The following paper focuses on the two poets of the Harlem Renaissance – Claude McKay and James Weldon Johnson. Their role and importance within the literary movement is identified, and the major themes of their poems, If We Must Die and The Prodigal Son are highlighted.
Harlem Renaissance Poets
The Harlem Renaissance was a cultural movement that spanned unofficially form 1919 to the mid 1930’s. The “Negro Movement” as it was then called, heralded the zenith of modern African literature. Though it was centered around the Harlem, New York, many Afro-Caribbean writers were also inspired by this movement to produce epic pieces of literature. In this paper ...view middle of the document...
Arthur D. Drayton, in his essay “Claude McKay’s Human Pity” says: “In seeing . . . the significance of the Negro for mankind as a whole, he is at once protesting as a Negro and uttering a cry for the race of mankind as a member of that race. His human pity was the foundation that made all this possible”. (Claude McKay, n.d.).
James Weldon Johnson descries the Harlem Renaissance Movement as the “flowering of Negro literature”. Born in Jacksonville, Florida, Johnson was no stranger to the inherent racial bias that was the lot in life of an African American born in 1920’s America. Weldon is popularly held to be the Godfather of the movement; his aesthetic depth is often held to be the driving force behind the cohesion of the Harlem Movement; his works “The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man” and “God’s Trombones” brought to black literature fresh criteria of realism and artistry. According to Robert A. Bone, Johnson was “the only true artist among the early Negro novelists” who managed to “subordinate racial protest to artistic considerations” (Beavers, 2000).
Johnson was a multifaceted personality. While some writers concentrated on only the literary aspect of the Black movement, Johnson expanded his study to black theatre, music art and poetry; that represented the innumerable facets of African culture and community. Johnson was the Head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and fought for removal of various obstacles (political, legal, and social) that encroached upon civil rights of Black people (Beavers, 2000).
Both poets embodied the principle of “double consciousness” that was so vital to the survival of the Black man in 1920’s America. In the poem “If We Must Die” by Claude McKay, the author presents a vision of the African American through the eyes of the racist White: “If we must die, let it not be like hogs/ Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,” “making their mock at our accursed lot” clearly demonstrate the white people’s attitude to the Black nation. The blacks are a disdained and “accursed lot”. Their continuous struggle against the bias and racism they endure in daily life to have a life little better than ‘dogs”. McKay says, “What though before us lies the open grave?”, a feeling of doom and sheer hopelessness seems to embody this line: McKay brilliantly proves the humiliating attitude of the world towards the Black nation
McKay’s poem We Must Die was set against the backdrop of the racial riots that took place in major cities of the US in 1919. The media reporting was biased and the crackdown on Black was brutal. The image of “mad and hungry dogs” (line 3) is almost a double personification, where it embodies...