poet of Harlem Renaissance period was Langston Hughes. He also was one of the first poets associated with that literary period. As well as Paul Laurence Dunbar he wrote essays, plays, and novels. However, his poems transfers the essence of his worldview in the best way. One of the main topics in the poetry of Langston Hughes is an experience of black people. His literary heritage consists of a number of collections of poems, of numerous essays and plays. Inspired by Paul Laurence Dunbar, Langston Hughes wrote his works for a wide audience which covered topics. He wrote about politics, cultural heritage, racial differences, life of the black people, etc.
Undoubtedly, both of these poets made great contribution to the development of Harlem Renaissance literature. That is why it is necessary to take a closer look at their poems. The poem “We Wear the Mask” of Paul Laurence Dunbar and the poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” of Langston Hughes are analyzed in the work.
Both of these poems cover the phenomenon of double consciousness, which is one of the leading features of Harlem Renaissance poetry. Analyzing the poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”, one can understand that pronoun “I” is used to speak about the whole African nation. The poem tells the history not of the one person but of the whole nation. It is evident that the author narrates how this nation begins to develop on the shores of the Euphrates and Nile rivers. Langston Hughes illustrates how African nation migrates to the United States of America. The author describes two opposite continents. He shows that African nation has its roots in the “rivers ancient as the world” (Hughes, 1999, p. 4), but, at the same time hears “the singing of the Mississippi” (Hughes, 1999, p. 4). Langston Hughes represents the problem of double consciousness.
The poem “We Wear the Mask” as well as aforementioned piece of writing represents the experience of African nation through the pronoun “we”. On the one hand, the author describes the sufferings, “bleeding hearts”, and “tortured souls” of African American people from the perspective of their heritage and their roots. However, on the other hand, Paul Laurence Dunbar represents African Americans from the perspective of their life in America. It is evident that their life there is hidden under the masks. Even the first lines prove this fact: “We wear the mask that grins and lies, / It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes” (Dunbar, 1997, p. 17). This fact covers the issue of double consciousness in the poem “We Wear the Mask”.
Both of these poems represent the topic of life experience of African people. One can notice their sufferings because they can not be who they are. The reason is that American people do not want to perceive Africans. The evidence of this fact is expressed in the lines of the poem “We Wear the Mask”: “Why should the world be overwise, / In counting all our tears and sighs? / Nay, let them only see us, while / We wear the mask” (Dunbar, 1997, p. 17). The topic of the poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” considers with melancholy African history. Certainly, the author wants to save traditions and culture of his nation because “My soul has grown deep like the rivers” (Hughes, 1999, p. 4). However, real life of African people in America does not give many possibilities to do it.
In order to summarize the topics of both pieces of writing, I would like to represent my own poem. The narrator of the poem is a black man, who lives in America and suffers from dishonesty of the world.
One of the millions of aliens here
Feeling that I am alone,
Going my own way deprived of the help,
I’m still in search of my home.
Missing the beauty of my dear land,
Recollecting my careless days,
I dream of returning the past years back
Being able to choose of the ways.
But reality’s cold, and I’m here alone,
Where people are evil and cruel,
And there is no reason to try to belong
To inequitable world which always will rule.
The only thing, which I still can do,
Is to hope that one day world will change,
And the peace will become for everyone who
Wants to feel happy every time range.
Analyzing the poems of Harlem Renaissance authors, I tried to understand their worldview through representation of own poem. This literary period was characterized together with the peculiar style. The topics of the poems cover different problems of African American people. They represent worldviews with the help of unique styles and talent of the authors. Undoubtedly, literary heritage of the poets of Harlem Renaissance contributed greatly not only to the culture of black people, but to American culture as a whole.
- Dunbar, P. (1997). Selected poems. Mineola, NY: Courier Dover Publications.
- Gray, R. (2011). A history of American literature. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley&Sons, Inc.
- Huggins, N. (1976). Voices from the Harlem Renaissance. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Hughes, L. (1999). Selected poems of Langston Hughes. London: Profile books.