The poetry that was created during the Harlem Renaissance was typical of the attitudes of the times; Poets of the time vented their frustrations at the new conflicts that arose from the growing modernity of America, and the struggle to integrate with an increasingly disinterested and prejudiced culture. Black authors attempted to find their place in the modern world, and their poetry exemplified that struggle. In this essay, we will examine how several poems and addresses – including Countee Cullen’s “Yet Do I Marvel” and Claude McKay’s “Harlem Shadows” – explore their cultural and historical contexts through their prose and form. The Harlem Renaissance allowed the artists of the time to act as advocates and spokespeople for the rage and hopelessness that was being encountered every day by blacks living in a white world, where they felt they had no place.
Countee Cullen’s “Yet Do I Marvel” is yet another instance of African-American despair at the hands of racism in the 1920s, but his poem implies just as much curiosity as Hughes does at the circumstances that black find themselves in. He begins the poem by reminding the audience that he does not doubt that “God is good, well meaning, kind”; there is no bitterness regarding his fate. However, he is indeed curious as to why God would make a world in which all of these terrible things happen – he references the torture of Tantalus, the death of parents and children, the Sisyphean punishment, and more. These images and situations are metaphors for the continual black struggle to do things that the white culture prevents them from doing, as they are segregated and marginalized.
Cullen, instead of getting angry, merely resigns himself to his fate, as he says that he simple cannot understand why God would do these things, though He surely has a good reason – “Inscrutible His ways are, and immune / to catechism by a mind too strewn / With petty cares to slightly understand / What awful brain compels His awful hand” (Cullen, lines 9-12). While he calls God ‘awful,’ he also says there is likely a good reason for his behavior. It is actually a type of passive-aggressiveness that Cullen exerts in the poem, stating that he has no idea why God would create black poets if not for them to suffer; “Yet do I marvel at this curious thing: / To make a poet black, and bid him sing!” (Cullen, lines 13-14). He is talking primarily about the continued struggle for black artists to find an audience and a voice in the Harlem Renaissance; because it is nearly impossible for a black poet to ‘sing,’ Cullen views it as the most awful bit of torture. Black poets like him feel compelled to sing by some sort of unearthly passion or drive; yet, God chooses to place them in a world where they will not be allowed to express their gifts. This, to him, is the ultimate punishment (Cullen, 1926).
Claude McKay’s “Harlem Shadows” is yet another instance of a black man exploring the downtrodden state of the African-American in the 1920s, centering in on Harlem nightlife. In the poem, he describes the activity of the black girls in Harlem who operate as prostitutes because they have no other way out. The dire circumstances of these girls are made clear in McKay’s prose; he describes them as “little dark girls” and states that “through the long night until the silver break / Of day the little gray feet know no rest” (McKay, lines 7-8). They are forced to work all throughout the night, servicing white men in order to make ends meet. This is described as a shameful, degrading practice, but one that is necessary for them to have food on the table.
McKay’s prose differs from Hughes, in that McKay demands that blacks be respected as a race, while Hughes merely laments their downfall. Hughes simply wishes to be understood, while McKay is somewhat angry with whites and white culture for marginalizing his people so much. He describes the earth as having a “white breast,” indicating his opinion that the world is dominated by whites and their culture. This is identified as a primary reason why the black culture has deteriorated so much, to the point where little dark girls have to go out at night and whore themselves out for money, “trudging, thinly shod, from street to street” (McKay, line 12).
In conclusion, artists of the Harlem Renaissance used the medium of art, literature and music to convey the black experience in a way that was only then receiving a wider audience; this allowed them to discuss openly the disappointment and frustration that came about from societal prejudices and their institutionalized disadvantage. Countee Cullen discussed, through the poem “Yet Do I Marvel,” the idea that God was a cruel man who allowed a marginalized people to wish for things beyond their reach, torturing them through their desires for equality and expression of art. Also, Claude McKay’s “Harlem Shadows” demonstrates the plight of young prostitutes in Harlem, as a metaphor for the weariness of blacks who attempt to overcome their station. These poems exemplify the frustration that African-Americans felt at the racial environment of early 20th century America, the Harlem Renaissance finally granting them the stage from which to tell these stories.
Cullen, C. (2013). "Yet Do I Marvel." Poetry Foundation. http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/171320.
McKay, C. (2013). "Harlem Shadows." Poets.org. Retrieved from http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/21301.
Sayre, H. M. (2012). The Humanities: Culture, continuity and change, Volume 2 (2nd ed.). (2011 Custom Edition). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education.