Tag Archives: Countee Cullen

Politics and Poetry: The Harlem Renaissance

In the last year, I’ve been giving a series of lectures titled Politics and Poetry for The Socialist Party USA. This is an excerpt from the Slam Poetry section of that lecture.


In the 1920s the neighborhood Harlem, located in New York City, became a hotbed of culture for the disenfranchised black minority in the United States. Harlem became the place where black immigrants from Africa, the Caribbean, and other blacks across the U.S. came together in the hopes of a better life, establishing an educated black middle class, and creating art in all of its forms, known as the Harlem Renaissance.

Great thinkers, writers, and poets like James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, W. E. B. Du Bois, Countee Cullen, James Weldon Johnson, Claude McKay, and Elizabeth Alexander, among others, emerged from this scene and left behind a lot of work that is heavily influential today. Today we’re going to focus on Langston Hughes, Jessie Redmon Fauset, and Countee Cullen.

Image of Langston Hughes
Image from The Huffington Post

Langston Hughes is hands down one of the best known American poets, not just one of the best known Harlem Renaissance poets. He was a social activist, novelist, playwright, columnist, and invited a new literary art form called jazz poetry. Hughes, born in 1902, lived through both the depression and became part of the peace movement in the 1940s to keep Americans at home and out of WWII. He was outspoken in his concept that as long as the U.S. had Jim Crow Laws and racial segregation, black Americans should not serve in the military and defend a country that did not offer them equal rights. As part of the left, during the time of McCarthyism, Hughes was accused of being a communist. He wasn’t tried or anything, but when asked why he never did join the American communist party, he stated “I never read the theoretical books of socialism or communism or the Democratic or Republican parties for that matter, so my interest in whatever may be considered political has always been non-theoretical, non-sectarian, and largely emotional and born out of my own need to find some way of thinking about this whole problem of myself.” Hughes work was highly influential during the civil rights movement and has remained influential to this day. Here are two of his poems I wish to share today, the first being “You and Your Whole Race” written in 1930:

You and your whole race.
Look down upon the town in which you live
And be ashamed.
Look down upon white folks
And upon yourselves
And be ashamed
That such supine poverty exists there,
That such stupid ignorance breeds children there
Behind such humble shelters of despair—
That you yourselves have not the sense to care
Nor the manhood to stand up and say
I dare you to come one step nearer, evil world,
With your hands of greed seeking to touch my throat, I dare you to come one step nearer me:
When you can say that
you will be free!

This next poem of his is titled “Harlem” and is from 1951:

My Favorite Harlem Renaissance Poetry

In the 1920s the neighborhood Harlem, located in New York City, became a hotbed of culture for the disenfranchised black minority in the United States. Harlem became the place where black immigrants from Africa, the Caribbean, and blacks across the U.S. came together in the hopes of a better life, establishing an educated black middle class, and creating art in all of its forms. This movement became known as The Harlem Renaissance.

Great thinkers, writers, and poets like James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, W. E. B. Du Bois, Countee Cullen, James Weldon Johnson, Claude McKay, and Elizabeth Alexander, among others, emerged from this scene and left behind a lot of work that is heavily influential today.

To celebrate Black History Month as well as the work of these authors, I wanted to share some of my favorite poems from The Harlem Renaissance. While these poems were penned in or about the 1920s, the sentiment found within and the struggle they illuminate are still present in America today. By reading, remembering, and celebrating these authors’ works, we’re better able to reflect on the society we live in, where it evolved from, and hopefully how to influence it to be better in the future.

You and Your Whole Race

By Langston Hughes

You and your whole race.
Look down upon the town in which you live
And be ashamed.
Look down upon white folks
And upon yourselves
And be ashamed
That such supine poverty exists there,
That such stupid ignorance breeds children there
Behind such humble shelters of despair—
That you yourselves have not the sense to care
Nor the manhood to stand up and say
I dare you to come one step nearer, evil world,
With your hands of greed seeking to touch my throat, I dare you to come one step nearer me:
When you can say that
you will be free!


Dead Fires

By Jessie Redmon Fauset

If this is peace, this dead and leaden thing,
Then better far the hateful fret, the sting.
Better the wound forever seeking balm
Than this gray calm!

Is this pain’s surcease? Better far the ache,
The long-drawn dreary day, the night’s white wake,
Better the choking sigh, the sobbing breath
Than passion’s death!


Incident

By Countee Cullen

Once riding in old Baltimore,
Heart-filled, head-filled with glee,
I saw a Baltimorean
Keep looking straight at me.

Now I was eight and very small,
And he was no whit bigger,
And so I smiled, but he poked out
His tongue, and called me, ‘Nigger.’

I saw the whole of Baltimore
From May until December;
Of all the things that happened there
That’s all that I remember.


No Images

By William Waring Cuney

She does not know
her beauty,
she thinks her brown body
has no glory.

If she could dance
naked
under palm trees
and see her image in the river,
she would know.

But there are no palm trees
on the street,
and dish water gives back
no images.


If We Must Die

By Claude McKay

If we must die, let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursèd lot.
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!
O kinsmen! we must meet the common foe!
Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one death-blow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!


Harlem

By Langston Hughes

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?