Last Updated 09 Jan 2023

A History of the Harlem Renaissance

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The Harlem Renaissance era ranges from 1919 to 1940. This phase was identified as such because a creative break through took place in Harlem, New York. Talented African Americans introduced a new culture characterized by music, literature, clothing, and experiences. Many blacks were eager to become financially independent, to break free from segregation, and to escape race-related violence. Therefore, they relocated to the North, to cities such as Detroit, Chicago, and New York, in search for new jobs and new living conditions. New York City, also known as the Big Apple, was the place of origin for many African American based organizations, many of which are still serving the community today. These organizations include National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), National Urban League, and the Universal Negro Improvement Association. Prior to the Harlem Renaissance time period, blacks, especially women, were not allowed to read or write.

For the first time in history, works by Angelina Weld Grimke, Georgia Douglas Johnson, and Jessie Redman Fauset, to name a few, were published for the public domains entertainment; African American women were among this exceptional group of writers. Both whites and blacks were studying the literature these authors were producing. These works are still being analyzed today, giving credit to the creators of these master pieces. Each of the authors uses theme, symbolism, literary elements, and writing style to enhance and set apart their writing. In 1880 Angelina Weld Grimke was born in Boston, Massachusetts. Angelina’s father was African American, Archibald, and her mother was Caucasian, Sarah. The interracial marriage did not last long, in fact they split when Angelina was a child. Sarah abandoned her daughter and husband, forcing Archibald to raise their daughter alone. According to Laine Scott, author of “Angelina Weld Grimke," “Her mother’s absence undoubtedly contributed to Grimke’s reverential treatment of maternal themes in her poetry, short stories, and her published play". This theme is exhibited in a popular poem titled “A Winter Twilight.”

The word winter implies cold and dreary while twilight implies rays of sunshine. The reader can interpret the title as the good in evil. The winter cold feeling is the neglect Grimke experienced when her mother left, and the ray of sunshine symbolizes her success and positivity although she was deserted. In the poem Grimke explains “One group of trees lean, naked and cold”, the word group refers to her and her father; naked and cold is used to vividly paint a picture of their feelings. When Sarah left her husband and child she stripped them of their happiness and love, they are left naked and cold hearted. Grimke goes on to say, “One star that I loved ere the fields went brown”, she loved her mother before she discarded her relationship with her daughter. Grimke’s word choice is powerful in conveying the mood and tone of her poetry. She uses sorrowful words to bring the reader to an empathetic mood. Throughout the poem Grimke uses AB rhyme scheme to enhance her work. This is evident when she states, “A silence slipping around like death, Yet chased by a whisper, a sigh, a breath...” Angelina Weld Grimke has a unique and consistent writing style.

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She repeatedly uses nature in her many different works. Another popular poem by Grimke is “The Black Finger”. She uses a combination of analogies and symbolism to catch the readers attention. The poem itself indirectly refers to the many endeavors African Americans have overcome throughout time. Grimke paints a visual when she states, “A black finger pointing upwards”; the direction in which the finger is pointing is significant as well. Upwards can symbolize a positive growth as a whole race, confidence, and the existence of a higher power, God. The reader understands without a higher power African Americans would not have been able to overcome the many wrongdoings they have endured. The finger is an analogy for a whole generation of beautiful African Americans; this is evident when she states, “I have just seen a beautiful thing... sensitive exquisite, a black finger”. There is a noticeable pattern in Grimke’s work. Much like “A Winter Twilight," Grimke uses nature in her poetry, “A straight cypress”. Gloria T. Hull, author of “On ‘The Black Finger,” reports Angelina Grimke’s “poems are usually brief. They represent the scene or thought as swiftly as possible in sharp, concrete images, and then abandon it”. Georgia Douglas Johnson was born in Atlanta, Georgia to Laura and George.

She was the most famous female poet during the Harlem Renaissance time period. Maureen Honey, author of “Georgia Douglas Johnson’s Life and Career,” explains “Johnson’s life illustrates the difficulties faced by African American women writers”. The most sought after poem by Johnson is “I Want To Die While You Love Me”. This piece of poetry is characterized by repetition, rhyme, and a strong theme. Johnson starts all four stanzas with I want to die while you love me; this also influences the mood of the poem. The words love and die contract one another. When one is in love, they are usually overwhelmed with happiness; Johnson on the other hand uses the word die, which implies misery. The overall mood of the poem is desirable, “I want to die while you love me and never, never see the glory of this perfect day grow dim or cease to be”. The reader desires to be loved in an eternal manner much like the speaker. Johnson uses AB rhyme scheme in her poetry, “While yet you hold me fair while laughter lies upon my lips and lights are in my hair”. During this time period women were expected to be conservative, and what happened in the bedroom was not a topic of conversation.

Johnson pushes the envelope in this poem; she states “I want you to die while you love me, and bear me to that still bed, your kisses turbulent”. She explores her sexuality in a vulgar manner, and she allows the public to do so with her. This poem holds a classic dream and theme, to find one to share an infinite amount of love with. This beautiful work is alive and thriving in the twenty-first century as both a poem and a song. Georgia Douglas Johnson is an exceptional author and a strong-willed woman that is not afraid to challenge society. Jessie Redmon Fauset was born in Fredericksville, New Jersey. She was the seventeenth child born to Annie and Redmon. Much like Angelina Grimke, Jessie lost her mother when she was very young. According to Andrew Baskin, author of “Jessie R. Fauset," “All of these works focus on African American culture and economic struggles”. Fauset’s writing directly impacted the Harlem Renaissance era. “Enigma” is a well known poem by Jessie Fauset. The title means a person or thing that is mysterious, puzzling, or difficult to understand. The poem is encased with imagery and strong diction.

Fauset writes, “Your words are barbed arrows to the breast”. Her vivid word choice allows the reader to mentally paint a picture, and feels the anger within the text. This literary element reveals its self several times in the text; it engages and encourages the reader to continue reading. Fauset’s word choice is bold; she uses negative connotation to set the mood and to paint a mental picture. Phrases such as, “Your presence is a torture to the brain,” implies hatred towards an unknown. The reader feels an intense wave of sadness. According to Eric Todd, “The tone of the poem is a sad poem, it addresses sadness first”. “Enigma” is filled with symbolism. Brain symbolizes thoughts, intelligence, and contemplative; whereas the breast symbolizes the heart, emotions, and tenderness. The poem has no structure, it is not divided into stanza’s; therefore the poem is considered a free verse. A possible theme for this work is there is both good and evil in all people. She argues this when she says, “If only you were you and yet not you”. Jessie Fauset was a talented woman, and her work continues to mold authors work of the twenty-first century. The Harlem Renaissance was filled with talent, culture, originality, and confidence. Angelina Weld Grimke, Georgia Douglas Johnson, and Jessie Redman Fauset are a few of the many exceptional individuals from this era. Their dedication and hard work continues to influence and motivate today. Many African American authors spoke out during this era, proving their desire for equality.

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