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The Harlem Renaissance was a term used collectively by social thinkers to represent the efforts by African-Americans to transcend the white-favored government systems in the new states, especially New York, from the southern states where they fled the oppressive system of Jim Crow.
The movement raised significant issues influencing the lives of blacks through literal works, such as music, drama, painting, sculpture, and movies. At the `center of this movement, there were certain poets whose works silently advocated for the rights and equity of African-Americans. This paper will discuss how the works of Claude McKay, “If We Must Die”, Langston Hughes’ “I, Too, Sing America”, and Maya Angelou’s “Willie” designate the Harlem Renaissance.
“I, Too, Sing America”. This poem is written by Langston Laughes and relates to Whitman’s poem “I Hear America Singing”. The term singing designates getting Americans from all lifestyles together to portray a harmonized American distinctiveness to the world.
According to Hughes, the African-Americans have forcefully been ejected from the song of America despite being its integral part. Thus, this poem symbolized Harlem Renaissances, in that, Langston appealed to the African-American reader to perceive him/herself as equal to his/her white counterparts.
Hughes highlights the racism entrenched in American culture during the period. In the line “whenever company comes”, he refers to the African-American population and at this time is forced to eat in the kitchen (Hughes 4). Thus, this population can be overlooked and not incorporated into the characters that symbolize America. Yet, the author argues that this isolation, though mostly pessimistic, have a salutary element, as he can “grow strong” (Hughes 7).
Hughes depicts a theme of struggle for equal rights and justice characteristic of the Harlem Renaissance. With symbolism and imagery, he tries to render that a day will come when the African-Americans receive equal treatment in the social and economic spheres as their white counterparts.
It could be observed when he says “Tomorrow I’ll be at the table” (Hughes 8-9). The metaphor of a table means the idea of equality and survival. This implies that one day the opinion of the African-American will be significant in directing the whole American nation.
Tough imagery terms including “darker”, “strong”, and “beautiful” typify the Harlem Renaissance. They help create the impression that black is beauty unlike the way the whites perceived it. Thus, this poem propagates a theme of struggle for recognition in the social, political and economic arena of the Harlem Renaissance.
“If We Must Die”. “If We Must Die”, by Claude McKay, is another poem that is emblematic of the Harlem Renaissance. It incites McKay’s coworkers to riot for their rights, to be heard and treated as equal laborers like the white laborers.
Many African-American journals republished this poem through the 1920s. In fact, this poem became a tool for mobilizing African-Americans to take their fights for justice to the streets. The Crusader upheld “If We Must Die” very fast. The imperative historical incentive for The Crusader embrace was the Red Summer, which color was derived from the outbreak of small wars between capital and labor, and spreading out in vulnerable places between blacks and whites.
The imagery and symbolism used in the poem do not identify the race of the “kinsmen”, and the “foe” of the speaker remaines concealed throughout the poem. This poem is written during the climax of violent riots of the African-Americans against the white community. It paints the weapons of the interracial fights as double-edged swords. Here, the author refers to the readers as “we” to promote the intuitive solidarity and willingness to die for imagined “kinsmen.”
It links suicidal vengeance with martyrdom for a blood brotherhood, as depicted in the rhetorical performance of a change from prospective animal terror, captured by “If we must die, let it not be like hogs” (McKay 1), to some masculine resilience, in the line “Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack” (McKay 13).
“Willie”. This poem is written by Maya Angelou to capture the potential and resilience of her uncle, and to depict him as a hero in his capacity. Especially, it is emblematic of the Harlem Renaissance because it captures the plight of a disabled African-American who cannot get the work and meet his social obligations due to his physical impairments (Angelou 11).
Uncle Willie represents a strong character of the African-Americans in the fight for equal rights and justice symbolic of the Harlem Renaissance. Despite his handicap, Uncle Willie’s attitude just keeps him going. The writer says, “Crippled and limping, always walking lame, He said, “I keep on movin’ / Movin’ just the same” (Angelou 4-5).
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This poem summons all the African-Americans to rise above their challenges and fight for their rights in any capacity they can rather than brood over their perceived inferiority. Uncle Willie puts behind his social and economical inadequacies to follow and sustain the leaders of the African-American struggle against injustices: “I keep on followin’ / Where the leaders led” (Angelou 9-10).
The literary works of certain poets indeed capture the spirit and the purpose of the Harlem Renaissance. These authors cover different positions from where the African-Americans could fight for equality and justice. Langston Hughes uses the imagery of a house-help; McKay applies that of a wage-worker; while Angelou describes the imagery of a disabled person. The poems mentioned above appeal to the African-American population to transcend their individual challenges and keep fighting for their beliefs.
Angelou, Maya, n.d. Willie. PDF file. Web.
Hughes, Langston, n.d. I, Too, Sing America. n.d. Web. <https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/47558/i-too>
McKay, Claude, 2013. If We Must Die. 2013 Web. <https://poets.org/poem/if-we-must-die>