The Harlem renaissance is a cultural and artistic movement that changed the nature of African American literature and experience. The poetry of the movement was imbued with personal and third party political and social experiences. There is a raging debate on whether the movement was one of social and political propaganda or that of just the development of art. This paper builds on Du Bois’ assertion that all art is propaganda and should be treated as such. It also explores the claim that the movement was partly a modernist exploit that was aiming at creating a new form of art unique to the African American experience but borrowing from the Anglo-American and British heritage.
In 1926, W. E. B. Du Bois published an essay titled “Criteria of Negro Art”. In it he expounded that all art was propaganda and he ever must be. He goes on to claim that “despite the wailing of puristswhatever art I have for writing has been used always for propaganda for gaining the right of black folk to love and enjoy” (Du Bois n.p.). Du Bois believed that art was inseparable from any talk or discussion of social change and reform. The discussion of art had to also be a discussion of individual rights. Sherrard-Johnson observes that Du Bois’ understanding of art as a social instrument to effect change was adopted by iconic Harlem Renaissance poets like Langston Hughes who went on to assert that all art needed to be racial (120). It has been argued that for Harlem Renaissance poets, “the definition and relevance of propaganda were important questions for literary practice” (Walkowitz 502). By understanding propaganda it was understood that then could the poems find ways to describe and analyze racial individuality in their artistic expression. Propaganda is best understood by considering critical theory which was the backdrop of early African American literary criticism. Sherrard-Johnson notes that a parallel anxiety about the relationship between poems and their social functions dominated earlier debates in the times of Du Bois and other early 20th century African American writers (120). This debate spilled into the Renaissance period. The debate on the role of art in society can be well understood by understanding what is considered good art and what is not. Did the propagandist nature of most renaissance literature aid in helping critics label the art not as good enough? What is apparent in the Harlem Renaissance is the presence of what Foucault called subjugated knowledge, this “body of knowledge that had been disqualified as inadequate” and not as erudite enough. It seems like the whole discussion on art versus propaganda is a discussion on the nature of genuine art and possibility of the black man to escape the social and political contours and develop a politics free art which in essence is absurd. Tyson observes that although a discussion of literary language and style is a discussion on poeticsit is also a discussion of politics. The literary style of African American writers cannot be separated from their politics (347). There is an understanding in Harlem Renaissance poetry that African American literature is unique and not universal. This uniqueness is a result of the unique political and social context that defines the African American experience.
What makes the Harlem Renaissance a revolutionary episode in black poetry is the ways in which writers tried to fuse their political message with a style that was distinctly Anglo-American and sometimes heavily British. The poetry of Claude MacKay was schooled in English Shakespearean tradition. It had what Johnson termed “extreme traditionalism” (168). He was educated in Elizabethan lyrics. McKay despite his militant words has been criticized for his adherence to the traditional British style. There are a number of critics who defend McKay’s use of British style as part of the protest and propaganda at work. In the poem “Harlem Shadows” McKay shows his mastery of the British traditional style. The poem is written in iambic pentameter with three quatrains, a strict adherence to the sonnet style. Hoagwood sees more to the use of the sonnet form than just a mastery of the British style. There is that element of Du Bois’ propaganda, this time in style form rather than in the meaning of words. The poem appears like a sonnet but it is an inflection. It “shifts the tone and subject-matter from the traditional tropes of love” to a more militant concern with revolution and change (Hoagwood 52). The poem rather concentrates on the experience of the black man in Harlem who knows “poverty dishonor and disgrace” (McKay 14). It is apparent then that the structure and form of McKay’s poetry “does not imprison his message but sets it free” (Hoagwood 53).
Langston Hughes believed that poetry was another means for politics. He famously noted that “politics in any country in the world is dangerous. For the poet, politics in any country in the world had better be disguised as poetryPolitics can be the graveyard of the poet. And only poetry can be his resurrection” (Walkowitz 497). Langston Hughes is considered “the Bard of Harlem”. The title “Bard of Harlem” came off Hughes’ ways of capturing the cultural and political developments of this particular time in American history. Walkowitz believes that Hughes has a twofold proposition. One is the concealment of politics in poetry and the second proposition was that poetry was “constitutive of a politics it is often thought to transcend” (Walkowitz 495). In Hughes we see the debate of art versus propaganda in play. Hughes was aware that his art was a form of political propaganda. It was informed by the desire for social and political change. Art even though it was supposed to be independent and defy social boundaries, the aesthetic standards were shaped by social institutions and racialized principles of judgement (Walkowitz 496). In Hughes there is a twofold struggle at play, there is the desire to get acceptance into the traditional literary circles of art and also the need to create a distinct form of black or African American poetic experience. Critics recognized in Hughes work a painful choice one had to make between poetry as art and poetry as propaganda. Rampersad in relation to Hughes’ poetry notes that “Hack propagandists do not know how to write genuine poems; but a genuine poet who writes propaganda (as many have done) engages in a conscious faithlessness to art” (Vendler 37; Walkowitz 201).
Langston Hughes’s poetry is full of vivid political and social imagery that still has an effect on present day America. He is rather well known for his poetry that was political and revolutionary in style and themes. “Johannesburg Mines”, “A Song to the Negro Wash Woman” and “Formula” are some of Hughes’ bold political poems laden with heavy political themes. His political activity is not just apparent in poems but also in his essays. This is specifically reflected in the essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” which was a strong rebuke and criticism of artist who felt that real black art had to be purged of all political references. For Hughes, the desire to be a genuine poet was to some extent an implicit need to be white. To remove all elements in artistic expression that had anything to do with black struggles. Walkowitz denotes that Hughes always considered the relationship between as politics and art and he was aware of the many ways in which it was difficult to make art that was political. There was an implicit acknowledgement that there was a paradox of “political writing in aesthetic form, that the poet’s inability to capture, in writing, the gravity of his subject or the danger that the aesthetic form might undermine that gravity” (Walkowitz 506). Hughes however managed to bridge the gap between aesthetics in art and politics by making his focus more on the black experience rather than the broader Marxist concerns with class and class struggles. This exploration is apparent in poems like “Johannesburg Mines” which is very political in nature but manages to transcend the assertion that great poetry cannot be explicitly political. The fate of the 240, 000 toiling Africans is explored and he asks “what kind of poem/would you/ make out of that” (43). He successfully manages to make this poem by the mere reference to the shocking number of Africans serving white apartheid interests in colonial South Africa. Walkowitz observes that Langston Hughes manages to transform a political statistic in the poem “Johannesburg Mines” into poetry.
In the poetry of Claude MacKay the politics versus art debate takes on a different form. McKay in form wanted to stay closer to older tradition but in meaning he was militant and some extent too militant and threatening. Unlike Hughes, McKay employed traditional literary structures in his poems. His work was pure political propaganda which affected literary styles and meaning of later African American poets. His work like the poem “If We Must Die” exudes anger and dissatisfaction. It sounds like a call to action against all forms of oppression.
In both McKay and Hughes’ poetry there is implicit political propaganda. There is the politics of American identity. They explored the question on why black people found it difficult to be American and why society found it difficult to accept people as part of the history and identity. McKay and Hughes’ poetry tried to redefine what was and what should be considered American. Double consciousness as a theme is explicitly explored. In the poems “America” and “I Too (Sing America)” Hughes and McKay takes their artistic propaganda to a higher level. They explore the contours of what it means to be both black and American in a culturally and politically divided world. Identity struggles constitute the dominant themes of most of Harlem renaissance period. I poems like “I Too (Sing America)”, “Dreams Deferred”, “Dark Shadows” and “America”, we see the persona trying to identify with both the American and the black and in most cases they do not get an resolution other than the understanding that there are American and deserve a place at the table.
Besides a similarity of themes between McKay and Hughes there also exist a similarity of style. The difference between the two was that McKay even though he wanted to subvert English literary forms; he relied heavily on them even in some of his most militant poems like “If We Must Die”. Hughes however “questioned the universal accessibility of poetic forms and suggested that literary traditions imply or create cultural coherence where there might be cultural difference” Walkowitz (510). Even in works that employed the English lyric traditional form like the poem “Ph.D” Hughes tries to subvert the lyric and sonnet form. The political nature of Hughes is captured in the poem “Shakespeare in Harlem”. It is an attempt at presenting how Shakespeare would sound had he lived and written in Harlem. Even in this poem Hughes cannot avoid being political. He takes his politics to the form and style of poetry. The propaganda here lies in an attempt to show that despite the utterances of so many of the Harlem poets, they still were addicted to and revered traditional English poetic structures.
The Harlem Renaissance is a critical period in the 20th century development of a unique form of African American art. There is a deep yearning for creation of art that speaks to the community and a desire not to separate art from the unique African American experience. By seeing art as propaganda, the poets of the Harlem Renaissance managed to passionately capture the social and political context while not compromising style and form. Critical theory helps us in understanding the underlying themes of much of Harlem Renaissance poetry especially, the propaganda nature of art.
Hoagwood, Terrence. Claude McKay’s Harlem Shadows. The Explicator 68.1 (2010), 51-54.
Hughes, Langston. “I Too (Sing America)”. Poetry Foundation. Web 7 Jul. 2015.
McKay, Claude. “America”. Poetry Foundation. Web 7 Jul. 2015.
Sherrard-Johnson, Cherene. A Companion to the Harlem Renaissance. John Wiley & Sons,
Walkowitz, Rebecca. L. Shakespeare in Harlem: The Norton Anthology, “Propaganda” Langston
Hughes. Modern Language Quarterly, 1999.