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The Harlem Renaissance was a period of grave importance in the history of the African American. As the word renaissance connotes, the movement was born out of a hunger for cultural, socio-economic, and political right of self-determination. According to Rodgers (1998), the authors affiliated to the movement came from different backgrounds, but whose aspirations and hopes converged on the cry for freedom from racial discrimination and the search for cultural identity and integration. The central theme that rules the Harlem Renaissance Movement was the demand for equality and humane treatment.
The effect of double consciousness in both the discussed poems will be understood in the context of a struggle to either break away from or to retain the tradition and norms encapsulated in the spirit and letter of the struggle.
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The first author of the Harlem Renaissance to be appraised is Claude McKay with his poem “If We Must Die”. McKay comes out strongly against discrimination on the basis of color and puts a case for humane treatment for the blacks regardless of the consequences. He seems to think that whether the black man resigns to his fate or fight for his rights, there is no difference in the amount of suffering either way. McKay (1919) alludes to this in his last stanza last line “Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!”.
Shaduri (2010) opines that McKay’s combatant approach to the indignity to which his poor black people are treated is a clear message that the freedom they crave will not be delivered on a silver platter, but one to fight for even to the death. To achieve the harmony and rhythm, he uses rhyming words in an alternating manner. Stanza one and two have words rhyming with the ones after the subsequent lines at the end of each line. For example, hogs with dogs, spot with lot, die with defy, and shed with dead. (McKay, 1919, Stanza one and Stanza two) The choice of the words in the rhymes creates an emphasis on the key message McKay is communicating all along. He is seen to juxtapose life and death, dignity and disgrace, as well as victory and the price to be paid in the process.
Even though there was a series of race riots, the war McKay speaks of was largely an ideological one. He metaphorically compares the racists to hungry dogs (Stanza one, line three). He hopes that his kindred would fight more honorably but not in the same vein as their assailants engaged them. He calls on fellow blacks to “nobly die” (McKay 1919, Stanza two, line one), and by so doing, creates the necessary departure from barbaric retaliatory attacks on the Whites and, therefore, effectively create a mass ideologically strategic battle front that would deal a decisive “death-blow” to discrimination. (McKay, 1919, Stanza three, line three)
McKay though is worried about the identity of his people as he envisions the victory in the offing. He fears that his Black culture and identity would be usurped in the changing tides as his people gain freedom. In so doing, he displays a double consciousness where he hopes that the change he is fighting for does not become the new form of slavery tying his people to new masters from the old one. He warns that those who fight against them are many (McKay, 1919, Stanza three, line two), but he is careful not to mention whether the enemy at this point is within or without. Effectively, the very same change to be treated to equal opportunity may as well produce new Black masters to oppress the very people they should protect. He also uses rhetoric to draw attention and throw a challenge to his people to ponder regarding their state of affairs. McKay (1919) says in Stanza three line four “What though before us lies the open grave?”.
McKay becomes very instrumental in creating a new frontier of battling by changing the rules of racist wars. McKay understood that retaliatory fist fights would only attract police brutality, but would never amount to any real voice in the legislative house.
Another author who captures the imagination of the poor African American is LangstonHughes in his poem I Too. Hughes shares the everyday experience of having to come to terms with racism. He adopts the perspective of a Black servant working for the Whites. Hughes (1932) exemplifies the designated places with labels for colored people as “the kitchen” and “the table” for the white people. He cryptically shows that Blacks were excluded from the universe of making decisions and participating in events affecting them (Hughes, 1932, Stanza one, line three and four). Hughes believes and hopes on the wind of revival and freedom to come and indeed raises the hearts of people as he shows how soon the change is to attend to their door steps. (Hughes, 1932, Stanza two, line one and two).
The overwhelming changes to come, however, cause Hughes some anxiety since he fears that his brothers would be cornered into basking in the glory of the coming of age of their struggle and begin to boss others on the table. He fears the arrogance of conquest that might come alongside victory and cause his brothers to forget the virtues that brought them to the desired end. (Hughes, 1932, Stanza two) He draws a paradox to exemplify the folly that marks discrimination where he repeatedly emphasizes that Blacks and Whites were endowed with the same faculties of reasoning and that in a level playfield Blacks were just as capable, beautiful, and humane as any other White. (Hughes, 1932, Stanza three)
Hughes understood the school of thought that attended to the racist mind and dared it to give the African American an equal chance to prove themselves. Hughes serves as a beacon of hope for the emancipation of the African American from the clutches of racism and wanton discrimination.
They Bleed as Men
We were brothers in arms
Treated to the same harm
Why forsake the brotherhood
Since we came back to the neighborhood
We reigned in order on the border
So peace be found while collecting fodder
They hung medals to your name
But none for me to my shame
Only yesterday you took my kin
Swore by your badge he was akin;
To the mess in the cage
Then his life you ended in rage
Like the Lycans of old
I demand recompense of blood
Victory I shall push in my veins
Till fruit be found within the vine.
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