Literature During the Harlem Renaissance
In all my life, I have never been free. I have never been able to do anything with freedom, except in the field of my writing. Langston Hughes
During World War I, many job opportunities became available in northern factories so, African Americans ventured from the rural southern states to urban northeast cities such as Chicago, New York, and Detroit. They did this in order to obtain more profitable jobs but, mainly to escape Jim Crow segregation which was less extreme in the north. This movement, better known as the Great Migration, led six million African Americans to a fresh start and new racial identity, one apart from slaveryr’s grip on the South. Primarily, these individuals met their destination point in Harlem, New York, the heart of what would be referred to as the New Negro Movement or the Harlem Renaissance. The Harlem Renaissance marked the first time in American history in which the white population noted the cultural presence of African Americans and offered modernized ways of understanding African Americans by encouraging people to participate in various forms of art, enabling them to express themselves, because expression was one pathway that led to freedom.
The Harlem Renaissance, a movement of the 1920s and early 1930s, was headed by the the Great Migration of African Americans to Harlem, New York. Due to the influx of African Americans, this neighborhood became the core of the golden age in black culture that was embodied through literature, music, dance, and art. This time highlighted an era of celebration and pride of a culture that was disgraced for many years and allowed all cultural groups to pay attention to the feelings that consumed African Americans regarding their past and what their culture has to offer. The expression of these topics through diverse mediums displayed a balance between the horrors African Americans had endured as well as the victories they had achieved, while providing insight on feelings towards not only the Harlem Renaissance but, the converging historical time periods of the Great Migration, Jazz Age, and Great Depression. This time period allowed the exposure of many black intellectuals such as Langston Hughes and Jacob Lawrence, who were just a few of the brave voices of this movement.
Langston Hughes was one of the most famous poets and influential thinkers of the Harlem Renaissance. Hughes, born in Missouri but raised mainly in Kansas by his grandmother who had once been enslaved, developed a deep admiration for those, like his grandmother, who were what he referred to as low-down folks or poor people who had a strong sense of pride and emotion regarding black culture. Hughes briefly attended Columbia University in 1921, during the time of the Harlem Renaissance, where he dropped out and became a prominent voice in Harlem. Hughes held his strong sense of racial pride through his literary works and portrayed the concerns of the black community by promoting equality, celebrating African American culture, and denounced racism and transgressions towards blacks. In addition to this, his works were also shaped by the movement due to his love for the popular pastime of jazz music and his incorporation of this in the rhythms of his poetry and the parallel between the way in which jazz freed itself from traditional musical forms and the freeing nature of his works. Not only did the time period influence Langston Hughes works, but Hughes himself influenced other aspiring storytellers such as Jacob Lawrence.
Jacob Lawrence was an American artist that illustrated the various subjects relating to the time period but, focused on the story of the Great Migration, depicting the struggles faced by African Americans on the road to freedom. Lawrence was born in New Jersey but, came from a family who originated in South Carolina and Virginia that migrated north in hopes of economic opportunity. At the age of thirteen, Lawrence moved to Harlem where he attended art classes at the Harlem Art Workshop in New York Public Libraryr’s 135th Street Branch. Due to it being near impossible for African Americans to attend typical art academies, Harlem provided education for African Americans striving to fulfill such a profession. Despite his ability to attend an art academy, Lawrence came from poverty so, he developed a strong work ethic that was highlighted in his later works regarding his theme of social protest of the civil rights movement and his beliefs regarding African Americans and their participation in the workfield. In addition, despite financial hardships, Lawrencer’s mother placed high regard in the upkeep of a beautiful home which attributed to Lawrencer’s eye for art and visual relationships. Lawrence portrayed his experiences in Harlem and the aspiring lives of African Americans. Lawrence also provided a view of the poverty, crime, police brutality, and racial issues of Harlem in a more sarcastic manner. Throughout his career, Lawrence was exposed to the various African American artists that influenced his work and led to collaborations such as his illustrations of the Migration Series that coincided with Langston Hughes book of poetry called One-Way Ticket.
The Great Migration was an important topic in Langston Hughes poetry and specifically in his poem titled One-Way Ticket. In this poem, Hughes explicitly identifies the poemr’s correlation to history by stating, I pick up my life; And take it with me; And I put it down in; Chicago, Detroit, Buffalo, Scranton; Any place that is North and East (Hughes, One-Way Ticket 1-6). By reading this, the reader can understand the reference of the Great Migration and the movement of African Americans in order to escape southern oppression as he repeatedly states Any place that is North and East- And not Dixie Any place that is North and West- And not South (Hughes, One-Way Ticket 6-7, 12-14), indicating the movement north in order to stay away from the south. After this, he explicates his feelings towards what is occurring in the south and gives reason behind the desire to move northward by saying, I am fed up; With Jim Crow laws; People who are cruel; And afraid, Who lynch and run, Who are scared of me; And me of them (Hughes, One-Way Ticket 15-21). This line specifically shows Hughes bitterness and pain regarding the fear of black people by whites and the horrible past events that occurred such as lynching, shedding light on the subject while instilling the wrongness of the situation to all of his readers. Hughes ends the poem by explaining the significance of moving north saying, I pick up my life; And take it away; On a one-way ticket- Gone up North, Gone our West, Gone! (Hughes, One-Way Ticket 22-27). By stating this, Hughes demonstrates the permanentness of the situation and the fact that African Americans were forced to leave their lives behind to start anew. In addition to this, he finishes the poem by repeating the word gone in order to, again, show that he is fed up with the treatment of blacks and is moving to regain control over his life. This poem highlighting the Harlem Renaissance was illustrated by Jacob Lawrence in his piece also titled One-Way Ticket.
Jacob Lawrence illustrated many poems by Langston Hughes, one of which being One-Way Ticket. While overall, Lawrence used many colors in his drawings and paintings to indicate the feelings the art was intended to invoke, in this drawing, his choice of utilizing colors of black and white illustrate the overall mood of the seriousness and hardship that African Americans faced during the Great Migration. This drawing correlates to Hughes poem in the sense of the gloomy scene of having to pick up oner’s life due to mistreatment and oppression. As seen in the drawing, people of all ages and families are sitting around on what seems to be boxes or luggage. Lawrence employs repeated overlapping of shapes and people in order to indicate the unity of the movement. In addition, he enlarges specific features, such as the hands and feet of certain individuals to demonstrate the hardships and hardworking nature of the lives, experiences, and maltreatment of the African Americans. Overall, Lawrence composed powerful images by simultaneously using perspective and flatness in order to create effective representations of the dense, multi-faceted poems of Langston Hughes. While this is just one piece of the greater story depicted by the book of poetry titled One-Way Ticket, the overall combination of images and poetry in a visual narrative, renders the story of the journey of African Americans in seeking a better life.
The Great Migration, the movement of African Americans to the north for job opportunities and better treatment, brought a flow of individuals to the city of Harlem, New York, where African American ancestral practices, principles, culture, and religion flourished. The movement to this city, the mecca of black culture, led into the Harlem Renaissance where African Americans were able to shape their culture and create outlets for their peers to understand the horrors of their past and reflect on their new, blossoming culture. In this environment, individuals such as Langston Hughes and Jacob Lawrence were able to show their inspiration, pain, and feelings regarding the various social issues pertaining to African Americans. Whether it be in collaboration or individually, Hughes and Lawrence managed to share their stories by taking advantage of their one route to freedom, expression in both poetry and art.