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Poetry's Influences on the Harlem Renaissance

Racial equality has been the topic of many works for centuries. Many of those works weren’t written by those actually affected by inequality. During the 1920’s African Americans began to express their opinions on the issue more frequently through the arts. Poetry was among the most prominent forms of art used for spreading equality and justice. Poets like Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, and Claude McKay wrote many poems that spoke on equality in society. African Americans felt betrayed after the civil war.

They had given their lives and after the war nothing had changed (Cartwright, “The Harlem Renaissance”). They were still not treated equal and didn’t get paid as much as any other worker. During the 1920’s they started a cultural and racial movement in Harlem, New York called the Harlem Renaissance. The Harlem Renaissance was a time of growth of African Americans during the 1920’s. During this time ideas on equality and freedom spread through the African American community like wild fire.

African Americans were expressing their emotions about racial equality in many different ways (Rau 167).

Some chose poetry some chose painting or jazz. They used these arts to highlight the injustices they saw in their everyday lives. 1. Langston Hughes Langston Hughes is one the most well know poets of the Harlem Renaissance. Hughes was born in 1902 in Joplin, Missouri (Rampersad, “Hughes’s Life and Career”). His beginnings were more humble than most. At a very young age Langston’s Hughes parents divorced. After the divorce Hughes moved to Lincoln with his grandmother.

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This is where he began to write poetry (The Academy of American poets, “Langston Hughes”).

Hughes ideals were closely based around his grandfather, who was a militant abolitionist (Rampersad, “Hughes’s Life and Career”) His poetry was influenced by many poets who shared his colorful writing style (The Academy of American poets, “Langston Hughes”). Hughes lived his life as he wrote, with passion. After high school Hughes spent a year in Mexico with his father who disliked his passion for writing and urged him to stop. At that time Hughes was beginning to get published in a number of places like magazines and children’s book.

During this time he was noticed but W. E. B Dubois. Upon Hughes return to America he enrolled in Colombia University in New York. Hughes did not like the atmosphere at Colombia so after a year he left. After Columbia he moved to New York and began work on a freighter. This job took him to many places. He traveled to the coast of Africa, Spain, and Paris. ( Rampersad, “Hughes Life and Career”)He ended up staying in Paris for a couple of months this is where he began practicing a new style of poetry there. Hughes writing style was a lot different from the others.

Throughout his life time Hughes wrote many poems that showed common experiences that all African Americans shared. Hughes never discussed the differences between his life and the lives of other Africans Americans. His poetry always showed the negative and positive sides of the African American experience. Hughes may have seen both sides of African Americans but when it came to issues between African Americans and Caucasians he had strong opinions. He (Rampersad, “Hughes’s Life and Career”) wrote many poems that touched on the controversial topics of that time.

In poems like I, Too and The nergo speaks rivers Hughes talked about the struggles that African Americans went through. (Poetry Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, “Langston Hughes”). Hughes used his dislike for Caucasians often in his poetry. 2. Countee Cullen Countee Cullen might not have reached the fame that Langston Hughes has over the years but his poetry was just as influential. Countee Cullen was born in May 30, 1903 in New York when his grandmother died in 1918 Cullen was put under the custody of Reverend Fredrick A.

Cullen. Cullen’s connection to the Salem Methodist Episcopal church through Reverend Cullen placed him in the center of black politics and culture at the age of 15. This gave him a more unconventional education. Instead of learning regular writing and math like other children his age he was taught about black ideals. Most of his education was provided by completely white influences. This gave him a well rounded look at racism. (Poetry Foundation, “Countee Cullen”). This was often shown in his writing.

Cullen’s writing technique would never directly attack Caucasians like other poets during the Harlem renaissance. He was a new voice for the African Americans, one that was actually listened too Cullen graduated from New York University in 1925 as Phi Beta Kappa. At that time he was already writing some of the acclaimed poems published in books by Harper and Brothers: Color (1925), Copper Sun (1927). He won first prize in the Witter Bynner Contest in 1925.

Graduating with a Harvard University M. A. egree in 1926, the poet traveled to France as a Guggenheim Fellow(A grant). Upon his return in 1928, he married Yolanda Du Bois, daughter of W. E. B. Du Bois. She divorced him two years later, saying that he told her he was sexually attracted to men. From 1934 on, Cullen taught English and French at the Frederick Douglas Junior High School, though he declined a Creative Literature invitation from Fisk University in Nashville. In 1940 he married an old friend, Ida Mae Roberson. (The Harvard Square Library, “Countee Cullen” He died in 1946 of gastrointestinal disorder

Cullen’s upbringing helped his poetry reach both African American and Caucasian audiences. Cullen was able to do something most African American poets in the Harlem renaissance couldn’t and that was reaching both sides. Cullen was against the way that African Americans were treated but he also understood not all Caucasians had the same ideals. He was brought up with Caucasians in his life which causes him to show a less offensive type of poetry. Cullen’s poetry often presented the sad side of an African Americans life (Poetry Foundation, “Countee Cullen”).

The poem The Little Brown Boy tells of the death of a young black boy (Nelson and Smethurst, “Countee Cullen poems”). This shows the method of persuasion he used. Countee’s poetry’s influence reached many and his voice spread far. 3. Claude McKay In 1889 Claude McKay was born in sunny vile, Jamaica to peasant farmers. His lower class up bringing taught him how to love himself and have pride in his African heritage. Similar to Cullen, McKay was unconventionally taught as well. McKay was home schooled by his older brother and neighbors. He studied romantics and many other European based things.

In adult hood he moved to Kingston which would be the first time that he had actually experienced racism he was immediately disgusted with the way that African Americans were treated and returned home disgusted. Once he returned to sunny vile he published his first verse of poetry. (Academy of American Poets, “Claude McKay”) After hearing about Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee institute he decided to move to Alabama and enroll. There he sees American racism for the first time. McKay took a lot of his influence for his writing from similar poets to Langston (University of Illinois, “Claude McKay’s Life”).

As early as 1912 he had published his first volume of verse, Songs of Jamaica, which had been widely praised and had won a medal for poetry. McKay slowly decided not to return to Jamaica and stayed in America. In 1914 he left college and began work menial jobs typical of the African American in the Northern cities of America at that time. At different periods he worked as wheelwright, porter, dishwasher, waiter, and longshoreman. McKay didn’t take his jobs very seriously they were just a matter of earning enough cash to quit for a while and write.

McKay’s interest in politics led him to the socialist like many other artist. He was associate editor of The Liberator, a socialist U. S. journal of art and literature. In 1923-24mckay went to Moscow, Russia to be a part of the Bolshevik Revolution. As a African American, McKay was used to show the soviets commitment to racial equality, and he was treated like royalty, being lavishly entertained and exhibited on platforms with the most famous revolutionary leaders. But McKay was skeptical of all this, though he had sympathy for the lives lost in to the Revolution.

Claude traveled the world trying to find a peaceful place to write. He went to Morocco and France. In 1928 he published his famous novel, Home to Harlem, which was a national best-seller in the U. S. and was instantly a literary sensation. ( Though McKay reached great success in his life he died impoverished and unappreciated. Claude McKay’s experience with the racism in Alabama was the basis for a lot of his writing. McKay more geared towards the empowerment of blacks and less toward equality. McKay wanted to show that African Americans weren’t just equal but they were better.

A lot of his poetry was written to show how much power African Americans had. (Academy of American Poets, “Claude McKay”) in the poem “If We Must Die” McKay writes about how African Americans must fight as hard as they can even if the end result is death. This poem says a lot about McKay’s style of writing. In the years after the Harlem renaissance African Americans expressed themselves more often than ever before. The Harlem renaissances effect on African Americans was obvious. Free ideas were flowing and battles were being fought for equal rights.

In the thirties no one had much money so African Americans had even less opportunities for work. Each of these poets had a different style and finesse but there messages were all the same. They all grew up as African Americans and they all experienced racism in some way shape or form. They all took those situations and used them to empower those around them. Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, and Langston Hughes might have all had different writing styles but they all played a major role in the growth of African Americans in the United States of America.

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Poetry's Influences on the Harlem Renaissance. (2016, Oct 14). Retrieved from

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