A Rage in Harlem:
The Redefinition of American Modernist Poetry Via the New Negro Renaissance
Though American modernist literature has been intensely scrutinized since the end of the first World War, a great deal of ambiguity surrounds the history of the literary movement—especially the movement’s origins. Like any other artistic era, it’s impossible to measure or neatly book-end American modernism with specific dates or years. Disagreements among literary theorists and writers as to when the movement really began and who pioneered such a movement prevent any kind of immediate consensus. The most surprising aspect about the study of this movement is the controversy concerning the very definition of the modernist aesthetic of American poetry. Indeed, Lost Generation member Archibald MacLeish and many of his colleagues (mostly white men) believed that “a poem should not mean but be”—that poetry is just a language effect with little or no direct reference beyond the formal arrangement of the words on the page. However, in the early twentieth century, the poetry of the New Negro/Harlem Renaissance, particularly the works of Claude McKay, Langston Hughes, and Jean Toomer, debunked MacLeish’s renowned modernist dictum; though attentive to the modernist use of language, these three authors of the Harlem Renaissance proved, through their focus on either the African-American “double consciousness,” the black presence in America, or the horrid reality of American racial oppression, that American modernist poetry does indeed have material, political, and social consequences and implications.
Early in the twentieth century, the lack of a black voice in the American literary canon startled many African-American writers and philosophers. At this time, the poetry and literature of the white American male grew steadily popular, allowing many of these authors the latitude to define modernist poetry themselves. But soon a challenge to this white male modernist aesthetic began to emerge. In the 1910’s, more blacks began migrating from the South to the North, the ratio of African-American college graduates skyrocketed, and a whole host of multiracial intellectuals began congregating in New York. In the 1920’s, black writers “found their various niches within the diversifying publishing system; they were not all one mind, nor did they all publish in the same places. However, the places where they did publish were interconnected, making up a varied, dynamic network that challenged the cultural status quo” (Hutchinson 8).
Yet the redefinition of the Western literary canon was not solely an African-American accomplishment, nor was the Harlem Renaissance a product of African culture alone. Indeed, African-American writers relied on white intellectuals and publishers to propagate their works, but the culture of the Harlem Renaissance marked a sort of interracial literary synthesis. Though the ramifications of the Harlem Renaissance’s binary nature have been debated for decades, the general consensus is that this cultural conjuncture helped in its success. The cases of notable Harlem Renaissance authors buttress this claim:
Jean Toomer’s dramatic development as a writer came not only as a result of his brief months in rural Georgia but also because of his relationship with writers like Waldo Frank in New York. His work reflects his belief that black Washington society, which he knew only too well, was too staid and “Puritan” to nourish a modernist movement of self-invention—in part because it lacked the kind of interethnic and interracial exchange that New York, filled with people adrift from their old moorings, offered. The biographies of other authors—notably Claude McKay, Zora Neale Hurston, Nella Larsen, George Schuyler, and Langston Hughes—bear out the same point (Hutchinson 6).
This biracial collaboration of art forms during the Harlem Renaissance epitomized W.E.B. DuBois’ renowned definition of “double consciousness.” Many African-American authors who chose to delve into what were then called “Negro themes” (i.e. vernacular, folk, and jazz poetry) wanted also to incorporate Western forms and styles. This interracial mixture of literary conventions inspired a feeling of great “freedom and variety” for the authors of the Harlem Renaissance that “intensified the experimental development of new forms of ‘racial’ expression” (Hutchinson 6).
Claude McKay was one of these poets of the Harlem Renaissance who, through his political and social themes, offered a challenge to the modernist poetry dictum set forth by MacLeish. As Michael North states, McKay is seen now as a distinctly modern poet simply because of his use of racial themes:
...dealing with racial themes could make even a relentlessly traditional poet a kind of honorary modernist. The compromise remains in force today, and, in fact, still governs most critical commentary on McKay: “if this style was in most respects anachronistic and sometimes clumsy, his essential message of alienation, anger, and rebellion was thoroughly modern” (114).
McKay was constantly faced with the African-American issue of the “double consciousness.” After the publication of “Harlem Dancer” and “Invocation,” McKay became well known in white intellectual circles in Manhattan. Though he produced works that dealt with many different themes, McKay was pressured by many white publishers and literary radicals like James Oppenheim to produce poetry strictly dedicated to the black experience (Tillery 171). Yet it was under this pressure that McKay created some of the most powerful verses concerning the African presence in America and African-American oppression.
In two respects, McKay rejected the modernist aesthetic defined by his white American contemporaries. First, like Jean Toomer and Langston Hughes, he made social arguments, assertions, and revelations in his poetry with regards to the black experience. Much of McKay’s verses were not only political wellsprings for many American civil rights movements to come, but black nationalist literature. As Eugene Redmond says:
Though one of the greatest influences on black thought and art in his day, McKay perhaps did not know that his writings inspired various spokesmen for African nationalism... he is seen today as the major link between the Harlem Renaissance and the militant writings of the 1960’s. Just as his dialect poems had charmed the Jamaicans, the disciplined anger of his popular American poems incited and inspired Blacks and titillated and fascinated whites (Redmond 172).
With poems like “If We Must Die”—which echoes a theme similar to that of Hughes’ “A Negro Speaks of Rivers”—McKay capitalizes on themes of African-American faith, strength, endurance, and perseverance. But the tone of McKay’s poetry is much more urgent, aggressive, and combative. In “If We Must Die,” black nationalistic undertones are ubiquitous: “If we must die, O let us nobly die, / So that our precious blood may not be shed / In vain; then even the monsters we defy / Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!” (McKay 1691). Here, McKay not only profoundly prophesizes the ultimate triumph of black America in its racially oppressive society, he emphasizes the innate power of the African American to endure such difficult periods of social injustice.
McKay’s thematic focus on African-American racial oppression in the early twenties did not digress in its militancy over the years. Like Jean Toomer, McKay was influenced by the horrifying reality of lynching in America and incorporated these images in his poetry. But unlike Toomer, McKay’s theme is more forthright, more bold, more candid. In “The Lynching,” he seems to despise and challenge the racist “monsters” of whom he spoke in “If We Must Die.” According to McKay, lynching is a crime that is terribly horrifying and vicious—a national shame. In “The Lynching,” he portrays the gruesome murder of a young man, describes the indifference of the white crowd, and morosely suggests the endlessness of this racist violence: “Day dawned, and soon the mixed crowds come into view / The ghastly body swaying in the sun. / The women thronged to look, but never a one / Showed sorrow in her eyes of steely blue. / And little lads, lynchers that were to be, / Danced around the dreadful thing in fiendish glee” (McKay 1692). The poem has didactic connotations. It reveals the tragedies the African American has faced since his migration to the United States and describes the savage racism in America and the violence it inspires. McKay’s aggressive tone is the proverbial cherry on top of the cake; it suggests that African Americans should no longer tolerate a racist America, but challenge it.
Though McKay’s incorporation of racial themes helped redefine the modernist aesthetic, his use of the sonnet—a traditional poetic convention—makes him a truly unique modernist poet. After sending a few of his poems to the editors of Seven Arts in 1917, “[James] Oppenheim replied that he had liked the spirit of the poems but not the sonnet form in which they were written” (Tillery, 29). Why would McKay use such a convention so disdained by many of his modern contemporaries? According to Eugene Redmond, the sonnet was a form of “therapy” for the writer, allowing him to “control his anger”: “[McKay’s] is the anger of a native Jamaican (“home boy”) caught up in the straitjacket of white literary amenities. He wants to be freed. And freedom comes through poetry—principally the sonnet” (Redmond, 173). But was McKay’s use of the sonnet as liberating as Redmond claims or was this poetic convention, simply, the best of two evils? As Michael North observes, McKay was caught in a terrible dilemma:
What an irony, though, that the sonnet form should somehow seem closer to jammas and shay-shays than modernist experimental free verse. The irony dramatically demonstrates how little free space there was for McKay between traditionalism and modernism. If he departed from the standard language and its conventional poetic forms, he became a modernist cliché, beating [Vachel] Lindsay’s drum, but if he resisted modernism, it seems that there was no alternative but the most traditional standards (North 115).
McKay certainly didn’t want to abide by modernism as defined by the likes of Gertrude Stein and MacLeish. His use of the sonnet—a European convention—wasn’t necessarily the zipper to Redmond’s “straitjacket of white literary amenities.” To be sure, McKay’s use of this traditional form of poetry was seen as a deviation from the free-flowing forms cherished by his white contemporaries. The modernist aesthetic, as seen now, is one that revels in the experimental, the radical. McKay’s sonnets, in a sense, were certainly that. They solidified his reputation as a modernist writer in the way they rejected the traditional modernist convention of free verse.
However, Claude McKay was not the last of the Harlem Renaissance authors to deviate from MacLeish’s modernist dictum. In June of 1921, Langston Hughes established himself as a respected modernist poet when his breakthrough, and perhaps most renowned work, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” was published in The New Negro. Much like Jean Toomer, who fused the forms of African and Anglo-American cultures to produce a literary jazz effect in “Seventh Street,” Hughes combined the techniques of Walt Whitman and the forms of Negro spirituals—particularly, their similar use of the inclusive ‘I’—to shape “A Negro Speaks of Rivers” (Hutchinson 415): “I’ve known rivers ancient as the world... / I bathed in the Euphrates when the dawns were young, / I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep / I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it” (Hughes 1613). Hughes’ work, like the work of so many other members of the Harlem Renaissance, reinforces the racial issue of the black “double consciousness.” His incorporation of both Whitman’s style and that of the age-old spirituals proves that “A Negro Speaks of Rivers” is not a product of one culture or ethnicity but, rather, a synthesis of two—the Anglo-American and the African-American.
Hughes’ incorporation of racial themes also distinguished himself as a modernist writer rejecting the standard definition of modernist poetry. “A Negro Speaks of Rivers” expresses the historical survival of ancient black bloodlines throughout the generations. According to Eugene Redmond, Hughes’ poem testifies to the millennium-old, black struggle:
The use of words like “soul” and “rivers”—which run like spines through black folklore and literature, allows Hughes to touch the deepest longings and spiritual wellsprings of his people. In “veins,” “deep,” “flow,” “dusky,” “ancient,” and the cataloguing of actual place names important to Blacks, he established the longevity of life and struggle (192).
Hughes evokes a sense of racial pride in “A Negro Speaks of Rivers.” The poem seems to date back almost to prehistoric times, “when dawns were young.” The narrator emphasizes the power of not only African Americans but also people of African descent to endure both social and natural predicaments. The social implications of Hughes’ theme are evident. In the early twentieth century, where lynchings were a common atrocity in the South and racial injustices thrived also in the North, Hughes wished to portray the New Negro as a survivor of all: a being with the formidable ability to persevere throughout the most trying situations and events history has had to offer. These bloodlines have successfully avoided extinction and have survived historical natural disasters, wars, and a whole host of racial injustices, especially in twentieth- century America (Hughes documents recent African-American triumph over racial hardships as the Mississippi sang “when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans” [Hughes 1614]).
What also made Hughes one of the more innovative writers of the Harlem Renaissance was his keen focus on the blues—its rhythm, rhyme scheme, and lyric. However, the power of Hughes’ blues literature does not solely depend on its style and arrangement. The theme and content of the blues and blues literature implies an important social consequence. Similar to that of “A Negro Speaks of Rivers,” Hughes’ blues literature expresses the power of the African American to transcend oppressive states and situations. In “The Weary Blues,” an old Harlem Lenox Avenue singer tickles the ivories, echoing a tune of despondence and loneliness: “I got the Weary Blues / And I can’t be satisfied. / Got the Weary Blues / And I can’t be satisfied— / I ain’t happy no mo’ / And I wished that I had died” (Hughes 1615). Towards the end of the poem, the pianist stops playing, goes to bed, and sleeps like “a man that’s dead.” According to R. Baxter Miller: “From the dramatic situation of the player, both musical as well as performed, the poem imposes isolation and loneliness yet the refusal to accept them” (Miller 55). The pianist is destined to overcome the terrible melancholy that bothers him. In this sense, “The Weary Blues” might have functioned to inspire Hughes’ fellow African Americans. Like the pianist, they too might overcome the sadness of American racial oppression and put their troubles “on the shelf.”
Jean Toomer, one of the first members of the Harlem Renaissance to step into the international literary limelight, not only lived as testament to DuBois’ theory of the African American “double consciousness” through his own immersion into two racial cultures (the white intellectual society of New York and the black rural south), he, like Hughes, challenged MacLeish’s definition of modernism through his literary emphasis on African-American racial oppression. Toomer certainly did not live like the archetypal African-American urbanite of the early twentieth century. As a member of the black bourgeoisie, Toomer evaded the cancer of ghettoization that afflicted a significant chunk of the black urban community. His residence in New York introduced him to a white intellectual milieu, but later in his life he felt isolated from his black southern roots. During his pilgrimage to Georgia in 1921, he observed a rural African-American folk culture which inspired him. Not only did the trip “[serve] as the catalyst for ideas that connected his identity, positively to his creative impulses,” it also induced him to recognize his own “double consciousness.” He says, “I seem to have (who knows for sure) seven blood mixtures: French, Dutch, Welsh, Negro, German, Jewish and Indian... Because of these, my position in America has been a curious one. I have lived equally amid the two race groups. Now white, now colored” (Lewis 85).
Toomer’s fascination with the idea of the African-American “double consciousness” is apparent in his masterpiece, Cane—specifically in the selection, “Seventh Street.” Reminiscent of Gertrude Stein’s “Preciosilla,” “Seventh Street” contains an extemporaneous rhythm that abides by MacLeish’s modernist aesthetic: “Wedges rust in soggy wood... Split it! In two! Again! Shred it!.. the sun. Wedges are brilliant in the sun; ribbons of wet wood dry and blow away. Black reddish blood. Pouring through crude-boned soft-skinned life, they drank your blood” (Toomer 1603). The beat of “Seventh Street” has an improvisational feel that is almost impossible to follow. The language Toomer uses is a mixed bag; his prose is filled with monosyllabic exclamations, sentence fragments, and quick, declarative imagery. This lack of a rhythmic pattern is reminiscent to the compositions of early jazz music. The fact that “Seventh Street” exists as a form of literary jazz—a musical genre contrived via white/black racial amalgamation—reinforces its social implications. Here, George Hutchinson’s riff on J.A. Rogers’ theory of jazz is useful for it reveals the inherent biraciality of the musical genre:
...jazz is a “leveler and makes for democracy” (223), an “assimilator” that creates a liminal environment in which black and white merge... While it has certain origins in African music, it is nonetheless unlike anything Africans have created, and it has “absorbed the national spirit, that tremendous spirit of go, the nervousness, lack of conventionality and boisterous good-nature characteristic of the American, white or black, as compared with the more rigid formal natures of the Englishman or German” (Hutchinson 423).
Though the style of “Seventh Street” followed the modernist theory in its free-flowing, improvisational cadence—its literary jazz—it deviated from MacLeish’s dictum through its social and racial implications. Here was a work of poetry that used style to articulate social content: here, specifically, the biracial psyche and identity of the African American.
Not only does Toomer challenge MacLeish’s definition of modernist poetry with his unique use of stylistic conventions, but also through his incorporation of social and, above all, racial themes. In “Seventh Street,” he reveals the decrepit socioeconomic state of the black urban community, its reliance on economic illegitimacy, as he condones alternative economic ventures in the face of oppressive social conditions. “Bootleggers in silken shirts” and “ballooned, zooming Cadillacs” make up the scene in this “wedge of nigger life breathing its loafer air” (Toomer 1603). According to Toomer, money is the root of all evil, a principal cause of corruption: “[m]oney burns the pocket, pocket hurts” (Toomer 1603). He disapproves of this oppressive condition as he watches the community ethically dilapidate as it relies on bootlegging (or “[bloodsucking]”) to survive financially.
Toomer’s focus on black racial oppression, southern lynching in particular, is ferociously apparent in his poem, “Portrait of Georgia.” Unlike “Blood-Burning Moon,” a literary narrative, “Portrait of Georgia” successfully transmits the terror of this brutal crime of racism in verse: “Hair—braided chestnut, / coiled like a lyncher’s rope, / Eyes—fagots, / Lips—old scars, or the first red blisters, / Breath—the last sweet scent of cane, / And her slim body, white as the ash of black flesh after flame” (Toomer 1615). In “Portrait of Georgia,” a simple Petrarchan sonnet convention is saturated with the images and symbols of a lynching, that “peculiarly American crime” (Hutchinson 56). Toomer’s theme speaks of interracial infatuation and the consequences of such a relationship during and beyond Reconstruction. The images that the narrator (whom we understand is black) uses to describe the white woman are the images of his punishment (being lynched) if this interracial relationship were ever consummated. Not only does the poem reveal the serious presence of past African-America racial oppression, it also mocks the traditional romantic poetry of years gone by, truly establishing itself as a work of the modernist era. Instead of comparing the woman’s lips to a rose or her eyes to the blue sky, Toomer likens the woman’s hair to a “lyncher’s rope” and her white skin to “the ash of black flesh after flame.”
The arrival of the Harlem Renaissance certainly posed a challenge to the developing American literary canon of the early twentieth century. Not only did the writers of this movement design innovative and distinctive verse, they did so by incorporating their own voice and their own “double consciousness.” McKay, Hughes, and Toomer were all individuals whose racial background and experience in America offered them a reservoir of material. For them, poetry was a medium for which these ancestries and experiences could be realized and understood by a wider, more racially-diverse audience. McKay’s militant conscience was omnipresent in his sonnets, Hughes’ desire to preserve black bloodlines was reflected in his poetry, and Toomer’s dream of racial amalgamation reverberated throughout his avant-garde mixture of prose and verse. Through their incorporation of social and real world consequences—the theory of the African-American “double consciousness” and the black presence in America—the authors of the Harlem Renaissance had not only called for a virtual redefinition of modernist poetry, they had done so amidst a backdrop of racial oppression in America.
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