Saturday, January 23, 2010

Using Traditional Forms and Beliefs to Break Traditional Prejudices: McKay, Johnson, and Hughes

I'm not a scholar of the Harlem Renaissance, though I much admire its writing, so I feel I should start with a disclaimer that the following are impressions based on a number of my own readings and not a well-researched scholarly argument.  That said, reading Claude McKay, James Weldon Johnson, and Langston Hughes together, what most struck me today was how they invoke tradition to break tradition.  All three draw on traditions of Christian belief and on traditional poetic forms to challenge the tradition of American racial prejudice. 

In the two 1945 poems we read, McKay seems fairly hostile to Christianity as practiced in the United States, though he himself was a devout Catholic by this point in his life (Nelson 314).  In "The Negro's Tragedy," he writes that "Only a thorn-crowned Negro and no white/ Can penetrate the Negro's ken" and in "Look Within," he reflects, "Jesus said: You whited sepulchre,/ Pretending to be uncorrupt of sin,/ While worm-infested, rotten through within!"  The tone is angry and accusatory, but who can blame him?  I imagine that years of living in a self-professedly Christian society that continues to allow racial prejudice and segregation would be enough to make anyone bitter.  It's not the Christian faith he attacks, but the "believer" who professes faith but commits acts of hatred.  In other words, he uses the tradition of Christianity to illuminate hypocrisy.

I wonder if his choice of poetic form, the Shakespearean sonnet, has a similar effect?  It's a form associated with love poetry, but here we see how little love is operating in American social systems.  Nelson writes that "McKay would take the romance and consolations of the historical sonnet and replace them with a hand grenade of protest," thus reconceiving "the meaning of a centuries-long tradition" (314).  If there's love here, it is the love of McKay for his own people, a love that's made stronger in the face of the brutality and racial hatred that surrounds him.

James Weldon Johnson, like McKay, writes in traditional rhymed and metered verse, but he also celebrates the poetry of negro spirituals.  In "O Black and Unknown Bards," he writes,

Not that great German master in his dream
Of harmonies that thundered amongst the stars
At the creation, ever heard a theme
Nobler than "Go Down, Moses." (25-8)

Thus, the great classical musicians are revealed to be no more brilliant than "those who've sung untaught, unknown, unnamed" (39).  He reminds me very much here of Virginia Woolf writing of the hypothetical sister of Shakespeare she creates in A Room of One's Own" to lament the lost genius of those whom social bias deemed unworthy of either education or celebration. 

Johnson ends the poem by giving the "bards" his highest praise, writing that they "sang a race from wood and stone to Christ" (48).  In short, their song transformed his people from a primitive society to a God-fearing one.  For me, these lines recall the debate over the relationship of modern Black Americans to Africa that continued throughout the Harlem Renaissance and into present day.  Johnson seems to be disowning his African ancestors in favor of the American slaves who could create a religion-inspired music.

Langston Hughes seems to represent the other side of this debate when he writes, "I am Negro:/ Black as the night is black/ Black like the depths of my Africa" ("Negro" 1-3) and, later in the same poem, "I've been a singer: All the way from Africa to Georgia" (10-11).  Hughes embraces his ancestry and makes it a point of pride. 

His choice of poetic form, however, ties him to the most American of American poets: Walt Whitman.  Not only does Hughes tend to employ free verse, but the style of his free verse with its lists and repetitions of syntactical forms draw on Whitman's style in "Song of Myself" and other poems.  (Side note: Hughes responded directly to Whitman's "I Hear America Singing" in his poem "I, Too, Sing America," which unfortunately is not collected in Modern American Poetry.)

While the poems that we read for class do not reflect Hughes's feeling on Christianity, his frustration, like McKay's, comes to light in "Christ in Alabama" on page 508.  His writing here is fierce, drawing the hypocrisy of the South that purported to be the Bible Belt, a leader in Christian values, but that long supported first slavery and then segregation and racial violence.  Like McKay, his anger is both potent and all too understandable.

I'm fascinated by the ways Harlem Renaissance writers employed high culture's traditions to call attention to the racial divide that those traditions had long ignored.  The quotation of and use of tradition is typical of Modernist writers, yet these poets seem to deploy the tradition in a more unified purpose. 

I'm in awe.

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