Characteristics of Harlem Renaissance Poetry

The Harlem Renaissance was a literary and cultural movement that began with the inception of the 20th Century. It is so called because it was first noticed in Harlem, a neighbourhood of New York City. The movement was an African American cultural explosion expressed through essays, songs, theatrical pieces, novels and poetry. Harlem Renaissance poetry, as written by such literary luminaries as Langston Hughes and W.E.B. DuBois, was characterised by its themes, influences, focus and intent.


Intent is a primary characteristic of all Harlem Renaissance literature, including poetry. The intent of this poetry was to improve and uplift African Americans through historical awareness and a popular culture that reflected self-awareness and self-worth in black Americans. All of this intent was expressed by the phrase "The New Negro," introduced by sociologist Alain LeRoy Locke in 1925. The term describes a new wave of African-American intellectuals who used poetry and other forms of artistic and cultural expression to subvert racial stereotypes and address the racial, economic, cultural and social impediments facing black Americans at the turn of the century.

Focus and Themes

Harlem Renaissance poetry is characterised by a focus on the black American experience and relevant themes. Much of the poetry of the Harlem Renaissance is characterised as an examination of the historical place of the contemporary African American with regards to history and the future. This poetry asks the question: where has the black American been and where is she going? Themes of migration---from Africa to the United States, from slavery and the south to industrial jobs in the urban north---were common. Poetry of the Renaissance also addressed themes of American identity and the American dream. In two famous poems, Langston Hughes wrote, "I, too, am America" and "What happens to a dream deferred?"

Musical Themes

Much of the poetry of the Harlem Renaissance is characterised in both theme and content by the influence of traditionally "black" forms of music. The repetitive structure and recurring themes of blues music characterise the structure of many Renaissance poems. The interplay between jazz musicians and the call-and-response structure of slave songs also impacted the structure of Renaissance poetry. In its references to the black American past and experience of slavery, poetry of the era often alluded to African American spirituals. With regards to themes, much literature of the Harlem Renaissance included references the national popularity of blues and jazz.

Poetic Influences

Harlem Renaissance poetry took poetic influence from disparate forms of cultural expression. On page 287 of the book "The Harlem Renaissance," author Michael Feith asserts that poetry of the period was characterised by the influenced of African American folk poetry and oral traditions and contemporary American experimentation in modernist free verse. Authors Cary D. Wintz and Paul Finkelman further declare on page 84 of their "Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance, Volume 1" that Harlem Renaissance poetry from Chicago was characterised by the influence of an avant-garde style that arose in that city during the First World War. This style saw the ironic interpolation of elements of Negro spirituals into contemporary poetry.

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