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The Best Poems of the Harlem Renaissance


The Harlem Renaissance refers to an artistic and literary movement that flourished in 1920s and 1930s New York. According to the National Humanities Center, this cultural flowering gained momentum with African-Americans' search for better opportunities that an economically depressed, repressive South didn't offer. As the center's analysis suggests, the best Harlem Renaissance poems -- such as Countee Cullen's "Incident," or Claude McKay's "If We Must Die" -- share an emotional, yet unsparing expression of African-Americans' social conditions.

Georgia Douglas Johnson: "The Heart of a Woman" (1918)

Largely forgotten today, Johnson was the only female poet linked with the Harlem Renaissance to publish consistently. Between 1918 and 1928, she released three poetry books and hosted weekly literary meetings at her Washington, D.C. home, the academy states. Female identity and freedom are major themes in poems like "The Heart of a Woman," whose narrator tries to forget that she "dreamed of the stars," even as her heart "breaks, breaks, breaks against the sheltering bars."

Claude McKay: "If We Must Die" (1919)

Like many Harlem Renaissance poets, McKay used his work to speak out against inequality. One of his most acclaimed poems is "If We Must Die," which urges an aggressive response against racial violence: "Like men we'll face the murderous, cowardly pack / Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!" Though it appeared in a communist sympathizer's magazine, McKay's poem is now seen as a statement of any oppressed people trying to free itself, the Poetry Foundation says.

Langston Hughes: "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" (1921)

Racial consciousness is a theme of Harlem Renaissance-era poems like "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," which Langston Hughes dedicated to civil rights leader W.E.B. DuBois, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign's "Modern American Poetry" website states. In simple, direct language, Hughes retraces black culture from its African and Egyptian roots to Civil War-era Mississippi. By repeating his key line, "My soul has grown deep like the rivers," Hughes subtly reminds readers of the struggles that African-Americans have endured.

Angelina Weld Grimke: "The Black Finger" (1923)

Angelina Weld Grimke's primary outlet came during the 1920s in African-American journals like "Crisis," "Opportunity" and "The New Negro," observes Judith Zvonkin, chief of the District of Columbia Public Library's Biography Division. One of Grimke's best-known poems is "The Black Finger," whose description of a cypress tree is a metaphor for African-Americans' condition, advises the University of Delhi's literary magazine, "The Criterion." Grimke underscores the point in her final lines, which ask: "Why, beautiful finger, are you still black? / And why are you pointing upwards?"

Countee Cullen: "Incident" (1925)

Although not as overly confrontational as his peers, Cullen's work is no less biting. His most famous poem is "Incident," whose 12 lines describe an African-American boy's trauma of hearing a racial slur directed against him on a Baltimore city bus -- which overwhelms all other memories of his stay there. According to the Baltimore Literary Heritage Project, Cullen's poem accurately describes a city that closed an amusement park rather than integrate it, and a climate where African-American athletes couldn't find suitable housing.

About the Author

Ralph Heibutzki's articles have appeared in the "All Music Guide," "Goldmine," "Guitar Player" and "Vintage Guitar." He is also the author of "Unfinished Business: The Life & Times Of Danny Gatton," and holds a journalism degree from Michigan State University.

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