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Harlem Renaissance Classic Poets

By Megan Powell, Magali Prel, Natasha Smith, and Mia Walby

In continuation of our celebration of Black History Month, we are focusing on the Harlem Renaissance movement and celebrating some of our favourite poets and poems to have been produced. Like the classic novel, classic poetry is rich in emotional integrity and power – something that all these recommendations possess in multitudes.

Ghana Calls by W.E.B Du Bois

W.E.B Du Bois’ Ghana Calls is a poem dedicated to pan-Africanist Kwame Nkrumah, who was later the president of Ghana, and centres around the concept of enlightening the West to African life and his upbringing experience. Du Bois grew up in Massachusetts and later led Black civil rights activist groups, aiming to secure equal rights, lots of which is prominent within his writing. His skin colour was damning during childhood, and he claims it made him “alien” and isolated him – given his friends were European. As Du Bois encounters old age, he revisits his dream of a better land, one in Africa, creating a picturesque image of its wonders. Du Bois depicts Africa in a different way to the Western thinking at the time, highlighting “its might and power” and “Joy of Life” which he did not experience in America. The poem exposes the evil acts of the West, such as slavery and looting, highlighting the treatment Black people have faced at their hands. Pan-Africanism seeks to regain pride and expose the realities of their cultural-political experience.

Yet Do I Marvel by Countee Cullen

Attested to be one of the most illustrative voices of the Harlem Renaissance, Countee Cullen’s striking, lyrical poetry tackles delicate subject matter deftly. With a romantic temperament inspired by John Keats, he skillfully employs classical verse forms to address contemporary issues. In his 1925 collection Color, his sonnet Yet Do I Marvel grapples with the age-old question of theodicy, puzzling over why a supposedly benevolent God would allow so much suffering to transpire.

In the poem's final couplet, Cullen reflects on his own existence as a Black poet, expressing astonishment that God would "make a poet black, and bid him sing!" This sentiment is particularly poignant in an era marred by grievous racial prejudice, where the creative expression of Black poets faced constant hurdles. Nevertheless, Cullen opted to “sing” anyway, using his art to forge a literary identity for Black poets, even in the face of adversity.

The word "yet" in the title and poem encapsulates the implicit contradictions of life Yet Do I Marvel circles around, acknowledging suffering while emphasising the resilience to continue creating. It remains a powerful, hopeful reminder of the indomitable spirit of artists who persist in creating even in the face of adversity.

If We Must Die by Claude McKay

If We Must Die is a poem written by McKay, a Jamaican-American poet and writer. The poem is known for its powerful and rebellious tone, addressing themes of resistance, courage and dignity in the face of oppression and violence. Throughout the poem, there is a call to arms, a rallying cry for resistance. The speaker encourages his fellow fighters to not wait “like swines” being slaughtered but to stand up and fight back against the oppression they face. He acknowledges that death may be part of the process, but he believes that it is better to die with honour and courage in battle rather than being a passive victim.

The last lines of the poem end with a call for courage and dignity in the face of adversity. The speaker emphasises that, even in death, they can claim moral victory by refusing to be dehumanised and humiliated. Overall, this poem confronts the harsh realities of racism, violence and oppression prevalent at the time the poem was written – and arguably still today.

The Heart of a Woman by Georgia Douglas Johnson

An imperative writer and key figure in the Harlem Renaissance movement was the outstanding poet and playwright Georgia Douglas Johnson. Her work is still largely celebrated and acclaimed today, and it is clear to see why. Johnson’s profound eloquence speaks volumes, and a favourite poem of ours is The Heart of a Woman. Johnson writes of a woman’s experience for true freedom, beginning the poem with the anthropomorphisation of the heart to a bird, relating the desirable imagery to the imprisoned juxtaposition of “shelter” in the second and final verse. This short eight lined poem follows a regular AABBCCDD rhyme scheme to present the experience of women in a simplistic way, although the themes throughout are not. The metaphor throughout the poem reflects the contextual experience in 1918, with truths still ringing relevant today. Georgie Douglas Johnson’s whole repertoire is a must-read and this poem in particular is astonishing in tone and devices – enough to captivate all listeners.


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