Tag Archives: Elizabeth Alexander

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:

Some Poetry to Inspire Voting

While I am an English major and I adore literature, I am also a political science minor, civically engaged, and a supporter of social justice.

Voting is important, especially in mid-term elections. For some reason, people forget that local government is the form of government that has the most immediate control over their lives. The presidential elections tend to draw the biggest crowds but it’s at the local level that a lot of federal policies and actions are carried out.

Local ballot measures, judges, state representatives – I don’t care which way you vote on these, just get out there and vote. If you feel that you’re ill informed to make a decision based off of a lack of information, you can either do a little bit of research using your smart phone before you enter the voting booth, or you can always skip voting for a portion of the ballot. But getting your voice out there on the issues you are aware of and the people you do support is vital to the democratic process.

Just to throw some numbers at you now, political decisions effect 100% of the population, yet less than 50% of the population during midterm elections gets out there to choose who is in office to make these political decisions that effect ALL of us.

With that disclaimer out of the way and my advocacy expressed, I can now share some political poetry to help inspire you to get out there and vote!

Maya Angelou
Excerpt from On the Pulse of Morning

A Rock, A River, A Tree
Hosts to species long since departed,
Marked the mastodon,
The dinosaur, who left dried tokens
Of their sojourn here
On our planet floor,
Any broad alarm of their hastening doom
Is lost in the gloom of dust and ages.

But today, the Rock cries out to us, clearly, forcefully,
Come, you may stand upon my
Back and face your distant destiny,
But seek no haven in my shadow,
I will give you no hiding place down here.

You, created only a little lower than
The angels, have crouched too long in
The bruising darkness
Have lain too long
Facedown in ignorance,
Your mouths spilling words
Armed for slaughter.

The Rock cries out to us today,
You may stand upon me,
But do not hide your face.