The following paper focuses on the two poets of the Harlem Renaissance – Claude McKay and James Weldon Johnson. Their role and importance within the literary movement is identified, and the major themes of their poems, If We Must Die and The Prodigal Son are highlighted. Harlem Renaissance Poets Claude McKay’s was a leading figure of the Harlem Renaissance.
His literary heritage is multifaceted: vernacular poems glorifying peasant life in Jamaica, militant poems addressed to American white authority, honest stories of black life in America and Jamaica, and, finally, philosophical reflections on the notion of “double consciousness,” which was the cornerstone of the black person’s attempts to survive in a racist society. The poet’s writings render his contempt for racism and bias, which makes its advocates loathsome and miserable. The essence of McKay’s works was brightly described by Arthur D.
Drayton, in his essay Claude McKay’s Human Pity: In seeing .
. . the significance of the Negro for mankind as a whole, he is at once protesting as a Negro and uttering a cry for the race of mankind as a member of that race. His human pity was the foundation that made all this possible. (Claude McKay, n. d. ) James Weldon Johnson was an outstanding personality, too. According to some critics, his psychological depth and demand for aesthetic coherence caused the Harlem Movement.
His works The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man and God’s Trombones brought to black literature fresh criteria of realism and artistry. Robert A. Bone, in his study The Negro Novel in America, claims that Johnson was “the only true artist among the early Negro novelists” who managed to “subordinate racial protest to artistic considerations” (Beavers, 2000). Johnson’s another merit embraces his innovative studies (in the 1920s) of black music, theatre, and poetry that helped represent the true African American creativity to white Americans.
This fact is of immense importance since, till the 1920s, the African creative mind was known only through dialect poetry and distorted minstrel shows. Apart from this, Johnson was the Head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and fought for removal of various obstacles (political, legal, and social) that encroached upon civil rights of Black people (Beavers, 2000). The elements of the “double consciousness” can be found in both writers’ poems.
In If We Must Die by Claude McKay, the author presents his vision of himself and all the black race through the eyes of white people: lines “If we must die, let it not be like hogs/ Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,” “making their mock at our accursed lot” clearly demonstrate the white people’s attitude to the Black nation. The latter is disdained, chased, and tormented. The “accursed lot” implies the idea of continuous misfortunes and struggling of black people, which they perceive as the core element of their existence. Further, McKay says, “What though before us lies the open grave? This line seems to imply the feeling of doom and vanity of attempts to fight for one’s own rights. Therefore, the image of the Black nation created in the poem brightly proves the humiliating attitude towards black people. In The Prodigal Son, James Weldon Johnson presents the boy’s father as God and the father’s son as every young man. Such a generalization and split of one image into two prove the overall power and love of God who would accept anyone into His realm of faith, hope, and love: But Jesus spake in a parable, and he said:
A certain man had two sons. Jesus didn’t give this man a name, But his name is God Almighty. And Jesus didn’t call these sons by name, But every young man, Everywhere, Is one of these two sons. Having analyzed these two poems, one may identify the following primary themes. If We Must Die highlights the eternal issue of an agonizing conflict existing between white and black people. Particularly, the poem addresses the race riots that took place in 1919 in some cities in the US.
The image of “mad and hungry dogs” (line 3) truly reflects the behavior of the white people who attacked black neighborhoods and killed their inhabitants. Moreover, dogs were really used to subdue, frighten, attack, and murder black people. Further, the line “If we must die” is repeated throughout the poem, which implies that there exists a real threat to black people which they cannot turn down. However, McKay stresses that the nation should unite and take part in the battle for basic human rights: “O kinsmen! We must meet the common foe! Although the author realizes that the number of black people diminishes due to massive murders, he still encourages his kinsmen to show courage: “Though far outnumbered let us show us brave. ” On balance, the poet urges black people not to give up and fight for their freedom even if they know that they are dying: “Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack, /Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back! ” In The Prodigal Son, James Johnson touches upon the theme of God’s all-embracing power, love, and all-forgiveness.
The author makes it clear that human lust for carnal gratification is destructive and, finally, destroys a person, in both physically and morally. In the poem, the city of Babylon is the source of evil, lust, and vice; it only corrupts a person. God, on the contrary, is always helpful and wants to indicate the right way leading to salvation, eternal calm, and happiness. Thus, one should repent his/her sins and come to the Almighty Father: Young man, come away from Babylon, That hell-border city of Babylon. Leave the dancing and gambling of Babylon,
The wine and whiskey of Babylon, The hot-mouthed women of Babylon; Fall down on your knees, And say in your heart: I will arise and go to my Father. Sweet Liberty Oh, liberty! You sound so sweet! With my every word and every deed I prove that you exist. Yes, you exist. For me and everyone. Since times when our earthly life’s begun You rested in human soul and turned down bitter woe. You imbued our life with deeper meaning And I have never felt such a feeling Of righteous indignation till the day When wind’s blown all my liberties away. And only then I’ve realized In what the sweetness of liberty lies: In not being intruded upon No matter to which race you belong. Oh, liberty! Never the mighty Would take you from us with no fighting!