The fact that African American history, culture, and especially literature means so much to me can be (and probably should be) cause for suspicion. But rather than in futility attempt to submerge into my own motives (and the motives for those motives, and the motives for the motives of those motives), I’d like to offer some quotes (and maybe, maybe not) some later meanderings of my own about specific writers. The latter might even be instructive for someone.
Today’s offering comes from the “Harlem Renaissance” writers — a group of names which came into prominence between the start of the twentieth century and the 1929 stock market crash. The list of names varies from historian to historian, some requiring that the writers lived in Harlem while others requiring only that the writer be relationally or psychologically involved with the movement.
Arguably one of the earliest voices of the movement, Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906) had deeply Christian sensibilities and wrote with elequence nearly unmatched. His “We Wear the Mask” seems astonishingly blunt considering the era when he wrote it. But with the background being that of a post-W.E.B. Dubois world where the latter’s 1903 The Souls of Black Folk had helped transform the race issue to one of white more than one of black, Dunbar’s sentiments gain context.
We Wear the Mask
- We wear the mask that grins and lies,
- It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes-
- This debt we pay to human guile;
- With torn and bleeding hearts we smile
- And mouth with myriad subtleties,
- Why should the world be over-wise,
- In counting all our tears and sighs?
- Nay, let them only see us, while
- We wear the mask.
- We smile, but oh great Christ, our cries
- To Thee from tortured souls arise.
- We sing, but oh the clay is vile
- Beneath our feet, and long the mile,
- But let the world dream otherwise,
- We wear the mask!
Langston Hughes (1902-1967) may have been the best known of the movement’s writers at the time, and his abilities remain evident. Hughes’ poetry captured the agony of race in many tones. Some poems, such as his tragic and stark “Cross,” jab right to the point:
My old man’s a white old man
And my old mother’s black.
If ever I cursed my white old man
I take my curses back.
If ever I cursed my black old mother
And wished she were in hell,
I’m sorry for that evil wish
And now I wish her well
My old man died in a fine big house.
My ma died in a shack.
I wonder were I’m going to die,
Being neither white nor black?
Other of Hughes’ poems are (would we expect different?) about simple, painful love, such as “La Vie C’est la Vie,” or while dealing with matters of race take a more subtle and nuanced approach, such as “Letter to My Sister”:
Letter to My Sister
It is dangerous for a woman to defy the gods;
To taunt them with the tongue’s thin tip,
Or strut in the weakness of mere humanity,
Or draw a line daring them to cross;
The gods own the searing lightning,
The drowning waters, tormenting fears
And anger of red sins.
Oh, but worse still if you mince timidly–
Dodge this way or that, or kneel or pray,
Be kind, or sweat agony drops
Or lay your quick body over your feeble young;
If you have beauty or none, if celibate
Or vowed–the gods are Juggernaut,
Passing over . . . over . . .
This you may do:
Lock your heart, then, quietly,
And lest they peer within,
Light no lamp when dark comes down
Raise no shade for sun;
Breathless must your breath come through
If you’d die and dare deny
The gods their god-like fun.
A fellow poet, known and appreciated by Hughes, was Claude McKay. His poetry was erotic, defiant, yet contained tremors of faith which later in his life flowered into a conversion to Catholicism. All those notes are struck in “Harlem Shadows”:
I hear the halting footsteps of a lass
In Negro Harlem when the night lets fall
Its veil. I see the shapes of girls who pass
To bend and barter at desire’s call.
Ah, little dark girls who in slippered feet
Go prowling through the night from street to street!
Through the long night until the silver break
Of day the little gray feet know no rest;
Through the lone night until the last snow-flake
Has dropped from heaven upon the earth’s white breast,
The dusky, half-clad girls of tired feet
Are trudging, thinly shod, from street to street.
Ah, stern harsh world, that in the wretched way
Of poverty, dishonor and disgrace,
Has pushed the timid little feet of clay,
The sacred brown feet of my fallen race!
Ah, heart of me, the weary, weary feet
In Harlem wandering from street to street.
And his cries to a lover seem of a piece with his cries to God, as “A Red Flower” and “Prayer” prove:
A Red Flower
- YOUR lips are like a southern lily red,
- Wet with the soft rain-kisses of the night,
- In which the brown bee buries deep its head,
- When still the dawn’s a silver sea of light.
- Your lips betray the secret of your soul,
- The dark delicious essence that is you,
- A mystery of life, the flaming goal
- I seek through mazy pathways strange and new.
- Your lips are the red symbol of a dream,
- What visions of warm lilies they impart,
- That line the green bank of a fair blue stream,
- With butterflies and bees close to each heart!
- Brown bees that murmur sounds of music rare,
- That softly fall upon the langourous breeze,
- Wafting them gently on the quiet air
- Among untended avenues of trees.
- O were I hovering, a bee, to probe
- Deep down within your scented heart, fair flower,
- Enfolded by your soft vermilion robe,
- Amorous of sweets, for but one perfect hour!
- ‘MID the discordant noises of the day I hear thee calling;
- I stumble as I fare along Earth’s way; keep me from falling.
- Mine eyes are open but they cannot see for gloom of night:
- I can no more than lift my heart to thee for inward light.
- The wild and fiery passion of my youth consumes my soul;
- In agony I turn to thee for truth and self-control.
- For Passion and all the pleasures it can give will die the death;
- But this of me eternally must live, thy borrowed breath.
- ‘Mid the discordant noises of the day I hear thee calling;
- I stumble as I fare along Earth’s way; keep me from falling.
Tomorrow or soon… I will offer a few more quotes and thoughts (mostly quotes) from my personal African-American literary favorites, including Ralph Ellison (who knocks me out), James Baldwin, and Richard Wright. A note: yes, I realize my taste is decidedly male-centric. This is not a-purpose, mind you. I’ll do a post on feminine African-American voices (fromPhillis Wheatley to Toni Morrison).