Hughes’ and Cullen’s Significant Roles During the Harlem Renaissance

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Both Hughes and Cullen were significant writers during the Harlem Renaissance, establishing their sole topic of race and equality. According to Theresa L. Stowell, the author of ‘The 1930s in America’, the Harlem Renaissance began as African-Americans came to realize that they were not offered the same programs for those in poverty as white people. This unfair realization initiated a new era where African-American artists, philosophers, and authors became acknowledged. This era later became known as the Black Literary Renaissance or the Harlem Renaissance. Hughes played an important role in the Harlem Renaissance, and the impact of his works lasted long after they were written. Diana Pardo writes that while many writers during the era decided to take a ‘professional’ approach, Hughes “portrayed the realistic elements of the lives and stories of black America” as he focused on authenticity and celebrated his differences from society. On the other hand, Cullen’s involvement in the Harlem Renaissance was also significant as he was seen as an extremely controversial figure. Australia Tarver, editor of ‘New Voices on the Harlem Renaissance’, describes Cullen as “one of the great luminaries of the Harlem Renaissance”, but she also explains the controversy behind Cullen’s name and his writing as some would say he was too ‘respectable’ or too ‘middle class’. The controversial opinions on Cullen had a lasting impact on his reputation. While the poets have very different reputations, they were both extremely significant figures during the Harlem Renaissance.

Hughes’ approach often involves the celebration of African American culture by the incorporation of music and rhythm, such as jazz and blues, as well as to create a flow in his writing. Pardo also mentions how jazz and blues were greatly influential during the Harlem Renaissance and how music was a ‘recurring element’ in Hughes’ works. Hughes incorporates jazz music into many poems, such as ‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers’, ‘The Weary Blues’, ‘Harlem Night Club’, and ‘Blues Fantasy’. ‘The Weary Blues’ serves as a strong representation of Hughes’ use of jazz music and rhythm. The poem about a bluesman singing of putting his troubles to the side even with nobody to support him is written in free verse with an irregular rhyme scheme. Hughes describes the mood of the bluesman’s song and tells how the man “played that sad raggy tune like a music fool” as the narrator “did a lazy sway” (13, 6). Hughes is recognizing and celebrating black culture with his musical word choice as well as style of writing. Hughes’ incorporation of music reflects on the jazz and blues music that was so commonly valued and included in the Harlem Renaissance. Jazz was extremely important during this time period as jazz musicians used music to express their emotions and celebrate their culture. Also in ‘The Weary Blues’, Hughes describes the bluesman’s song as a “drowsy syncopated tune” (1). This seemingly small detail is important as it highlights the impact of the music on Hughes and displays how involved Hughes becomes in the song as he can feel it throughout his body. Overall, Hughes’ recurring inclusion of music is of great importance as it reflects on the Harlem Renaissance and the celebration of African American culture.

However, while Hughes often incorporates music and jazz to celebrate black culture, Cullen uses many different writing patterns in his poetry that have nothing to do with jazz or blues music in order to take a more formal approach. Unlike Hughes, he utilizes meter and rhyme in his works rather than blues and flow. In addition to meter and rhyme, Cullen also wrote many sonnets, or small lyrics, which contain fourteen iambic pentameter lines and a specific rhyme scheme. All of these elements illustrate his formal approach as his writing is clearly much more structured than the works of Hughes. Many of Cullen’s poems such as ‘Lines to My Father’, ‘She of the Dancing Feet Sings’, ‘Fruit of the Flower’, and ‘The Wise’ accommodate specific rhyme schemes and meter. In the specific poem, ‘The Wise’, each stanza, or three-line tercet, has an AAA rhyme scheme, meaning every word at the end of the line rhymes. The poem is about knowledge and how the most knowledgeable are the ones that have already passed. Cullen first explains that “Dead men are wisest, for they know/ How far the roots of flowers go” (1-2). The rhyme at the end of the lines is obvious as the lines end with the words “know” and “go.” Cullen’s clear use of rhyme indicates the formality and structure of his writing as it is carefully and formally constructed. Cullen also writes that “Dead men alone bear frost and rain/ On throbless heart and heatless pain” (4-5). Not only is his writing more formal than Hughes as it is structured much more strictly, but it is also choppier. While Hughes’ writing tends to have a free and loose flow, Cullen’s writing is much more rough.

Hughes uses common language in order to appeal and relate to people, demonstrate the real, pure, true elements of being an African American man during this time period, as well as to display and highlight authenticity. While many authors during this time period used formal language to prove their intelligence and potential, Hughes took a different approach. Hughes’ use of the common language is evident in many of his works, some of these being ‘Harlem’, ‘Po’ Boy Blues’, ‘Life is Fine’, and ‘Mother to Son’. The poem ‘Mother to Son’ describes the challenges and obstacles that black people had to, and still have to, overcome. The poem is from a mother’s perspective speaking to her son about how life is not easy as an African American during this time period but he should not give up and pity himself when things become difficult. One of the most prominent and apparent examples of common language in ‘Mother to Son’ is his use of the words “ain’t”, “I’se”, “reachin’”, and “Cause” (2,9,10,16). These obvious examples highlight the authenticity and purity of his language and writing as he is not trying to alter it to sound more intelligent or educated. Hughes also uses conversational or colloquial speech throughout the poem as he writes that “Life for [her] ain’t been no crystal stair” (2). Hughes clearly does not try to use more sophisticated vocabulary in order to prove his intelligence; he simply writes in a way that people can easily understand and relate to. However, while he tends to get straight to the point in his writing to highlight the purity and reality, Christopher Allen Varlack writes that Hughes is also “often criticized for being too straightforward” in Civil Rights Literature, Past and Present (14). In other words, while his goal in using the colloquial language is to relate to people, it has also been criticized as some believe he is too direct. Richard M. Leeson, English professor at Fort Hays State University, writes that many also criticize Hughes for his basic use of language and focus on the issues of the poor African Americans. However, these critics are ignoring the fact that Hughes writes from his own point of view and the realness of his life. All in all, his use of informality emphasizes the very real approach as he is not trying to be something he is not or prove his education and intelligence.

Unlike Hughes, Cullen tried prove that African Americans are just as capable and educated as white people by utilizing formal language and more articulate vocabulary. Many of Cullen’s works such as ‘Tableau’, ‘Saturday’s Child’, ‘Harlem Wine’, and ‘From the Dark Tower’ display his use of sometimes unnecessary elevated diction and uncommon language. These elements are most evidently illustrated in ‘From the Dark Tower’. Cullen discusses oppression and the impact of prejudice. Cullen uses many descriptive details and adjectives throughout the poem that highlight his recurring use of complex vocabulary. For example, Cullen writes, “Shall we beguile their limbs with mellow flute” (6). His word choice is peculiar as he clearly uses words that the majority of people do not use on a daily basis. His particular word choice of “beguile” and “mellow flute” stands out and is prominent as they illustrate his use of elevated language. This use of grand language or vocabulary and detailed description are in place to exhibit his intelligence and prove his capability. Cullen also writes “In light, but crumple, piteous, and fall”, again highlighting his use of description (12). Overall, Cullen often tries to prove that African Americans are capable of being just as educated as white people and are no less than white people in a sense of intelligence. His goal was to justify that African Americans are capable of accomplishing the same things.

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While Cullen’s works often include negativity and his feelings of anger towards white people, Hughes displays his optimism and hope for equality in the future despite the unfortunate and unfair circumstances at the time. Unlike Cullen, Hughes does not exhibit hatred or negative feelings towards white people. While Hughes’ hopefulness is displayed throughout the majority of his works, there are two poems that undoubtedly portray his optimism towards the future. Hughes undeniably displays his hope for the future in his poem, ‘I, Too’. The poem itself revolves around hope and the fact that Hughes believed that one day, life would be easier for the black community and the world will see equality. In the beginning of the poem, Hughes describes his place in the world as he writes “[He] [is] the darker brother./ They send [him] to eat in the kitchen/ When company comes”, indicating that because he is different, he is not to socialize and converse with the white people (2-4). Hughes then writes “Tomorrow,/ [He’ll] be at the table/ When company comes” and that “Nobody’ll dare/ Say to [him],/ ‘Eat in the kitchen’” signifying that one day he will not be seen as different, discriminated against, or told to leave because of the color of his skin or any part of his physical appearance (8-13). Hughes’ hope for the future is conspicuous as he is implying that he has no doubt that there will be a change in the future. Hughes explains that just because there is still segregation and inequality today, does not mean they will be there tomorrow. Furthermore, in ‘Theme for English B’, Hughes expresses that he is an equal individual to a white man as they can share common interests and feel the same emotions. Tarver also points out that an important element to remember about this poem is that it was written to Hughes’ teacher in an all-white writing course. Tarver describes it as an ‘effective heuristic’, implying that the poem can teach someone something new and help them discover something they had not yet known of. This poem holds extreme significance as he is stating that they are all Americans, despite their skin color or background. Hughes describes his interests by writing that “[He] [likes] to eat sleep, drink, and be in love” and later writes that “[He] [guesses] being colored doesn’t make [him] not like/ the same things other folks like who are other races” (21, 25-26). This section is crucial as he is essentially trying to explain that people are made to share interests and find joy in the same things as all people are equal. The most essential part of the message is that all humans eat, sleep, and drink; these are crucial but basic elements of survival. However, his choice to include “be in love” is intriguing and stands out as being in love is a very raw, real, and human concept. As important as eating, sleeping, and drinking are, being in love is not necessary for survival; however, it is a feeling that all people are capable of. His choice to include this concept proves that there is a very true and real commonality between all people. He proceeds to ask “So will my page be colored that I write?” (27). Hughes is asking that because he is colored, does that mean every single thing he creates will be marked as colored too? His point is almost inarguable as he explains that all people are capable of the same achievements and those achievements are not marked with a person’s race. These works are very strong representations of the points of equality and optimism that Hughes dedicated his life and his works to prove.

While Hughes is hopeful that equality is soon to come, Cullen is pessimistic and angry towards oppression, discrimination, and white people. He displays this pessimism and feelings of pain and suffering by the recurring theme of death. The theme clearly adds a certain sense of heaviness to his writing. Cullen’s anger and pessimism towards white people and discrimination is greatly expressed in the poem ‘To Certain Critics’. His anger is expressed as he uses harsh words such as “traitor”, “betray” and “pain”, as well as exclamation marks to add emphasis (1,3,10). Cullen argues that “No racial option narrows grief,/ Pain is no patriot”, arguing that every race feels pain and grief; there is no way out of it (9-10). Cullen clearly wants change and wants the world to move on and integrate, but he is stuck in a pit of anger towards the white people as they have it easier and can live more comfortable lives. He ends the poem with a question: “How shall the shepherd heart then thrill/ To only the darker lamb?” (15-16). Cullen is asking society how they could discriminate against only African Americans if they are the same as white people and all other races on the inside. He is angry and frustrated that African Americans are suffering daily from discrimination and that white people simply cannot understand their true struggle and pain as they do not go through anything similar to it. Cullen incorporates death, pain, and suffering into his heavy and dark poem ‘The Loss of Love’. The poem explains his belief that losing a loved one is worse than dying. Cullen writes that after losing a loved one “[He] [has] no will to weep or sing,/ No desire to pray or curse”, portraying that he loses all hope and motivation (21-22). At this point, Cullen is hopeless and sees no point in going through life. He then argues that “The loss of love is a terrible thing;/ They lie who say that death is worse” meaning he would rather die than experience somebody he loves die (23-24). This poem is extremely heavy and the tone is clearly depressing and hopeless. Cullen is describing his misery and grief as someone close to him dies. He expresses the pain and suffering and describes his blood as cold and his wish that he was in their place. Although ‘The Loss of Love’ focuses much less on racial inequality and discrimination, the poem undoubtedly portrays elements of darkness and suffering as opposed to Hughes’ optimism and bliss. Owen Dodson states that Cullen’s work skillfully combines emotion and intellect and that he also includes the ‘agony of being black in America’ as well as the ‘hurt pride’. Conclusively, Cullen’s pessimism as well as recurring themes of death, pain, and anger provide a very heavy and deep tone, while Hughes often incorporates elements of optimism and joy.

Although Hughes and Cullen have many differences in their works, they also share a common similarity as both often speak of freedom and dreams in their works. Hughes repeatedly incorporates the themes of freedom and dreams and how beautiful freedom will be when African Americans achieve it. In Hughes’ poem ‘Dream Variations’ he expresses his wish for freedom away from prejudice and racial discrimination. He discusses the beauty of freedom as well as his dreams of a free and easy lifestyle. Hughes dreams that he is able “To whirl and to dance” under the sun with his arms wide (3). He wishes to be able to run around freely and carelessly and have the same freedom that white people have. Pardo explains Hughes’ use of his own experiences to relate to people and display the true lifestyle of a black man during this time period. In this case, Hughes is describing his own wishes and desires in order to relate to other people that wish for the same things. His free and loose style in this poem demonstrates the beauty of freedom and his hopefulness that he will feel it one day along with the rest of the black community. Furthermore, another one of Hughes’ poems, ‘Life is Fine’, is not one of Hughes’ well-known poems, but does share certain characteristics with his other works. The poem is about a man who contemplates and attempts suicide but fails, which makes him realize that since he is still alive, he might as well live on, and he is still there for a reason. Although the story of the poem appears to be dark, it is actually quite positive and optimistic. Hughes writes “So since [he’s] still here livin’,/ [He] [guesses] [he] will live on” as the man realizes that he stayed alive for a reason. Towards the end of the poem, Hughes writes “Life is fine! Fine as wine! Life is fine!”, which lightens the mood and displays optimism. The positive message of the poem is that there is always something to live for and that that is the reason that the speaker could not follow through with ending his life. Thus, by displaying his optimism and using the recurring themes of freedom and dreams, Hughes idealizes freedom, in a way, encouraging many African Americans as they dream of the freedom, they will one day have.

Although Cullen takes a more pessimistic approach, he also incorporates the theme of freedom in many of his works. The most significant is ‘To a Brown Boy’. In the poem, Cullen is appreciating the beauty of his culture, and there is a great deal of hidden speech of equality. He is arguing that in the end, everybody ends up in the same place, and skin color will no longer matter as a body is just a body. He is simply stating that every person is free when they die because race and background no longer matter once a person is no longer living. Cullen utilizes the words “loveliness” and “beauty”, which adds a type of flow just as seen in Hughes’ work. He states that “That brown girl’s swagger gives a twitch/ To beauty like a queen” as he describes the beauty of his heritage and culture (1-2). Cullen later argues that when a person dies and becomes part of the ground “Men will not ask if that rare earth/ Was white flesh once, or brown” signifying that all people are equal and capable of the same things, and all humans start and end in the same place (11-12). This message is extremely influential and powerful as he proves that all people are made the same and that all are free once death is reached as the color of one’s skin or their background is no longer relevant. Essentially, Hughes and Cullen are alike in the fact that both discuss freedom and equality repeatedly throughout their writing.

Ultimately, while Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen undoubtedly took very different approaches in their writing and poetry, both wanted the same thing: racial equality. As Hughes took a much more optimistic approach and chose to focus on authenticity and the celebration of black culture, many of Cullen’s works are darker and heavier, and he wanted to prove that black and white men are equally capable and intelligent. Both Hughes and Cullen played significant roles during the Harlem Renaissance, and their names, as well as their works, will live on as they helped shape and influence the world today.

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