26 Langston Hughes and The Harlem RenaissanceImage courtesy of the Library of Congress
“The 1920’s were the years of Manhattan’s black Renaissance. It began with Shuffle Along, Running Wild, and the Charleston. … Shuffle Along was a honey of a show. Swift, bright, funny, rollicking, and gay, with a dozen danceable, singable tunes. … Everybody was in the audience – including me. … Shuffle Along was the main reason I wanted to go to Columbia. When I saw it, I was thrilled and delighted. From then on I was in the gallery of the Cort Theatre every time I got a chance.” Langston Hughes: “When the Negro Was in Vogue”
Key Facts: The Harlem Renaissance • The Harlem Renaissance refers to the flourishing of African-American culture between the two world wars. • In this period of cultural awakening, African-American literature, music, art, theatre, and political thinking were all energized. • The movement developed from a new pride in blackness, an interest in African cultural heritage, and an appreciation of the folkways and creativity of rural and urban blacks. • The movement has its roots in W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk (1903) and his founding of the magazine The Crisis (1910); it developed with Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life, founded by the National Urban League (1922) and edited by Charles S. Johnson.
Key Facts: The Harlem Renaissance • James Weldon Johnson called Harlem “the Negro capital of the world.” • However, the movement is sometimes called the Negro Renaissance as Harlem was just one center of the movement. • In 1926, Hughes published “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” an essay which provided the Harlem Renaissance with its manifesto as Hughes called boldly for both racial pride and artistic independence. “We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame.”
African-American Self-Pride ▪Langston Hughes criticized the black middle-class for ignoring their own culture in an attempt to appear elite: “Let the blare of Negro jazz bands and the bellowing voice of Bessie Smith singing the Blues penetrate the closed ears of the colored near intellectuals until they listen and perhaps understand. Let Paul Robeson singing ‘Water Boy,’ and Rudolph Fisher writing about the streets of Harlem, and Jean Toomer holding the heart of Georgia in his hands, and Aaron Douglas’s drawing strange black fantasies cause the smug Negro middle class to turn from their white, respectable, ordinary books and papers to catch a glimmer of their own beauty.”
Key Facts: The Harlem Renaissance • Poets like Claude MacKay, Countee Cullen, and Hughes reacted against the erudite, inaccessible poetry of Modernists and wrote more accessible poems. Hughes said that a poem “should be direct, comprehensible, and the epitome of simplicity.” • The poetry of the Harlem Renaissance shuns sentimentality, didacticism, stilted diction, and romantic escape. The poets experiment with black speech patterns, verse forms, and rhythms, often inspired by jazz and the blues.
Key Facts: The Harlem Renaissance • Music was central to the flowering of the Harlem Renaissance. Jazz clubs such as the Harlem Casino, the Sugar Cane Club, and the Cotton Club entertained both black and white patrons. Harlem was home to Duke Ellington and Fats Waller. • Whites comprised a substantial part of the audience. Whites were attracted to what they saw as the exotic in black life and black arts.
“White people began to come to Harlem in droves. For several years they packed the expensive Cotton Club on Lenox Avenue. … [The Club was] not cordial to Negro patronage, unless you were a celebrity like Bojangles. So Harlem Negroes did not like the Cotton Club and never appreciated its Jim Crow policy in the very heart of their dark community. Nor did ordinary Negroes like the growing influx of whites toward Harlem after sundown, flooding the little cabarets and bars where formerly only colored people laughed and sang, and where now the strangers were given the best ringside tables to sit and stare at the Negro customers – like amusing animals in a zoo.” Langston Hughes: “When the Negro Was in Vogue”
Blues and Jazz duringthe Harlem Renaissance • During the Harlem Renaissance, blues and jazz gained in popularity with African-American and white audiences. • The blues is a music that originated in the Deep South. Descended from African- American spirituals and work songs, the blues reflects the hardships of life and love in its lyrics. However, the blues can be humorous as well.
Blues and Jazz duringthe Harlem Renaissance • Most blues songs follow a form made of three phrases equal in length: a first phrase, a second that repeats the first phrase, and a third phrase different from the first two concludes the verse. Here is the first verse of “St. Louis Blues”: I hate to see dat ev’nin’ sun go down Hates to see dat ev’nin sun go down Cause ma baby, she done lef’ dis town. • Langston Hughes draw on the blues form for “Morning After”: I said, Baby! Baby! Please don’t snore so loud. Baby! Please! Please don’t snore so loud. You jest a little bit o’ woman but you Sound like a great big crowd.
Blues and Jazz • Jazz originated in the United States, primarily in New Orleans, developing from the blues and ragtime. • Most jazz tunes follow a basic pattern. First the band plays the melody of the song. Next, soloists take turns improvising while the chord structure of the melody continues to play beneath them. Then, the band plays the melody one more time to conclude the song. • Great blues and jazz artists to emerge during the Harlem Renaissance include Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Josephine Baker, Fats Waller, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Robert Johnson.
Blues and Jazz • Onwuchekwa Jemie, a Langston Hughes scholar, explains the difference between jazz and blues: “Unlike classic blues, the jazz poem has no fixed form: it is a species of free verse which attempts to approximate some of the qualities of jazz. The dynamic energy of jazz is to be contrasted with the relatively low-keyed and generally elegiac tone of the blues. Blues is for the most part vocal and mellow, jazz for the most part instrumental and aggressive. The jazz poem attempts to capture that instrumental vigor.” • “Dream Boogie” by Langston Hughes is heavily influenced by jazz movements and rhythms. Note its opening lines: Good morning, daddy! Ain’t you heard The boogie-woogie rumble Of a dream deferred? Listen closely: You’ll hear their feet Beating out and beating out a – You think It’s a happy beat? …
Key Facts: The Harlem Renaissance • Writers central to the Harlem Renaissance include Jean Toomer, Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, Zora Neale Hurston, and James Weldon Johnson. • Toomer’s master work is Cane, which combined poetry and fiction in its depiction of African-American life. • In their poems, Claude McKay and Countee Cullen condemned bigotry and racial injustice in often explosive language. • Zora Neale Hurston developed fiction and theater based on her personal experience, her anthropological fieldwork, African-American folklore, and Western mythology. • However, at the center of the movement was Langston Hughes.
Key Facts about Langston Hughes • Langston Hughes was born in Joplin, Missouri, in 1902. Both parents were mixed-race, and Langston Hughes was of African American, European American, and Native American descent. • He was raised by his grandmother in Kansas, and at age 13, after the death of his grandmother, lived first with family friends for two years, and then with his mother in Illinois and then Cleveland, where he went to high school. • In high school, Hughes wrote for the school newspaper, edited the yearbook, and wrote his first short stories, poems, and plays. Hughes relationship with his parents was never fulfilling. His mother never provided the maternal love that he sought and his relationship with his father was always strained. His father had left his family and moved to first Cuba and then Mexico, where Langston lived with his father for a year in 1919. • His father wanted Langston to be an engineer, not a writer, and agreed to pay his college tuition at Columbia as long as he studied engineering.
Key Facts about Hughes • Hughes dropped out of Columbia in 1922 and worked various jobs before working as a seaman and as a newspaper correspondent and columnist for the Chicago Defender, the Baltimore Afro-American, and the New York Post. • In late 1924, he returned to live with his mother in Washington, D.C., where he worked first as an assistant to Carter G. Woodson at the Association for the Study of African American Life and History. Dissatisfied with the work and lack of time to write, he quit. • He then worked briefly as a cook at a fashionable restaurant in France and as a busboy in a Washington, D.C., hotel. It was there that Hughes left three of his poems beside the plate of a hotel dinner guest, the poet Vachel Lindsay, who recognized their merit and helped Hughes secure their publication. • Hughes resumed his college studies at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania and earned his B. A. in 1929. • After graduation, he settled in Harlem, which he became his primary home for the rest of his life. • On May 22, 1967, Langston Hughes died from complications after abdominal surgery. His ashes are interred in the Arthur Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem near the entrance to the auditorium named after him.
“Here I ain’t scared to vote – that’s another thing I like about Harlem. I also like it because we’ve got subways and it does not take all day to get downtown, neither are you Crowed on the way. Why, Negroes is running some of these subway trains. This morning I rode the A Train down to 34th Street. There were a Negro driving it, making ninety miles a hour. That cat were really driving that train! Every time he flew by one of them local stations look like he was saying, ‘Look at me! The train is mine!’ That cat were gone, ole man. Which is another reason why I like Harlem! Sometimes I run into Duke Ellington on 125th Street and I say, ‘What you know there, Duke?’ Duke says, ‘Solid, ole man.’ He does not know me from Adam, but he speaks. One day I saw Lena Horne coming out of the Hotel Theresa and I said, ‘Huba! Huba!’ Lena smiled. Folks is friendly in Harlem. I feel like I got the world in a jug and the stopper in my hand! So drink a toast to Harlem!” – Simple in “A Toast to Harlem” by Langston Hughes
Key Facts about Hughes • Hughes was a prolific writer who worked in many genres: poetry, fiction, nonfiction, drama, musicals, and children’s books. As a popular newspaper columnist, Hughes created a fictitious Harlem narrator named Simple. • His life and travels are richly chronicled in his two volumes of autobiography, The Big Sea (1940) and I Wonder As I Wonder (1956). • His first poem was published at age 19, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” in The Crisis, and his final book of poems, The Panther and the Lash: Poems of Our Times, the year of his death in 1967. • Deeply interested in developing a black theater, Hughes founded the Harlem Suitcase Theatre in New York in 1938, the New Negro Theater in Los Angeles in 1939, and the Skyloft Players in Chicago in 1942. • His life and work were enormously important in shaping the artistic contributions of the Harlem Renaissance. He wanted to tell the stories of his people in ways that reflected their actual culture, including both their suffering and their love of music, laughter, and language itself.
“I explain and illuminate the Negro condition in America. This applies to 90 percent of my work.” – Langston Hughes
“Negro” by Langston Hughes • “Negro” is one of Hughes’s many poems of heritage and strength. Consider the stanza which opens and closes the poem: I am a Negro: Black as the night is black Black as the depths of my Africa. • The key words in the poem (Negro, Black, Africa) are emphasized by their placement and capitalization. • “Negro,” which can be read as a companion to “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” makes several historical allusions, including references to enslavement in ancient Rome, America, and Egypt, the post-slavery lynchings in the United States, and the brutal treatment of Africans in what was known as the Belgian Congo. (Belgium ruled the nation, now called the Democratic Republic of the Congo, from 1908 until 1960.) I’ve been a singer: All the way from Africa to Georgia I carried my sorrow songs. I made ragtime. I’ve been a victim: The Belgians cut off my hands in the Congo. They lynch me still in Mississippi. • While Hughes references the Negro as victim, the poem does not focus on the pain of victimization. Instead, Hughes emphasizes his people’s ability to endure, survive, and create. • Consider too the visual presentation of the poem and the short declarative sentences which not only define the Negro and their contributions, but also help to create the pride and defiance in the tone.
“Ballad of the Landlord” • In the poem, Hughes presents a standoff between a landlord and tenant. The tenant, whose requests for repairs have been ignored, threatens to withhold his rent. The landlord demands the rent or the tenant’s furniture will be thrown into the street. The exacerbated tenant returns the threat: “You ain’t gonna be able to say a word / If I land my fist on you.” The landlord calls the police; the tenant is placed under arrest and sentenced to ninety days. • Hughes draws from two social archetypes to reveal inner-city living conditions. The archetypes are defined by Richard Barksdale as “a disgruntled tenant and a tightfisted landlord.” •Barksdale continues, “The literature of most capitalist and noncapitalist societies often pits the haves against the have-nots, and not infrequently the haves are wealthy men of property who ‘lord’ it over improvident men who own nothing. So the confrontation between tenant and landlord was in 1940 just another instance of the social malevolence of a system that punished the powerless and excused the powerful. In fact, Hughes’s tone of dry irony throughout the poem leads one to suspect that the poet deliberately overstated a situation and that some sardonic humor was supposed to be squeezed out of the incident.” – from Langston Hughes: The Poet and His Critics
“Ballad of the Landlord” continued… • Is Barksdale’s reading of the poem accurate? Does the power structure better protect one character than the other? How is this reflected in the whistle, bell, and arrest? Is the poem humorous in any way? • Consider the newspaper headlines. Is the first one a distortion? Is the media depicted as a tool of those in power? Consider the references to the protagonist in the headline: “man,” “tenant,” “Negro.” Does the very order of the words suggest increasing victimization and powerlessness while in the hands of the system? • What is suggested by the shortness and harsh sounds of lines 28-30? Is Hughes’s suggesting that description and many words are not needed for what is a routine and commonplace incident? The reader, he suggests, will easily be able to fill in the other events.
“Let America Be America Again” • “Let America Be America” is a strong expression of Hughes’s ambivalence towards America. • Hughes is grateful to the founding fathers for articulating their vision of a land free from tyrants and a nation of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed – Let it be that great strong land of love Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme That any man be crushed by one above. • These lines echo “I Dream’d in a Dream” of Walt Whitman, who was an important influence on Hughes: I dream’d in a dream I saw a city invincible to the attacks of the whole of the rest of the earth, I dream’d that was the new city of Friends, Nothing was greater than the quality of robust love …
“Let America Be America Again”continued … • However, Hughes is angry that the promise of America has never been available to him or to certain groups of people. I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart, I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars. I am the red man driven from the land … America never was America to me, And yet I swear this oath– America will be! •
“Let America Be America Again”continued … He is hopeful that one day America will fulfill its promise, and he calls on exploited and marginalized peoples to rise up and see through the realization of the dream. Note how the poem in its urgency builds to its angry but hopeful conclusion. We the people, must redeem The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers. The mountains and the endless plain– All, all the stretch of these great green states– And make America again! • The poem resonates in the songs of Woody Guthrie, including “This Land is Your Land” (first drafted in 1940), as it reads like a socialist or worker’s vision of America, while also resonating in Martin Luther King’s famous speech “I Have a Dream” (1963).
“White City” – Claude McKay • In this poem McKay expresses his ambivalence toward New York City, identifiable in the trains, ports, and tall buildings. He resents the city as a main cultural center of Western civilization with its imperialistic and racial practices, and will remain defiant toward it. However, he finds energy and inspiration in its “vital blood.” • The first quatrain emphasizes his disdain and defiance: I will not toy with it nor bend an inch. Deep in the secret chambers of my heart I muse my life-long hate, and without flinch I bear it nobly as I live my part. • In the second quatrain, the speaker introduces his ambivalence by acknowledging the city as his “dark Passion,” his inspiration, which might be both nurturing and debilitating: My being would be a skeleton, a shell, If this dark Passion that fills my every mood, And makes my heaven in the white world’s hell, Did not forever feed me vital blood.
“White City” continued … • In the third quatrain, we see the city’s inspiration at work in the speaker’s energetic visual imagery: I see the mighty city through a mist– The strident trains that speed the goaded mass, The poles and spires and towers vapor-kissed, The fortressed port through which the great ships pass, • The concluding couplet encapsulates the speaker’s ambivalence: The tides, the wharfs, the dens I contemplate, Are sweet like wanton loves because I hate. • Interestingly, McKay uses a sonnet, a complex Western literary form to express his ambivalence – i.e., his attraction and rejection of Western culture and the city which symbolizes, for him, that culture. • What specifically attracts the speaker to the culture? What does he reject? How does race inform the sonnet?
“Sonnet to a Negro in Harlem” Helene Johnson • In this sonnet, Johnson personifiesHarlem as a proud, defiant, and swaggering young man who expresses himself in “rich, barbaric song”: You are disdainful and magnificent– Your perfect body and your pompous gait, Your dark eyes flashing solemnly with hate, Small wonder that you are incompetent To imitate those whom you so despise– Your shoulders towering high above the throng, Your head thrown back in rich, barbaric song, Palm trees and mangoes stretched before your eyes. • In these first two quatrains, Johnson extols Harlem for its bluster, independence, and strength, and its insistence on itself. Harlem is set apart from the rest of the city and does not try to assimilate. Steeped in a culture derived from its people’s roots, Harlem has a unique beauty.
“Sonnet to a Negro in Harlem” continued … • In the concluding lines, Johnson praises Harlem as the outsider who refuses to participate in a culture that will only “efface” its contributions: Let others toil and sweat for labor’s sake And wring from your grasping hands their meed of gold. Why urge ahead your supercilious feet? Scorn will efface each footprint that you make. I love your laughter arrogant and bold. You are too splendid for this city street. • The speaker admires the pride and grandeur that Harlem demonstrates in its loud and gallant aloofness. In a sense, the speaker is inspired by Harlem and, in turn, tries to keep Harlem inspired. • Has Johnson written a Shakespearean or Petrarchan sonnet? Has she combined the two forms? Is it fitting, ironic, or just unusual that Johnson has created this portrait in a sonnet?
“[Hughes’s] art was firmly rooted in race pride and race feeling even as he cherished his freedom as an artist. He was both nationalist and cosmopolitan. As a radical democrat, he believed that art should be accessible to as many people as possible. He could sometimes be bitter, but his art is generally suffused by a keen sense of the ideal and by a profound love of humanity, especially black Americans. He was perhaps the most original of African American poets and, in the breadth and variety of his work, assuredly the most representative of African American writers.” - Arnold Rampersad, biographer
For Further Consideration • Hughes once wrote, “Poetry should be direct, comprehensible, and the epitome of simplicity.” After reading one of his poems, Ezra Pound wrote to Hughes: “Thank God; at last I come across a poem I can understand.” Arnold Rampersad writes that Hughes “wished to write no verse that was beyond the ability of the masses of people to understand.” How are these statements reflected in Hughes’s poems? Does his poetics limit him as a poet? Are his poems simplistic in style and theme as a result? Or are they in some way energized, specific, and very meaningful? In a sense, can they be simple but not simplistic? Refer to several poems in your response. 2. Consider the final line in several of Hughes’s poems. Do they seem especially climatic? Compare them to other last lines from poems in the text. 3. Based on the poems in the text, how would you define Hughes’s vision of America? How can it be said that Hughes is engaged in a continuous dialogue with the principles of the founding fathers?