The Harlem Renaissance and Langston Hughes’s Depiction of Freedom in his Poetry
During the early 1920’s African Americans from all over the United States migrated to Harlem, New York, where they began to express themselves freely by arts, music and literature. This period in history became known as, the Harlem Renaissance. Langston Hughes was influenced by the Harlem Renaissance as he embraced its power to create a cohesive cultural identity that allowed diverse voices to become one. Hughes viewed the Harlem Renaissance as an endless ocean of creative energy that reinforced the collective voice of African Americans. In his essays, he argues that jazz has a revitalizing power as it brings out the best in African Americans during a critical time of self-evaluation (Hughes 1). Jazz music inspired Hughes to be a poet of the people as he demonstrates that the voice of one captures the unspoken voice of the many. Hughes is aware that the music of the Harlem Renaissance created a unity of perception that endows African Americans with a greater understanding of themselves in the light of challenging times. Jazz and blues music plays a paramount role in shaping an identity that unites the musician with the poet. The creative prosperity of African Americans is intertwined with their shared identity, which empowers them and allows them to glimpse a future that is free. Hughes desires to liberate poetry from the traditional iambic pentameter form, which he views as limiting the freedom to express himself more directly. Hughes’ poetry diverges from regular meter and rhythm to reveal how the Harlem Renaissance is based on the freedom of African Americans to recognize their unbreakable intellectual and emotional bond to each other. Hughes captures the struggles of African Americans and various powerful themes in his poems, which exhibit strong elements of the blues and jazzy rhythms of the Harlem Renaissance.
Hughes was deeply inspired and influenced by the Harlem Renaissance as he acknowledged that music drowned out the voicelessness of African Americans and allowed their hearts to speak out powerfully. In his poems, he embraces aspect of Harlem music, Jazz and Blues to express the desire of African American voices clearly showing the influence of Harlem in his expressions. In the poem “Jazzonia” he clearly captured the situation of the African Americans who ware bared from going to high end Jazz Clubs. In this poem, Hughes alludes to excerpts from the bible touching on the Jewish imprisonment in the Babylon. As he refers to Bible, Hughes draws a comparison between the oppression of the black in the Harlem and that of the Jews in Babylon. While in captivity, the Jews were made to sing to their captors. Hughes felt that the same was happening to African American and voiced it through his poems. For instance, Jazz was a creation of the African America community and therefore Hughes, and many other blacks in the Harlem regarded it as their own heritage. During the Harlem, the music was being played for the white community consumption, making the white equivalent to the Babylonian captors. Music was a symbolic life force that captures the urban life of African Americans. Using the title “Jazzonia” meant that the Harlem being a town of Jazz was a town full of life. The mood of the poem is captured the repetition of the “oh” and capture the excitement and surprise that was in the city of Jazz (Wulff, 4). The poem symbolically espouses apotheosized level of reality that touches the soul and age of time. Jazz serves to transform people to this level that maker Jazzonia idea a real location with a unique environment. In the transformation, the dancing girl assumes the nature of Eve and Cleopatra, ancient female archetypes who are associated with destructive temptation (Wulff, 4). The poem embodies new African American movement and Hughes desire for the end of oppression towards Africans. The hope for a better future of African Americans was within grasp through music and Hughes clearly elaborated this in the Jazzonia and other poems such as the “Dream Boogie”, “Song for A Dark Girl”, and “The Trumpet Player”, which all express African American feeling toward oppression. The jazz and blue music remained central to the Harlem renaissance Africa American art and expression and kept the relevance after the renaissance.
Hughes viewed jazz music as capturing the collective heartbeat of African Americans, and his writing reveals how jazz music embodies a shared state of mind that becomes clear over time. Hughes illustrates that jazz music captures the state of mind of African Americans as it reveals how they all suffer. In “Jazzonia” the as segregated and barred from high end jazz clubs, “Song for A Dark Girl” they are brutalized and murdered, in “The Trumpet player” they are in deep sadness and engaged in alcoholism while “Dream Boogie” their dreams are deferred and thus their hopes and ambitions are cut short. Hughes’s poetry reveals how African Americans are one as their pain is universal. In his poem “The Trumpet Player,” Hughes portrays how the jazz musician plays music that all African Americans feel in their hearts. The trumpet player is able to express the emotions that African Americans are often unable to give a voice to:
The Negro / With the trumpet at his lips / Has dark moons of weariness / Beneath his eyes / where the smoldering memory of slave ships / Blazed to the crack of whips about thighs” (1-6).
The poem also breaks away from convention as it the meter is irregular. This is a characteristic of free verse poems, an element adopted from jazz. The poems theme encompasses the suffering and struggles that characterized the lives of African American men. It also espouses the strength and beauty of a black man as he perseveres through his struggles. The diction of the poem is particularly geared towards expressing the pain and suffering the man experiences. The fact that the first, second, and fifth stanza begin with the words “the Negro” reflect how the poem aims to speak directly. The verses overlap and create an emotional unity that reflects how the trumpet player’s music reaches the hearts of people. The African American share several emotions that connect them such as the memory of the transportation of the slaves from Africa. They travelled under immense hardship and cracking of the whips, battering the slave. Hughes is more interested in the power of words and images that flow out of them. He clearly uses imager and metaphors to expresses his massage. The first line of each stanza reflects the theme of the poem, which is how jazz music helps to soothe the tortured mind of the musician as well as those who listen to his music. It reveals that African Americans can hear their own unspoken voice in the music as it makes them see their own pain, which they share and recognize as something that defines them as individuals as well as a group. Hughes was concerned with how the Harlem Renaissance was based on collective empowerment as African Americans realized their own potential. Music gave African Americans the voice to know who they are and what they can do to improve life for themselves. Hughes was influenced by this time in history as it demonstrated that greater things were to come. The expression of music during the Harlem Renaissance was the beginning of a journey towards freedom.
The element of jazz was abundantly evident in Hughes poems. Jazz is quite different from classical blues in essence that the Jazz has no specific form. Jazz poems are free verse poems and assimilate qualities of jazz. As opposed to the blues, Jazz poems have dynamic energy that is totally a contrast to the low-key and elegiac toned blues. Jazz is mostly aggressive and instrumental while blues are mellow and vocal. Hughes’ “Dream Boogie” is a good example of his poems that were heavily influenced by Jazz rhythms and movements. Harlem poems were marked by sudden nuances, conflicting changes, broken rhythms, and impudent and sharp interjections. All these are evident the “Dream Boogie” which borrows heavily from boogie-woogie and be-bop. This enables Hughes to give the poem elements of African-American musical traditions, and importantly deal with the deferred African American dream. Boogie-woogie was an element of the Harlem night life (Tracy 77). The poem’s title “Dream Boogie” is a clear illustration that the poem is strongly based on boogie-woogie. The boogie-woogie is “a jazz piano idiom which comprises of a recurring ostinato of rolling eighth-notes in bass under improvise figure in the treble” Boogie-woogie is the earliest form of jazz (Kristin). On the other hand, be-bop is a more recent form of Jazz, which features dissonant chord structure and singing of be-bop syllables referred to as “scatting jazz.” Hughes has also used be-pop syllables in this poem. The characteristic rhythm of boogie-woogie is evident in the first stanza. Thy syllable count for the lines in the stanza are five in the first line, three in the second line, seven in the third and five in the fourth one. Since boogie-woogie adhere to a time signature of 4/4, the varying syllable count ensures the poetic lines can be read in a syncopate rhythm to catch up the four beat rhythm (Kristin). The rhyme scheme for the stanza ABCB also espoused the qualities of a boogie-woogie. The second stanza relies upon a similar rhyme scheme but line 7 ends with a dash extending the rhythm established in the first stanza and paving way for the change in the scheme evident in line 8 and 9. The two lines also serve as Jazz break, a brief syncopated interlude, which comprises of between two and four bars between musical phrases. Hughes places them between his stanzas. The rhyme scheme for the second stanza is ABCDB (Kristin). The syncopated interlude is recognizable because the rhyme scheme was established in the first stanza. The scheme change slightly in the third stanza due to a jazz break in the fourteenth line but never return to the scheme established in the first stanza. He ends the poem using be-bop syllables. The poem captures the theme of a deferred dream. The African Americans aspirations are put on the line, and they live in oppression. The rhetorical questions in the poem capture the feel of “the riddle about Eve and Cleopatra in “Jazzonia” (Tracy 76). “The dream is no longer something to be exalted, but a vision degraded through trampling, shoving and abuse” (Wagner, 452). Tension build through the poem, and be-bop syllable serve to espouse the results of social injustice because of the continued deferment of the African American dream. Be-bop syllable take place of ideas that cannot be fully expressed through words such as the pain African American are feeling for the deferment of their dreams (Kristin).
Having emerged from the Harlem Renaissance Hughes was extremely sensitive to the brute against the African Americans as Bloom (51) notes, the Harlem Renaissance gave him borderless freedom to address black experience. This is remarkably clear in the poem “Song for a Dark Girl”. In this poem, he focuses of racial brutality as a theme. The grief the African Americans feel is evident in the girl’s grief and her reproach of Jesus. The poem is set in the south in Dixieland. Oppression of African Americans was widespread through the entire country, no place extreme racial brutality like the south, and sometime Christian doctrines were used as a justification. Hughes experience of the South influenced his art and in most cases influenced the themes of his poems. In this practical poem Hughes combine his experience of the south and African folklore on the south. The brutality he addresses is evident in the way the black lover is treated. He is lynched and hung on a tree. As the dark girl states “I asked the white Lord Jesus/What was the use of prayer” she project luck of hope. Hughes presents a simple picture of a sad girl who wonders why God has not come to her aid. Evidence of the influence of the Harlem especially musical blues on Hughes is evident in this poem too (Transcript 15 – Langston Hughes). I most of his blues poems, Hughes writes poems that allude to and allows his audience get in a metaphorical manner the musical traditions of the blues. He develops poems through repetition which are normally conjured out of the three-part structure of the blues (Transcript 15 – Langston Hughes). He also embraces vocal mood and the rhythm of the blues a common feature of the music of the Harlem nightlife. This poem has only three stanzas each with four lines and emphasizes the setting by repeating the first line in every stanza “Way Down South in Dixie.” Hughes capitalizes each word of the first line so as to make sure every person knows that the poem takes place in the south. The second line of every stanza is enclosed in brackets to point out on the emotions going through the girl’s heart “(Break the heart of me)” in line 2 & 9 (Ramazani, 167) or the vision she sees “(Bruised body high in air)” (in line 6). The use of symbolic representation in the poem points the avid use of symbolism by Hughes. There are a number of symbolic connotations in this poem. First is the phrase “a cross road tree” which contains several meanings. It represent’s Christ’s cross, the intersection of blacks and whites, and crossroads which is one of the prominent scenes in blues-a point where decisions are made (Transcript 15 – Langston Hughes). In the poem, Jesus is referred to as white depicting his pure nature, unfortunately, he does not answer prayers. The occurrence of the cross road and the mention of Jesus also indicate the girl equates Jesus to the lynched lover. The lynched lover is a symbol of wrongful execution and a martyr who sacrificed his life in an unfair world.
In conclusion, Hughes was focused on how music captured the pulse and energy of an entire community as it generated an emotional and intellectual response that was universal. In his poetry, Hughes expresses how music is something that allows African Americans to find their voice. Hughes depicts how African Americans have the power to sustain their future through their artistic achievements. Music of the Harlem Renaissance is based on universal pain but also the universal hope of achieving the fullest potential of democracy. Hughes was inspired by how jazz gave African Americans the freedom to define themselves, and he shows that by incorporating that freedom into his style of poetry.
Bloom, Harold. Langston Hughes. Broomall, Pa: Chelsea House Publ, 1999. Print.
Kristin, Taylor. “Ain’t You Heard”?: The Jazz Poetry of Langston Hughes. Thesis Columbus State University
Ramazani, Jahan. Poetry of Mourning: Modern Elegy from Hardy to Heaney. Chicago: University Chicago Press, 1994. Print.
Tracy, Steven C. A Historical Guide to Langston Hughes. Oxford [u.a.: Oxford University Press, 2004. Print.
Transcript 15 – Langston Hughes. 5 May, 2009. Web. 5 May, 2013 < http://www.core.org.cn/mirrors/Yale/yale/oyc.yale.edu/english/modern-poetry/content/transcripts/transcript-15-langston-hughes/-searchterm=None.htm>
Wagner, Jean. Black Poets of the United States: From Paul Laurence Dunbar to Langston Hughes. Urbana [u.a.: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1974. Print.
Wulff, Antje. The Role of Urban Life in the Poetry of Langston Hughes. München: GRIN Verlag, 2009. Internet resource.