Social Issues Addressed In The Poems Of Harlem Renaissance
American author, professor, feminist and social activist Bell Hooks believes that society automatically uses people’s appearance and ethnicity to judge the kind of person they are. Many fight for equality since all anyone is trying to do is to live their lives freely like others. The forms of activism and protest vary throughout the years.
To begin, the Harlem Renaissance poems are used in a way to reveal colorism and the racism that African Americans recieve on a daily basis. In Nella Larsen’s “Quicksand”, Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise”, and Janelle Monae’s “Django Jane”, they all use poetic elements such as imagery, simile and tone in order to reveal and develop the theme of identity and the many factors that influence and shape it.
In “Quicksand”, Nella Larsen portrays the challenges and conflicts that are encountered by the main character Helga Crane. A biracial woman who is struggling to escape the unjustly inflicting constraints of race, class, gender and religion in the early twentieth century in America. Hughes also portrays the shaping of the Helga Crane throughout the poem in search for answers on establishing her racial identity, although she is incapable of committing to one culture alone. In the poem, it reads “Why couldn’t she have two lives, or why couldn’t she be satisfied in one place”, in the quote Helga contemplates her existence and questions her identity due to the stereotypes people assume/place on her.
Adding on, she continues to her thoughts “Go back to America, where they hated Negroes! To America, where Negroes were allowed to be beggars only, of life, of happiness, of security. To America, where everything had been taken from those dark ones, liberty, respect, even the labor of their hands. To America, where if one had Negro blood, one mustn’t expect money, education, or sometimes, even work whereby one might earn bread.” This quote precisely describes how Helga was not welcomed to either race because she was biracial. The stereotypes took a possession over her, leaving her confused and alone due to failing to realize her identity.
The Harlem Renaissance lasted from the 1910s through the mid-1930s. It was considered as the golden age: “the period when a specified art, skill, or activity is at its peak.’ Harlem was supposed to be intended for the upper class neighborhood, although development had led to empty buildings allowing landlords to take people in desperately filling them. The population had rapidly increased from 1910 to 1920 which was caused by the African American migration from South to North, this shift resulted in a Black Pride movement that worked to ensure that African Americans got the credit they deserved for cultural areas of life. In 1915 and 1916, natural disasters in the south put African Americans out of work and leaving them unemployed. During World War 1, immigration in the United States collapsed when northern recruiters decided to move south, therefore enticing black workers to their companies. Overall, The Harlem Renaissance was a turning point in the history of black culture. It helped African American writers and artists gain control over all of black cultural history with the use of activism.
In “Still I Rise”, Maya Angelou describes the struggle African Americans have with discrimination, throughout their adventures when facing oppression. In each stanza, Angelou reveals the different situations of oppression with the use of literary elements to illustrate that individuals should not allow someone to determine and alter their identity. In the poem the speaker reads ‘I laugh like I’ve got gold mines’, the quote represents the speaker displaying her confidence as if she was wealthy. Using a simile, she refers to the gold mines as if gold had been found in her backyard. Even though the woman is not prosperous, she still acquires faith in order to prove her commitment to her goals.
Furthermore, the poem also states ‘But still, like air, I’ll rise’, the use of repetition and a simile both suggest that the speaker will rise away from any obstacle that is set out to abuse her in comparison to the air rising in the stanza. Angelou shows the building of her confidence and self respect as society continues to degrade her, creating an impact on her rather new identity.
The Civil Rights Movement
Born in St. Louis Missouri, author, poet (historian, songwriter, playwright, dancer, stage and screen producer, director, performer, singer) and civil rights activist Maya Angelou was known for her published seven autobiographies, books of poetry, movies and television shows. Angelou’s poem ‘Still I Rise” replicates the struggles of her overcoming the oppression and discrimination faced during the time period.
In “Django Jane”, Janelle Monae references the title to Quentin Tarantino’s slavery film Django Unchained. The artist uses her song lyrics to reveal that African American women’s rights are constantly being violated, in response she turns her powerful words into music in order to suggest that women are strong and intelligent and that the abuse of power should be turned around. In the poem it states “And we gon’ start a motherfuckin’ pussy riot, Or we gon’ have to put ’em on a pussy diet, Look at that, I guarantee I got ’em quiet, Look at that, I guarantee they all inspired”. The pussy riot was a Russian feminist protest punk rock band group based in Moscow where the women were jailed for fighting for women’s rights.
Monae uses the words ‘pu**y riot’ to reveal that it is time to let women have some opportunities and receive credit for what they have done for the world, creating the image of how much better it would be if women were listened to. The song also states “Already got a Oscar for the cause Runnin’ down Grammys with the family. Prolly give a Tony to the homies. Prolly get a Emmy dedicated to the Highly melanated, ArchAndroid orchestrated. Yeah, we highly melanated, ArchAndroid orchestrated.” This quote describes all of the African American people who have transcended and have received awards because of what they were able to do by telling stories about themselves, teaching society at the same time as being recognized.
The 1990s-present built upon both the Harlem Renaissance and the 1950s-1980s by using forms of activism to discuss African American Culture. The types of songs, poems, books and lyrics can be used as a way to protest and fight back for people’s rights. Born in Kansas City, American singer/songwriter Janelle Monae began her career performing as a child from church performances to pursuing musical theatre. Monae can also be found in some of the films; Barry Jenkins Moonlight, which was the first LGBTQ film and first film with an all African American cast which won the best picture Oscar, Hidden Figures and Philip K Dick’s dystopian Electric Dreams. During the process of writing Django Jane, Monae claimed “As a young black woman, my very existence felt less than the people in the position of power right now.” She describes the criticism placed on African Americans which encourages her to protest against the people in power with her lyrics.
To conclude, in Nella Larsen’s “Quicksand”, Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise”, and Janelle Monae’s “Django Jane”, they all use poetic elements such as imagery, simile and tone in order to show how each author continues their own journey of shaping and creating their own or a new identity, based on the effects society had on them. Music, poems and other forms of activism are types of expression, communication which continues us to evolve.
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