Archive for the 'Harlem Renaissance' Category

Jean Toomer

October 31, 2006


Born to racially mixed parents: his father left soon after his birth and his mother died when he was 15, after which he lived with his grandparents
Grew up in Washington, D.C. and New Rochelle, New York
His light-skinned appearance allowed him to live alternately as a black and a white person
Attended five different colleges after high school and never received a degree
Wrote experimental poetry that was indebted to imagism, urbanism, and East Asian poetic forms
Protested against fallacious racial stereotypes
Wrote one of the classic books of American literature with “Cane”: alternates lyric poems with prose pieces and combines features of the Harlem Renaissance and the modernist movement
Many of his poems’ speakers bear witness to the difficult and often heroic struggles of an oppressed people sustained by their culture and community
After “Cane”, Toomer abandoned his racial subject matter and commenced a spiritual quest that would occupy him for the rest of his life
Became a follower of the European mysic George Gurdjieff who advocated a personal transofmation into heightened awareness
In the mid-1930’s Toomer and his wife and daughter turn from Gurdjieff to the Quaker Society of Friends
For 15 years he wrote religious treatises, autobiographies and unpublished poems


A cow-hoof imprint / pressed against the under-asphalt of / Fifth Avenue, sustains it
The osseous teat of an inverted cow / spurts s k y s c r a p e r s / against a cloud / racing to / dusk, / and / it / sprays / in / num / er / ab / le / blunk peaks against / the milky-way.

-Skyline (in whole)

Hair – braided chestnut, / Coiled like a lyncher’s rope / Eyes – fagots, / Lips – old scars, or the first red blisters, / Breath – the last weet scent of cane, / And her slim body, white as the ash / Of black flesh after flame.

-Portrait in Georgia (in whole)


Langston Hughes

October 17, 2006


Major American poet, leading name in Harlem Renaissance poetry, premier poet of political left, international poet
Born in Joplin, Missouri in a racially segregated society where lynching was a growing problem
Wrote more than 20 poems on lynching alone
Descended from a distinguished abolitionist African-American family
Held long term same-sex relationships
Strongly influenced by a diverse range of poets: Edgar Lee Masters, Vachel Lindsay, Amy Lowell, Carl Sandburg, and Walt Whitman
Captivated by African-American singers more than any writer
Attended columbia University for one year, but spent the time exploring the world of Harlem
Unlike most poets, was able to support himself through writing
Traveled as a journalist to Spain during the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39
Notably inventive in his use of culural styles and materials in poetry: adapted blues and jazz forms as well as oral traditions
Paired poetry with illustrations to tell stories more vividly
Relied on performing arts and drama to create a multi-voiced poetry
Investigated by FBI because of campaigns against lynching and leftist affiliations during the Cold War: not permitted to assume position of Poet Laureate
Forced to tone down politics in poetry and could not travel outside the country until 1960
Became the image of a poet who combines artistic innovation and vitality with joyful humor and humanity and the effective expression of social justice


Oh, silver tree! / Oh, shining rivers of the soul!
In a Harlem cabaret / Six long-headed jazzers play. / A dancing girl whose eyes are bold / Lifts high a dress of silken gold.
Oh, singing tree! / Oh, shining rivers of the soul!
Were Eve’s eyes / In the first garden / Just a bit too bold? / Was Cleaopatra gorgeous / In a gown of gold?
Oh, shining tree! / Oh, silver rivers of the soul!
In a whirling cabaret / Sing long-headed jazzers play.

-Jazzonia (in whole)

An attempt to adapt jazz to poetry

Droning a drowsy syncopated tune, / Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon, / I heard a Negro play. / Down on Lenox Avenue the other night / By the pale dull pallor of an old gas light / He did a lazy sway … / He did a lazy sway … / To the tune o’ those Weary Blues. / With his ebony hands on each ivory key / He made that poor piano moan with melody. / O Blues! / Swaying to and fro on his rickety stool / He played that sad raggy tune like a musical fool. / Sweet Blues! / Coming from a black man’s soul. / O Blues!
In a deep song voice with a melancholy tone / I head that Negro sing, that old piano moan – / ‘Ain’t got nobody in all this world, / Ain’t got nobody but ma self. / I’s gwine to quit ma frownin’ / And put ma troubles on the shelf.’ / Thump, thump, thump, went his foot on the floor. / He played a few chords then he sang some more – / ‘I got the Weary Blues / And I can’t be satisfied. / God the Weary Blues / And can’t be satisfied – / I ain’t happy no mo’ / And I wish that I had died.’ / And far into the night he crooned that tune. / The stars went out and so did the moon. / The singer stopped playing and went to bed / While the Weary Blues echoed through his head. / He slept like a rock or a man that’s dead.

-The Weary Blues (in whole)
See Poetry Speaks

Transformation of isolated pain into solace, art, and human connection

I’ve known rivers: / I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.
My sould has grown deep like the rivers.
I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young. / I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep. / I looked upon the Nile and Raised the pyramids above it. / I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down th New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset.
I’ve known rivers: / Ancient, dusky rivers.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

-The Negro Speaks of Rivers (in whole)
See Poetry Speaks

One of Hughes’ first poems, written in high school

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 we are / And be ashamed-
I, too, am America.

-I, too (in whole)
See Poetry Archive

Compare to Walt Whitman’s “I Hear American Singing”

Oh, wash-woman / Arms elbow-deep in white suds, / Soul washed clean, Clothes washed clean, / I have many songs to sing you / Could I but find the words.
Was it four o’clock or six o’clock on a winter afternoon, I saw you wringing out the last shirt in Miss White Lady’s kitchen? Was it four o’clock or six o’clock? I don’t remember.
But I know, at seven one spring morning you were on Vermont Street with a bundle in your arms going to wash clothes. / And I know I’ve seen you in the New York subway in the late afternoon coming home from washing clothes.
Yes, I know you, wash-woman.
I know how you send your children to school, and high-school, and even college. / I know how you work to help your man when times are hard. / I know how you build your house up from the washtub and call it home. / And how you raise your churches from white suds for the service of the Holy God.
I’ve seen you winging, wash-woman. Out in the backyard garden under the apple trees, singing, hanging white clothes on long lines in the sunshine. / And I’ve seen you in church on Sunday morning singing, praising your Jesus because some day you’re going to sit on the right hand side of the Son of God and forget you ever were a wash-woman. And the aching back and the bundles of clothes will be unremembered then.
Yes, I’ve seen you singing.
So for you, O singing wash-woman, / For you, singing little brown woman, / Singing strong black woman, / Singing tall yellow woman, / Arms deep in white suds, / Soul washed clean, / Clothes washed clean, / For you I have / Many songs to sing / Could I but find the words.

-Song to a Negro Wash-Woman (in whole)

Jessie Redmon Fauset

October 16, 2006


Best known for literary editorship of the NAACP publication The Crisis
Discovered and promoted Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, and Claude McKay
One of the Harlem Renaissance’s most prolific novelists
Mentored women writers thorough literary salons in her home and developed a poetic voice described as the New Negro Woman’s voice
Born in a Philadelphia suburb, was the only African American in her high school and college classes
First African American at Cornell University
Denied teaching position in Philadelphia because of her race, moved to Baltimore and Washington, D.C. to teach
Poetry focuses on African-American middle-class life as seen through the eyes of the New Negro Woman


How did it happen that we quarreled? / We two who loved each other so! / Only the moment before we were one, / Using language that lovers know. / And then of a sudden, a word, a phrase, / That struck at the heart like a poignard’s blow. / And you went berserk, and I saw red, / And love lay between us, bleeding and dead! / Dead! When we’d loved each other so!
How could it happen that we quarreled! / Think of the things we used to say! / ‘What does it matter, dear, what you do? / Love such as ours has to last for aye!; / – ‘Try me! I long to endure your test!’ / – ‘Love, we shall always love, come what may!’ / What are the words the apostle saith? / ‘In the power of the tongue are Life and Death!’ / Think of the
things we used to say!

-Words! Words! (in whole)

Dear, when we sit in that high, placid room, / ‘Loving’ and ‘doving’ as all lovers do, / Laughing and leaning so close in the gloom,-
What is the change that creeps sharp over you? / Just as you raise your fine hand to my hair, / Bringing that glance of mixed wonder and rue?
‘Black hair,’ you murmur, ‘so lustrious and rare, / Beautiful too, like a raven’s smooth wing; / Surely no gold locks were ever more fair.’
Why do you say every night that same thing? / Turning your mind to some old constant theme, / Half meditating and half murmuring?
Tell me, that girl of your young manhood’s dream, / Her you loved first in that dim long ago- / Had she blue eyes? Did her hair goldly gleam?
Does she come back to you softly and slow, / Stepping wraith-wise from the depths of the past? / Quickened and fired by the warmth of our glow?
There, I’ve divined it! My wit holds you fast. / Nay, no excuses; ’tis little I care, / I knew a lad in my own girlhood’s past, – / Blue eyes he had and such waving gold hair!

-Touche (in whole)

Touche is a French fencing term, meaning here “I’ve got you”
African-American poets are forced to redefine metaphor: black can no longer mean evil, white good
The man in the poem has no words, weak description of her hair, she understands and forgives him
Both have a traditional view of a fairy prince, or princess

On summer afternoons I sit / Quiescent by you in the park, / And idly watch the sunbeams gild / And tint the ash-trees’ bark.
Or else I watch the squirrels frisk / And chaffer in the grassy lane; / And all the while I mark your voice / Breaking with love and pain.
I know a woman who would give / Her chance of heaven to take my place; / To see the love-light in your eyes, / The love-glow on your face!
And there’s a man whose lightest word / Can set my chilly blood afire; / Fulfillment of his least behest / Defines my life’s desire.
But he will none of me. Nor I / Of you. Nor you of her. ‘Tis said / The world is full of jests like these. – / I wish that I were dead.

-L Vie C’est la Vie (in whole)

The French expression la vie c’est la vie means ‘life-that’s life’

Georgia Douglas Johnson

October 15, 2006


Best-known woman poet of the Harlem Renaissance
Poems suggest a feminine sensibility and a feminist awareness, and take up challenges and aspirations of the African-American community
Born in Atlanta, studied at Atlanta University and Oberlin College
Married Henry Lincoln Johnson, an African-American lawyer and politician who died in 1925
Worked clerical jobs in Washington, D.C. to support her two sons who went on to law and medical school
Wrote stories, plays, and a weekly column
Early poetry draws comparisons with personal lyrics of Sara Teasdale and Edna St. Vincent Millay, and later poetry attempts to deeply connect issues of the Harlem Renaissance


The heart of a woman goes forth with the dawn, / As a lone bird, soft winging, so restlessly on, / Afar o’er life’s turrents and vales does it roam / In the wake of those echoes the heart calls home.
The heart of a woman falls back with the night, / And enters some alien cate in its plight, / And tries to forget it has dreamed of the stars / While it breaks, breaks, breaks on the sheltering bars.

-The Heart of a Woman (in whole)

Reflects the frustrations Johnson observed and felt in domestic life
Her husband disapproved of his wife’s poetic aspirations
Plumbs the anguish of a woman trapped in traditional marital and child-bearing roles
Metaphor of broken and caged bird echoes Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem ‘Sympathy’

Claude McKay

September 26, 2006


Festus Claudius McKay
Born in Jamaica to peasant farmers, lived in the West Indie until 23
Came to the U.S. to study agriculture and to become a writer
Poetry expresses a new sense of black political assertion and a rich awareness of black cultural life
Figure of the Harlem Renaissance
Identified with oppressed and working people
Active socialist


If we must die, let it not be like hogs / Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot, / While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs, / Making their mock at our accursed lot. / If we must die, O let us nobly die, / So that our precious blood may not be shed / In vain; then even the monsters we defy / Shall be constrained to honor us though dead! / O kinsmen! we must meet the common foe! / Though far outnumbered let us show us brave, / And for their thousand blows deal one death-blow! / What though before us lies the open grave? / Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack, / Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!

-If We Must Die (in whole)

Written in response to vilent anti-black riots in Chicago, 1919
First appeared in ‘The Liberator’
McKay’s most famous poem

Bananas ripe and green and ginger-root, / Cocoa in pods and alligator pears, / And tangerines and mangoes and grape fruit, / Fit for the highest prize at parish fairs,
Set in the window, bringing memories / Of fruit trees laden by low-singing rills, / And dewy dawns and mystical blue skies / In benediction over nun-like hills.
Mine eyes grew dim and I could no more gaze, / A wave of longing through my body swept, / And, hungry for the old, familiar ways, / I turned aside and bowed my head and wept.

The Tropics in New York (in whole)

Although she feeds me bread of bitterness, / And sinks into my throat her tiger’s tooth, / Stealing my breath of life, I will confess / I love this cultured hell that tests my youth! / Her vigor flows like tides into my blood, / Giving me strength erect against her hate. / Her bigness sweeps my being like a flood. / Yet as a rebel fronts a king in state, / I stand within her walls with not a shred / Of terror, malice, not a word of jeer. / Darkly I gaze into the days ahead, / And see her might and granite wonders there, / Beneath the touch of Time’s unerring hand, / Like priceless treasures sinking in the sand.

-America (in whole)

May allude to ‘Ozymandias’ by Percy Bysshe Shelley

I hear the halting footsteps of a lass / In Negro Harlem when the night lets fall / Its veil. I see the shapes of girls who pass / Eager to heed desire’s insistent call: / Ah, little dark girls, who in slippered feet / Go prowling through the night from street to street.
Through the long night until the silver break / Of day the little gray feet know no rest, / Through the lone night until the last snow-flake / Has dropped from heaven upon the earth’s white breast, / The dusky, half-clad girls of tired feet / Are trudging, thinkly shod, from street to street.
Ah, stern harsh world, that in the wretched way / Of poverty, dishonour and disgrace, / Has pushed the timid little feet of clay. / The sacred brown feet of my fallen race! / Ah, heart of me, the weary, weary feet / In Harlem wandering from street to street.

-Harlem Shadows (in whole)

Applauding youths laughed with young prostitutes / And watched her perfect, half-clothed body sway; / Her voice was like the sound of blended flutes / Blwon by black playrs upon a picnic day. / She sand and danced on gracefully and calm, / The light gauze hanging loose about her form; / To me she seemed a proudly-swaying palm / Grown lovelier for passing through a storm. / Upon her swarthy neck black, shiny curls / Profusely fell; and, tossing eons in praise, / The wine-flushed, bold-eyed boys, and even the girls, / Devoured her shape with eager, passionate gaze: / But, looking at her fasely-smiling face, / I knew her self was not in that strange place.

-The Harlem Dancer (in whole)

Publication announced McKay’s entrance into the American literary scene
Shakespearean sonnet form

Arna Bontemps

September 26, 2006


Key figure in the Harlem Renaissance
Writer, teacher, novelist, poet, anthologist, historian, biographer, literary scholar
Friend and correspondent of Langston Hughes
Poems remembered for vivid evocations of African-American experience and aspirations
Born in Louisiana, raised in Los Angeles, taught in New York
Poetry is notable for exploring problesm of racial justice


I have sown beside all waters in my day. / I planted deep, within my heart the fear / That wind or fowl would take the grain away. / I planted safe against this stark, lean year.
I scattered seed enough to plant the land / In rows from Canada to Mexico / But for my reaping only what the hand / Can hold at once is all that I can show.
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.

-A Black Man Talks of Reaping (in whole)