The cultural movement period referred to as the Harlem Renaissance, which occurred during the 1920s and 1930s, was full of astonishing literary creativity. Most of the activities of these writers were based in the ghettos of Harlem, New York City, which was largely a cosmopolitan community consisting of rural farm laborers, African-American experts, musicians, and hustlers.
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Two of the artists who emerged during this period were Zora Neale Hurston and James Langston Hughes. There is tension that exists in the works of these artists.
Hurston is regarded as one of the prominent literary professionals of the Harlem Renaissance. As a pre-eminent novelist, folklorist, and anthropologist, through her works, she endeavored to explore the black culture in order to affirm her pride in the race (Haskins et al, 59). Her works were first noticed with the publication of short stories such as “John Redding Goes to Sea” and “Spunk” that focused on black art and literature.
The short stories were published in African-American literary magazines. In 1931, she collaborated with Langston Hughes in the production of the play “Mule Bone,” which was never published because of the tension between the two writers, and in 1934, she authored her first novel, Jonah’s Gourd Vine, which was well received. However, some critics said that it was uneven. Her second novel, “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” is considered as her greatest work.
Nonetheless, it received mixed reviews as some accused her of failing to represent the African-Americans as victims of the myth of inferiority. Her other works include Moses, Man of the Mountain (1939), Dust Tracks on a Road (1942), and Seraph on the Suwanee (1948), and they reveal her increasing conservative ideas in her later years. This made her to be alienated from other writers of the Renaissance period.
She was a utopian who believed that the African-Americans could attain sovereignty from the white supremacy that was prevalent in the United States then. However, in all her literary works, she did not address the bigotry of the whites towards the African-Americans. This resulted in the tension with her contemporaries.
And when this issue became the central theme among the black authors in the civil rights movement after the Second World War, her works did not receive attention. Hurston further watered down her own standing by barring the civil rights movement and throwing her support to the ultraconservative elected officials.
James Langston Hughes was one of the prolific writers of the Harlem Renaissance who authored poems, plays, short stories, and novels. He first received attention with the publication of the poem “The Negro Speaks Of Rivers” in 1921, which received a cordial reception. In 1926, he wrote The Weary Blues, which did not generate many controversies.
Fine Clothes to the Jew, which was published in 1927, was heavily criticized because of its title. However, he felt that it symbolized a major step forward in meeting the objectives of the Renaissance. In his works, Hughes stated that he was ashamed of being a black, especially at a time when blackness was considered inferior. He investigated the black human condition in detail and he was mainly concerned with the uplift of the forgotten black race.
Therefore, he recorded the powers, resiliency, audacity, and the funny side of the African-Americans as a component of the general American experience. In contrast to Hurston, these aspects pervaded his works in poetry and fiction. His works were against racial discrimination and expanded the black’s image of itself. His insightful views mainly focused on his delight in the black identity as well as its unique way of life.
In addition, he emphasized the significance of racial consciousness and cultural nationalism. He was one of the few African-Americans who championed this ideology as a way of inspiring the upcoming black artists. He became a role model because of his calls of appreciation of the diverse black folk culture and black aesthetic that also earned him worldwide reputation.
Some of his other works that drew incredible attention include Not without Laughter (1930) and The Ways of White Folks (1934). In his life, he wrote more than thirty-five books whose influence is evident in the writings of other authors published after the Harlem Renaissance.
Besides the different ways that they dealt with the racial segregation problem in the U.S. at that time, the two writers also had divergent political views that set them apart from each other. Hughes supported the notion that Communism was the solution to the racial discrimination problem in the United States. Most of his poems in the 1930s commended the political system that existed in the Soviet Union.
On the other hand, Hurston disagreed with this philosophy and embraced black conservatism. She stressed on patriotism, self-help, and independence and her writings showed these. The communist ideas that were brought forward by Hughes could not assist in solving the racial segregation problem in the United States at that time. As Hurston pointed out, solving the problem required ardent effort from both the blacks and the whites.
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Haskins, James, et al. Black stars of the Harlem Renaissance. New York: Wiley Publishing, 2002. Print.