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Harlem Renaissance Poets, Essay Example

Pages: 4

Words: 1235

Essay

Abstract

The Harlem Renaissance is recognized as one of the most pivotal times in African American literature. It was during this time that many African American artists were established as authoritative voices in the arts. Langston Hughes is one of the most popular artists of the Harlem Renaissance because he managed to remain in the spotlight after the period came to a close. There are, however, many artists who significantly changed the climate of the era. Within the writing sector, Countee Cullen and Angelina W. Grimke greatly impacted the Harlem Renaissance with poems that illustrate the inmost parts of blackness and double consciousness. Grimke and Cullen’s poems force the reader to look beyond the surface and discover what it means to be African American in a society of whiteness.

The Harlem Renaissance took place between 1920 and 1930. Characterized as a time of awakening and rebirth, the Renaissance allowed African Americans to showcase their talents to the world. Many writers, musicians, and performers migrated from various parts of the country to Harlem in hopes of fulfilling their passion of creativity. While some used the platform as an opportunity to gain quick fame, many viewed the Renaissance as a chance to obtain a voice in an otherwise uninterested society. For many writers like Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, the Renaissance was the opportunity to speak of racial division and practices. Among the most influential poets of the time, Countee Cullen and Angelina Weld Grimke deliver artistic works that speak to the heart of what it means to be African American in a white society.

Countee Cullen and “A Brown Girl Dead”

Born in 1903, Countee Cullen was one of the most influential poets during the Harlem Renaissance. Similar to Langston Hughes, Cullen discussed societal problems that African Americans faced and called for change through his works of art. Particularly, “A Brown Girl Dead” is about an African American female who has died and is buried in a white wedding dress with white flowers surrounding her. In the poem, Cullen points out that the girl’s mother “pawned her wedding ring to lay her out in white” (line 5).  From such perspective, it appears that the concept of whiteness requires African Americans to give up everything meaningful. Whereas the mother gave up her wedding ring, the daughter surrendered her life to be white.

At first glance, the poem appears to be about a girl who was loved by her family and given the proper burial. After looking at the significance of the wedding ring, white roses, and white dress though, it is evident that the story is about more than a young girl who has died. The woman is essentially in a state of double consciousness. Although she sees blackness, she longs to be a white woman. Her struggle between darkness and whiteness is what eventually puts her in the grave. According to the author, “she’d be so proud and sing to see herself tonight” (line 6). It is remarkable that such joy comes after the woman dies and is adorned in white. Even in death the woman characterized as white by association and not culture or color. Cullen viewed poetry as art without a race, but his work illuminates internal struggles that African Americans endured during the early 1920s and 1930s.

Angelina Weld Grimke and “The Black Finger”

Viewed as one of the most prolific writers of the era, Angelina Grimke is well known for her work before the Renaissance. Although she wrote many poems during the movement, Grimke is recognized as an artist who bridged the gap between traditional writing and new age work that many Renaissance writers took part in. Grimke essentially created art that highlighted the struggles of African Americans and created a new style of writing that intrigued audiences. In the present day she is merely known as a literary footnote but Grimke established the launching pad by which the Renaissance took flight.

Among her many works of art, “The Black Finger” most adequately speaks of her ambition to create a new style of writing for African Americans to follow. Published in 1923, the poem describes a black finger that is raised in the air. While the poem does not say if it is raised in support or objection to an issue, Grimke takes particular car in describing the finger as “slim and still” (line 2). Although weak in appearance, the finger represents the dawning of a new day. Grimke’s poem is a perfect depiction of the Renaissance. Although beginning as a whimper with a few African Americans migrating to Harlem, New York, the movement ended with a bang with thousands of races coming together to appreciate the various facets of art.

While the double consciousness is not evident in Grimke’s like it is in Cullen’s art, the poet asks a question that gives implication of identity crisis. In the final lines of her poem, Grimke asks, “Why, beautiful, still finger are you black?/And why are you pointing upwards?” (lines 9-10). The artists poses the first question as if she is shocked that the finger in the air is black to the extent of making the reader wonder if such questions would be asked if the finger were white. Although she speaks of change in the first stanza, Grimke appears to be amazed that drastic changes are coming from a race of people who have been belittled for so long.

Similarities and Differences

Whereas “A Brown Girl Dead” speaks of whiteness and its effects on African Americans, “The Black Finger” talks about people of color having a glimmer of hope. The black girl in Cullen’s poem was overtaken by her surroundings and lost the fight of identifying herself as one of African descent. Such identity crisis killed her, giving the audience implication that a loss of ethnic self equals loss of life. During such times, the individual along with close loved ones suffer because of race denial. Although many poems during the Renaissance carried the theme of identity, few do it with such elegance and meaning like Countee Cullen’s “A Brown Girl Dead.”

Contrary to Cullen’s work, Grimke’s poem has nothing to do with identity struggles. Although the author asks why the finger is black, she does not wish that it were white. From such perspective, Grimke’s questions can be viewed more as curiosity and less as a cultural crisis. Whereas Cullen’s poem speaks of the detrimental effects of losing one’s identity, Grimke’s “The Black Finger” is an illustration of what happens when a person is proud of their heritage. Although weak in stature, the individual will continue to rise to the surface because he or she knows that there is more to them than the outward appearance and stereotypes. Grimke’s poem is an illustration of the pride that many artists had during the Harlem Renaissance. Such pride and courage is what made the era one of the most influential times in United States history. While many great poets were born out of the era, Countee Cullen and Angelina Grimke were two of many pillars of the movement.

References

Cullen, C. (1991). A Brown Girl Dead. In My Soul’s High Song: The Collected Writings of Countee Cullen. Anchor Books.

Grimke, A. (1923). The Black Finger. http://www.aaregistry.org/poetry/view/black-finger-angelina-weld-grimke.

Me

My hair is knotted and my lips are big

I have no further place to dig

I’ve tried to go into myself and hide away

But someone else is always there to stay

So I wrestle with two versions of me

Oh what misery life can be

Time is precious

Time is precious

don’t waste it!

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