Tag Archives: Langston Hughes

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:

The Ways I Use Poetry

When I was in grade school, I used poetry for entertainment. My grade school had regular book fairs, and one of the first books I bought on my own was The Random House Book of Poetry for Children because, in the first few pages, it had a funny poem about a boy that would take off all his clothing and could never figure out how to put it back on. The book was large and full of various poems. When there wasn’t anything to watch on television, or when I finished some of my homework, I’d sit in my room and read through my book of poetry and try to memorize the poems that were on the pages. As I aged, the appeal of the book of children’s poetry faded, and it was placed into a box and given to Goodwill.

It wasn’t until high school that I started to use poetry again. This time, I used poetry as a form of self-expression, as many teens end up doing. Sometimes I wrote poems and sometimes I wrote song lyrics, but they were always dark and angry and honestly, not very good. I used poetry to help form my self-identity and to work through an extreme level of teenage angst. These works often found themselves on napkins, or on ripped up pieces of paper, or inside of one of my textbooks. The poetry I wrote back then is long gone, which is probably a good thing. If I had to classify the type of use this poetry was, it would fall under the category of misuse.

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?


Carpe Diem

Melanie and I are swamped. We’re both ambitious people with gargantuan future goals. Right now we’re busy living each day to its fullest, and by that, I mean using every spare moment of our time to work on grad school stuff. While Melanie is in her home stretch and finishing her publishing coursework, I’m finishing up my undergraduate degree and applying to literature doctoral programs.

In the spirit of seizing the day and making the most of one’s time, I wish to share with you some of my favorite carpe diem poems, or poems about making the most of time.

Here’s a quote from every poet’s favorite movie to set the tone for these carpe diem poems.

First Fig by Edna St. Vincent Millay

My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
It gives a lovely light!

Be Drunk by Charles Baudelaire

You have to be always drunk. That’s all there is to it—it’s the only way. So as not to feel the horrible burden of time that breaks your back and bends you to the earth, you have to be continually drunk.

But on what? Wine, poetry or virtue, as you wish. But be drunk.

And if sometimes, on the steps of a palace or the green grass of a ditch, in the mournful solitude of your room, you wake again, drunkenness already diminishing or gone, ask the wind, the wave, the star, the bird, the clock, everything that is flying, everything that is groaning, everything that is rolling, everything that is singing, everything that is speaking. . .ask what time it is and wind, wave, star, bird, clock will answer you: “It is time to be drunk! So as not to be the martyred slaves of time, be drunk, be continually drunk! On wine, on poetry or on virtue as you wish.”

Dreams by Langston Hughes

Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.

Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.

Twelfth Night, Act II, Scene III by William Shakespeare

The Clown, singing:
O Mistress mine, where are you roaming?
O stay and hear! your true-love’s coming
That can sing both high and low;
Trip no further, pretty sweeting,
Journeys end in lovers’ meeting—
Every wise man’s son doth know.

What is love? ’tis not hereafter;
Present mirth hath present laughter;
What’s to come is still unsure:
In delay there lies no plenty,—
Then come kiss me, Sweet-and-twenty,
Youth’s a stuff will not endure.

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.


15 Historic Poetry Recordings We’re Lucky to Have

Technology has made the life of writers and readers much easier. We can store thousands of books in an e-reading device; write, edit, and save stories with a word processor; and use our phones as a dictionary and thesaurus and skip lugging the heavy books around. Now that many classic literary texts have been entered into the public domain, readers can find some of the greatest works in history with the click of a button. And as William Faulkner once said, “Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it.”

That same logic applies to poetry too, of course. And as poetry is often read aloud, it’s a great idea to listen and learn from some of the masters. Thanks to technology, we have the ability to access historic recordings of some classic poets, like Dylan Thomas and Langston Hughes.

You’d be surprised by how many great poets can’t read well. By that, I don’t mean they’re illiterate, but, for whatever reason, when they read their poems they don’t engage with their audience. Personally, Ezra Pound’s voice grates at me, but I really enjoyed Anne Sexton’s recording of “Letter Written on a Ferry.” It was honest and soothing; it lulled the listener in.

But listen and decide for yourself. I’ve included fifteen historic recordings, with links to The Poetry Archive, where you can hear them, below.

1. “Anyone lived in a pretty how town” by e.e. cummings

Ezra Pound - Creative Commons
e.e. cummings 1917 passport photo

2. “The Waste Land Part V – What the Thunder said” by T.S. Eliot

T.S. Eliot

In Defense of Love Poems

People who know me might be confused by this post. I don’t come off as one overly sentimental, especially when it comes to love or love poems. But I think love is part of the human experience, and thus, like anything that makes us human, is ripe to be explored in poetry and art.

While I agree with Melanie that it is annoying for all people to assume when one says “I write poetry,” that it is mushy-love based flowery poetry, I still think love poetry is a valid and wonderful form of poetry. There are many kinds of love, and many ways of expressing that love through poetry.

Familial love is often celebrated in poems, such as W.B. Yeats’s poem A Prayer for my Daughter written about the birth of his daughter and his hopes for her in the future, or Dylan Thomas’s poem Do not go gentle into that good night written to his father to encourage his dad to fight against his death. Langston Hughes also wrote a poem titled Mother to Son, about a mother summing up her fight for equality and passing the fight and her fire onto her boy.

Brotherly love, or bromance (which is actually a word now, so I don’t feel bad using it), is another theme often explored in poetry. Shakespeare did it in the first 126 sonnets of his 154 sonnet sequence (although, these poems can also be read as being about more than platonic love but there are many subtle things, such as Shakespeare encouraging the youth he admires to procreate and marry so that Shakespeare and the world can admire his offspring, that point to a more platonic reading for me). The best example of brotherly love from Shakespeare’s sequence comes in the form of Sonnet 30, a sonnet that explores how Shakespeare would mourn for his friend in his friend’s death. Robert Frost wrote A Time to Talk about the values of slowing life down to appreciate a chat with friends. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow also wrote a poem The Arrow and the Song about how our actions, both physical in the way of an arrow and spiritual in the way of a song, take root in the world around us and are often carried by those we are close to when we feel that these things are lost.

Literary Paraphernalia: 10 Poetry-Inspired Pieces of Etsy Gear

Happy National Poetry Month! To get you in the mood to celebrate this wonderful time of the year, we thought we’d share some Etsy gear inspired by some of our favorite poets.

Emily Dickinson tank top – $20.
(Credit: Etsy.com)

Don’t be a nobody—or do. I think she preferred it if you are a nobody, actually. But be a nobody in an awesome Emily Dickinson tank top.

T.S. Eliot inspired necklace – $45.
(Credit: Etsy.com)

Let us go then, you and I, and buy this kind of super awesome necklace inspired by The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock.

Sylvia Plath flats – $85.
(Credit: Etsy.com)

Be all a-flicker with these Poppies in July inspired shoes. Just be sure to do no harm while wearing them.

A Poetry Starter Kit

Last week, I ventured into the university bookstore to buy Collected Poems by Philip Larkin. The store was out of the book, so I placed a special order with one of the clerks.

As she was helping me, the young woman said, “I never read poetry.”

I told her, “You’re not alone. Most Americans don’t read poetry.”

She asked, “Why is that?”

I told her that many academics had many quirky theories, but these were only theories. Everyone has an opinion, but no solution. “What is your major?” I asked.

She told me she studied the social sciences, and might go into social work. Then she said, “I read Keats and Whitman in high school.”

I said, “You could spend the remainder of your long life studying those two dead guys, and that brand of reading might contribute to a happy life.”

Then I wrote her a list:  Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Sandra Cisneros. I told her to go to the internet and Google every poem she could find by these poets. Give every poem a chance. Read each poem at least twice.  If she found a poem she didn’t like, don’t stop there. Keep looking for more poems by each poet. Put together an anthology of poems she liked.

She promised she would.