One of Helene Johnson’s best-known poems, “Sonnet to a Negro in Harlem,” captures “the voice and rhythms of the streets of Harlem,” according the University of Minnesota’s "Voice from the Gaps" project website. Its meaning relies on the connection between the appearance of an unnamed man, the speaker’s feelings about him and his connection to his cultural heritage.
Johnson describes the man in the title as tall and well-built. Because Johnson does not describe his personality, we infer that the speaker of the poem does not know him well, but she seems struck by his appearance and demeanor. Johnson uses several negative words to convey the man’s attitude, including “pompous,” “supercilious” and “arrogant." Her overall view of him, however, is positive; she loves his laughter and calls him “magnificent” and “splendid.” The otherwise negative adjectives combine with his beauty and confidence to create a picture of an admirable man.
The man, although unnamed, comes to life in the poem, demonstrating not only pride but also hate, with which his eyes are “flashing solemnly.” His pride seems to have basis, not only in his physical attractiveness, but also in his inability to imitate those he despises. He will not sink to others’ inferior level. Although he is walking down a city street among other people, the speaker of the poem sees him laughing and singing. This behavior challenges the reader: What sort of person strides so boldly, singing and laughing in public? He is figuratively, as well as literally, head and shoulders above the crowd. The speaker of the poem finds him superior to his surroundings.
The man’s heritage is not a minor detail; our first clue to the importance of race in the poem is its place in the title. He is more than one individual, however striking. Johnson recalls African-Americans’ tropical ancestry in imagining a vista of “palm trees and mangoes” stretching before him, and the song he sings is both “rich” and “barbaric.” Given her admiration for this man, we can see that she uses the term “barbaric” ironically, suggesting that this cultural clue, the man’s music, is only “barbaric” by the standards of mainstream American society. Like his heritage, the music is truly rich.
Having put together clues about the man’s appearance, demeanor and culture, readers can approach Johnson’s overall theme. Traditionally, sonnets were poems of unrequited love, notes Deborah G. Burks of Ohio State University, Lima. While Johnson plays with that idea, describing an attractive stranger, she does not adhere to love poem conventions. Woven into this sonnet is a strong thread of societal criticism, as Johnson contrasts the man’s unrepentant pride with his surroundings. Johnson implies that he defies the unspoken white mainstream, which threatens the “scorn” that can erase the man’s social contributions, his “footprints.” He defies them, however, refusing to imitate them; his “barbaric” culture is a significant part of what makes him “too splendid for this city street.”