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Ethnic Literature Paper Phaedra Rosengarth ENG302 December 13, 2010 Judith Glass Ethnic Literature The Harlem Renaissance was a cultural movement that spanned the 1920s and 1930s. A major factor leading to the rise of the Harlem Renaissance was the migration of African-Americans to the northern cities. Between 1919 and 1926, large numbers of black Americans left their rural southern states homes to move to urban centers such as New York City, Chicago, and Washington, DC.

This black urban migration combined with the experimental trends occurring throughout 1920s American society and the rise of a group of radical black intellectuals all contributed to the particular styles and unprecedented success of black artists. What began as a series of literary discussions in lower Manhattan (Greenwich Village) and upper Manhattan (Harlem) was first known as the ‘New Negro Movement. ‘ Later termed the Harlem Renaissance, this movement brought unprecedented creative activity in writing, art, and music and redefined expressions of African-Americans and their heritage.


Historians disagree as to when the Harlem Renaissance began and ended. The Harlem Renaissance is unofficially recognized to have spanned from about 1919 until the early or mid-1930s. Many of its ideas lived on much longer. The zenith of this “flowering of Negro literature”, as James Weldon Johnson preferred to call the Harlem Renaissance, was placed between 1924 (the year that Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life hosted a party for black writers where many white publishers were in attendance) and 1929 (the year of the stock market crash and the beginning of the Great Depression).

Some common themes represented during the Harlem Renaissance were the influence of the experience of slavery and emerging African-American folk traditions on black identity, the effects of institutional racism, the dilemmas inherent in performing and writing for elite white audiences, and the question of how to convey the experience of modern black life in the urban North.

Among the authors who were writing during this time were Langston Hughes and Claude McKay. Their poems, Harlem and Harlem Shadows, portray their disappointment and frustration with the blatant racial inequalities that were still as prevalent in the 1950s as they were in the 1870s. There are many similarities in the poems Harlem and Harlem Shadows, as well as in the two authors themselves.

Both Harlem and Harlem Shadows take place in Harlem; both Claude McKay and Langston Hughes wrote these poems during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s; both poems are written as a means to protest the treatment of blacks after World War II and before the Civil Rights era of the 1960s; Claude McKay and Langston Hughes both spent time in Russia and were attracted to communism, but did not join the Communist Party; both authors use veiled anger and hatred in their poems; both authors attended college; both authors encouraged African-Americans to take pride in their culture; both authors are “rumored” to be homosexual (although there is very little factual evidence to prove it); both authors died on May 22 (McKay in 1948 and Hughes in 1967) of heart-related medical problems; . There are also many differences between the two poems and authors.

Langston Hughes incorporated blues and jazz music into his poem Harlem, while Claude McKay wrote the poem Harlem Shadows as a regular poem; Hughes was born in America, while McKay was born in Jamaica; McKay wrote Harlem Shadows in six-line stanzas of iambic pentameters, while Hughes used an irregular meter in the lines of Harlem; Harlem Shadows brings to mind “overcrowded and dilapidated tenements, unemployed or underemployed menials, and pervasive social problems (including prostitution, gangsterism, illegitimacy, gambling, and drug addiction) existing in the shadow of New York, with its consumerism, wealth, and bright lights” (enotes. com, 2010, p. ), while Harlem implies “a response to dreams of freedom from an American who did not see this as a country where dreams could come true, but rather as where people of African descent were denied freedom every hour” (enotes. com, 2010, p. 4); Harlem Shadows was written to portray the indifference of whites toward the suffering of African-American girls forced to live as prostitutes, while Harlem was written to expose the oppression of African-Americans in general by whites; Claude McKay even wrote articles for Communist papers and spoke at a Communist gathering in Moscow, while Langston Hughes only went to Russia to create a film about the plight of African-Americans (which was never shown); Langston Hughes talks about the consequences of forcing African-Americans to ot be able to live out the American Dream the same way as whites, while Claude McKay uses his poem to make people think about what young African-American girls are being forced to do to survive because, despite being freed physically, the blacks are not free morally. Despite the similarities and differences between Langston Hughes and Claude McKay, both authors wrote short stories and poems, in which they agitated for freedom and respect for their people. In their poems Harlem and Harlem Shadows, Hughes and McKay showed that, despite being given their physical freedom, African-Americans still are no closer in the eras of the 1920s to the 1950s to being truly free and equal with whites.

These poems and the men who wrote them reveal the sorrow, the disillusionment, and the frustration of African-Americans in general who are still waiting for their chance at the American Dream, and the anger they feel toward the white people who are still taking advantage of them. If not dealt with constructively, this anger can go from “festering like a sore” to “exploding,” (Perkins and Perkins, 2009, p. 1662) with terrible consequences. But, as Martin Luther King, Jr. stated in his “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963, “Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline… We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating, ‘for whites only’…

And when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and hamlet, from every state and city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children – black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Catholics and Protestants – will be able to join hands and to sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last, free at last; thank God Almighty, we are free at last. ” (Perkins and Perkins, 2009, p. 1817-1819) References eNotes. com. (2010). Harlem. Retrieved from http://www. enotes. com/harlem-text eNotes. com. (2010). Harlem Shadows. Retrieved from http://www. enotes. com/harlem-shadows-text Perkins, G. & Perkins, B. (2009). The American tradition in literature (Concise). (12th ed. ). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

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