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Langston Hughes: A Cultural Era With A Brilliant Poet

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Musical and artistic yet segregative describes the Harlem Renaissance. The Harlem Renaissance lasted from 1918-1930s in New York and the era was especially remembered for African Americans expressing themselves in new ways. The Great Migration was a significant event that set the tone for the future progressivism of the Harlem Renaissance. It was when African Americans moved from the south to the north. Limited economic opportunities and segregation laws against them was the main reason they wanted to move north. Despite all the laborious trek up north, African Americans still had competition for jobs and living space. They also dealt with segregation from the white community. Langston Hughes took this cultural movement to his advantage and let his gift in jazz poetry grow. If Langston Hughes had not been in the Harlem Renaissance then he would have obviously not have made the revolutionary impact that has been remembered since. He was the “father” of jazz poetry and made the world of poetry more diverse. The Great Migration affected Langston because it gave him an opportunity to connect with people through poetry.

Influencers, culture, and music were key parts that make up the Harlem Renaissance. This literary time period had many things that made it significant; many poets, musicians, artists, and many others showed their gifts and talents when they moved to Harlem and got a lot of attention from it. Many influencers used their platform or fame to define their culture. Louis Armstrong was a trumpeter, singer, bandleader, soloist, comedian, and film star. He even “recorded several songs throughout his career, including he is known for songs like ‘Star Dust,’ ‘La Vie En Rose’ and ‘What a Wonderful World” (Biography.com 1). Armstrong also was the

first African-American jazz musician to write an autobiography that was named Swing That Music (Biography.com 1). Another big person in this time period was A. Philip Randolph. He was a social activist and a labor leader. “He later founded the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, which by 1937 would become the first official African-American labor union” (Biography.com 1). Randolf was even the force that ended racial discrimination in government defense.

The culture was changing and adapting in a lot of different ways during the Harlem Renaissance. Harlem, which is located in New York, used to be a Caucasian populated area in the early 1920s, but it soon became an African American populated neighborhood. It turned into “a catalyst for artistic experimentation and a highly popular nightlife destination” (Britannica.com 4). It also “had an extraordinarily diverse and decentred black social world in which no one group could monopolize cultural authority” (Britannica.com 4).

Music was a critical part of African American cultural identity and the Harlem Renaissance itself. Music was what drove this era. Jazz was one of the most popular music genres during this time period. It “defined culture and cool for blacks and white alike, in America, and around the world” (A New African American Identity 7). The ““jazz and swing” showed “a realistic representation of what it meant to be black in America” (A New African American Identity 5).

Influencers, culture, and music were all key parts in the Harlem Renaissance, but so was literature. Poetry was one of the most famous genres from the literature side of this era, and there are many different types. Jazz poetry, created by Langston Hughes, was one the most

recognized because it was something new and exciting. Many poets brought their own taste to their work and that made poetry stand out in the Harlem Renaissance. Famous poets, jazz poetry, and major themes or characteristics in poetry during the Harlem Renaissance is crucial to know and understand the literature in this time period. Many poets made a big impact in literature, like Claude McKay, a Jamaican-born novelist and poet. He published “two volumes of poetry, Spring in New Hampshire (1920) and Harlem Shadows(1922)” (Britannica 2). His works is about “celebrating peasant life in Jamaica to poems challenging white authority in America… and tales of black life in both Jamaica and America to more philosophically ambitious fiction addressing instinctual/intellectual duality, which McKay found central to the black individual’s efforts to cope in a racist society” (Claude McKay 1). McKay even inspired Langston Hughes to write poetry. Jessie Faucet was another famous poet in the Harlem Renaissance. Not only did she just write poetry, she also wrote essays and novels. Faucet “was active during the Harlem Renaissance, an awakening of artistic output within the African-American ecommunity” (Biography.com 7). As well as “encouraged a number of writers, including Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer and Claude McKay” (Biography.com 7).

Jazz poetry during the Harlem Renaissance changed the world of literature. The most popular or well-known type of poetry was jazz poetry and it was created in this era. Jazz poetry often “encompasses a variety of forms, rhythms, and sounds” (A Brief Guide To Jazz Poetry 1).

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Authors who used this type of poetry tried to “…read to the accompaniment of jazz music” (Britannica 1). Authors also tried to “emulate the rhythms and freedom of the music in their poetry” (Britannica 1). Others even read their poems in a “syncopated and rhythmic style” (Britannica 1) and “collaborated with musicians” (Britannica 1) for their audience!

The major themes and characteristics of poetry in the Harlem Renaissance is essential to understand this literary form. Poetry in this era often included experiences African Americans felt. Many poets wrote about the “themes of migration—from Africa to the United States, from slavery and the south to industrial jobs in the urban north—were common. Poetry of the Renaissance also addressed themes of American identity and the American dream” (Gish 3). Also they often wrote about their experiences like in “The Weary Blues” by Langston Hughes he wrote “he played that sad raggy tune like a musical fool… coming from a man’s soul… in a deep song voice with a melancholy tone… I heard a Negro sing, that old piano man…” (Hughes 1). Poets used many things in their poems but the most common one was “the repetitive structure and recurring themes of blues music characterise the structure of many Renaissance poems… in its references to the black American past and experience of slavery, poetry of the era often alluded to African American spirituals” (Gish 4).

The famous poets, jazz poetry, and major themes and characteristics during the Harlem Renaissance is crucial to know and understand the literature in this time period, but without poets there would be no such thing as poetry. One of the most famous poets was Langston Hughes. He was very famous for combing his love for jazz with his love for poetry. Hughes made his “big break” during the Harlem Renaissance. Langston’s life, main works, and his methods on how he impacted the Harlem Renaissance are things that made him to the person we know and read today. Hughes’ life was

like a rollercoaster. He was born on February 1, 1902 in Joplin, Missouri and his full name was James Mercer Langston Hughes. Carrie Langston and James Hughes, his parents, got divorced soon after he was born. So he had no choice but to live with his grandma, but after she passed away, Langston decided to live with his mother in Cleveland, Ohio. He attended school where he was first introduced poems by Walt Whitman and Carl Sandburg, “it was during this time that Hughes first began to write poetry” (Biography.com 23). He also was “a regular contributor to his school’s literary magazine, and frequently submitted to other poetry magazines, although they would ultimately reject him” (Biography.com 23). Langston enrolled at Columbia University and soon got involved in the Harlem Renaissance. He moved to several places and he still published his poetry when he settled in Paris for a short period of time. He eventually moved back to the United States and he worked as a busboy in a hotel, that was when he met Vachel Lindsay. Hughes showed Lindsay some of his poems to him and he brought him to a bigger audience to present his poetry to. After he got a scholarship from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, he got recognized by a famous poet named Carl Vechten, who helped him publish his poetry by Knopf. Once he graduated Lincoln, he traveled giving lectures to schools and around this time, he got involved in the Chicago Defender. As well as help write lyrics for a Broadway musical called

Street Scene which soon raised enough money to buy a house in Harlem. Throughout his adult-life, he continually published poems or novels. On May 22, 1967, he passed away due to prostate cancer. His main works were very popular and still is today. “The Weary Blues” was popular throughout the Harlem Renaissance. This poem was published in 1926 by Knopf and won in the

Opportunity magazine literary competition coming in as first place. Another well known poem of his is “Let America Be America Again” which was published in 1936. It “examined the unrealized hopes and dreams of the country’s lower class and disadvantaged, expressing a sense of hope that the American Dream would one day arrive” (Biography.com 12). The “Montage of a

Dream Deferred” was published in 1951, it included “ how the American Dream falls short for African Americans” (Biography.com 18).

Langston Hughes impacted the Harlem Renaissance in many different ways. One of the ways that he impacted society was that he changed the basic format of poetry during the Harlem Renaissance. Langston “published in February 1927 under the controversial title Fine Clothes to the Jew — featured black lives outside the educated upper and middle classes, including drunks and prostitutes… black critics objected to what they felt were negative characterizations of African Americans — many black characters created by whites already consisted of caricatures and stereotypes, and these critics wanted to see positive depictions instead” (Kettler 8-9). Some people even “attacked Hughes in print, with one calling him ‘the poet low-rate of Harlem”” (Kettler 9). Not only did he change poetry but he also created a support group with other artists to reach out to African Americans and talk about larger topics such as sex and race. They decided to “collaborate on Fire!!, a magazine intended for young black artists like themselves” (Kettler 17). They used this platform to distribute their message and issues but they only put out one single which led to the decline of the support group and collaboration.

This literary time period had many things that made it significant; many poets, musicians, artists, and many others showed their gifts and talents when they moved to Harlem and got a lot of attention from it. Although many impacted Langston to start writing, the biggest impact of his was when he first got introduced poems by Walt Whitman and Carl Sandburg from his school teacher. This was the biggest impact because that was when he sparked his love for poetry and starting writing. His style was very unique but all of that was inspired by the music around him and where he lived. Hughes was inspired by this because most of his poems had a rhythmic style to it and that was based off where he lived which was in Harlem and they music he heard. This poet made a huge impact in the Harlem Renaissance and the world of poetry, he broke the boundaries of poetry and used jazz poetry. This was the most notable impact because jazz poetry was something new and exciting, also he was one of the few people who used jazz poetry in the Harlem Renaissance. In conclusion, the Harlem Renaissance was affected by Langston Hughes because he gave a new definition to poetry, represented the African American culture with pride, and gave another reason to remember this era.

Works cited

  1. ‘A Brief Guide To Jazz Poetry.’ Poets.org. 01 Feb. 2018. Academy of American Poets. 15 Feb. 2019 https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/text/brief-guide-jazz-poetry.
  2. ‘A New African American Identity: The Harlem Renaissance.’ National Museum of African American History and Culture. 14 Mar. 2018. 01 Feb. 2019 https://nmaahc.si.edu/blog-post/new-african-american-identity-harlem-renaissance.
  3. Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. ‘Claude McKay.’ Encyclopædia Britannica. 11 Sept. 2018. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. 14 Feb. 2019 https://www.britannica.com/biography/Claude-McKay.
  4. Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. ‘Jazz poetry.’ Encyclopædia Britannica. 15 Mar. 2012. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. 15 Feb. 2019 https://www.britannica.com/art/jazz-poetry.
  5. ‘Claude McKay.’ Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation. 15 Feb. 2019 https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/claude-mckay.
  6. Editors, Biography.com. ‘A. Philip Randolph Biography.’ Biography.com. 19 Jan. 2018. A&E Networks Television. 31 Jan. 2019, https://www.biography.com/people/a-philip-randolph-9451623
  7. Editors, Biography.com. ‘Jessie Fauset.’ Biography.com. 02 Apr. 2014. A&E Networks Television. 15 Feb. 2019 https://www.biography.com/people/jessie-fauset-9292341.
  8. Editors, Biography.com. “Langston Hughes.” Biography.com. A&E Networks Television, 9 Jan. 2019, www.biography.com/people/langston-hughes-9346313.
  9. Editors, Biography.com. ‘Louis Armstrong Biography.’ Biography.com. 27 Jan. 2019. A&E Networks Television. 31 Jan. 2019, https://www.biography.com/people/louis-armstrong-9188912.
  10. Editors, History.com. “Great Migration.” History.com. 04 Mar. 2010. A&E Television Networks. 30 Jan. 2019, http://www.history.com/topics/black-history/great-migration.
  11. Gish, Will. ‘Characteristics of Harlem Renaissance Poetry.’ Pen and the Pad. 10 Jan. 2019. 25 Feb. 2019 https://penandthepad.com/characteristics-harlem-renaissance-poetry-7880251.html.
  12. Hughes, Langston. “I, Too by Langston Hughes.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/47558/i-too.
  13. Hughes, Langston. “The Weary Blues by Langston Hughes.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/47347/the-weary-blues.
  14. Hutchinson, George. “Harlem Renaissance.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 13 Dec. 2018, www.britannica.com/event/Harlem-Renaissance-American-literature-and-art.
  15. Kettler, Sara. “Langston Hughes’ Impact on the Harlem Renaissance.” Biography.com, A&E Networks Television, 31 Jan. 2019, www.biography.com/news/langston-hughes-harlem-renaissance.

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