The topic of walking during the Harlem Renaissance. Differences between Claude McKays "Harlem Shadows" and Langston Hughes "The Negro Speaks of Rivers"

Term Paper, 2020

18 Pages, Grade: 2,3


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 The Harlem Renaissance

3 Harlem Shadows by Claude McKay
3.1 Analysis
3.2 Walking in Harlem Shadows

4 The Negro Speaks of Rivers by Langston Hughes
4.1 Analysis
4.2 Walking in The Negro Speaks of Rivers

5 Conclusion

6 Works Cited

1 Introduction

The African American culture experienced a revolution during the Harlem Renaissance, which took place in the early 20th century. During that time, the African and American cultures intertwined, and many artists published their most memorable work in music, literature and other arts. Nevertheless, African Americans suffered racism and discrimination in the US. With the artistic movement, the oppressed got the chance to express their selves and especially their culture and identity. Attention was drawn to the history of black lives including topics like slavery and discrimination (Domina 4).

Both poets whose work is referred to in this paper published their poems during the Harlem Renaissance. They used their creativity and work to show the world that Blacks should not be discriminated because of their skin color. In particular, they put emphasis on the suffering of black lives in the past and the present. Hughes, McKay and others wanted to make clear that African Americans are humane as well as intellectual and should therefore be treated as such (Domina 10).

This paper refers to McKays’ Harlem Shadows and Hughes’ The Negro Speaks of Rivers. The poems arise from the Harlem Renaissance and deal with the topic of racism and the oppression of the Blacks. Moreover, both poems include the theme of walking. Usually, walk poetry is about the speaker observing his/her surroundings and the emotions he/she experiences whilst being on a journey (Gilbert 7). “A walk involves the whole person; it is not reproducible: its shape occurs, unfolds: it has a motion characteristic of the walker” (18). This is how Ammons describes walking in the context of poetry. He argues that a poet can create an own world whilst being in silence during a walk. Then, Walk Poems give the chance to share the experiences and feelings the poet lives through (Ammons 16). Hughes and McKay, who write about their emotions and experiences with Blacks being oppressed by society, do not actually take a walk or journey in the poems, which will be further discussed in the following chapters. The selected pieces differ from each other in their style and the way the theme of walking is presented which has to be examined. In literature classes, one should draw attention on these works as they are different from common Walk Poems and deal with important topics.

In this paper, the second chapter will have a closer look on the Harlem Renaissance. Apart from the historical background, emphasis will be put on the so-called “Negro-culture” in literature. The mentioned poems by McKay and Hughes will be analyzed with regards to the theme of walking. A conclusion summarizes the results and points out the importance of these literary works in the context of the Harlem Renaissance as well as the representation of Walk Poetry.

2 The Harlem Renaissance

The Harlem Renaissance took place between 1918 and the early 1930s. Its roots lay in the movements of the Great Migration in the beginning of the 20th century (Domina 11). During that time, the majority of African Americans lived in the South and had been enslaved until the end of the Civil War. With the beginning of the Great Migration, about six million African Americans migrated out of the rural southern regions from the United States to the northern urban areas. The main reasons for this movement were poor economic conditions as well as racial discrimination in the South. Further, African Americans hoped to be involved in politics to gain equality and the right of co-determination (Wall 5). Evidence of the racial segregation in the South are the Jim Crow laws, which were enacted between the late 19th and early 20th century by white southern Democrats (Domina 13). The life in the South became difficult and dangerous for the African Americans so they migrated north in great numbers. The northern regions offered more economic opportunities as well as hope to life free from racism. Moreover, the need for industrial workers increased during the early 20th century, which made the northern US states even more attractive for African Americans in the South (Wall 45).

Harlem was a main destination for American migrants. Different groups of people moved there for various reasons. Apart from the migrants from the South seeking work, a “Negro” middle class as well as an educated higher class migrated to Harlem. Originally, Harlem was a rather exclusive suburb for the white upper and middle class. It was well-known for its grand avenues and highbrow culture. With the migration flows in the early 20th century, Harlem became an African American neighborhood. Different cultures and people collided which led to white racism. The white residents fought to keep the African Americans out of Harlem but failed predominantly. What followed was that big parts from the white upper and middle class moved away from the African American influenced area (Hutchinson 22).

The majority of the population in Harlem then consisted of African Americans from different regions. The people stood together against white racism and segregation (Wall 22). Moreover, it was the origin of the “Negro Culture”, which arose in the context of the Harlem Renaissance. The African Americans expressed their selves through literature, art, music, etc. They had the chance to break free from stereotypes and new pieces of culture had been created. Usually, African Americans expressed their selves and their feelings with regards to the history of the Blacks being oppressed by the Whites (Wall 25).

Big numbers of the greatest minds and brightest talents arrived in Harlem, which was then the epicenter of American culture. The cultural development of the area was shaped by this movement. Black intellectuals used literature, music, art, dance and others to show what it was like to be black in America (Domina 14). African Americans got the chance to reclaim their identity and racial pride whilst fighting against discrimination and prejudices. They expressed their selves and thoughts without fear. White stereotypes, which had influenced the life and relationship of black people to their heritage and each other, were broken down (Hutchinson 69). Langston Hughes, one of the most influential African American poets during the Harlem Renaissance, describes the rising of Negro Culture in one of his essays as followed:

“We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too” (6). This quote means no other than that African Americans broke free from the judging Whites in order to share their emotions and experiences. They got the confidence to stand up for their “dark-skinned selves” which was revolutionary in terms of the Harlem Renaissance.

3 Harlem Shadows by Claude McKay

In this chapter, Harlem Shadows by Claude McKay (see Appendix A) will be analyzed. It will become clear in how far the poet was involved in the Harlem Renaissance. McKays’ work will be examined with special emphasis on the topic of walking. Later, these results will be compared to the work of Langston Hughes.

3.1 Analysis

With younger poets such as Langston Hughes, Claude McKay was influential on the development of the African American culture and the Harlem Renaissance (Domina 5). He experienced discrimination and racism against Blacks in the American South. His emotions and observations in the US during that time influenced his work (Williams 42). Claude McKay published Harlem Shadows in 1922 during the Harlem Renaissance as his final volume of poetry (Domina 5).

It consists of three six-line stanzas and is written in an iambic pentameter. McKay did not stick to the typical scheme of an English sonnet as he often did whilst writing poems. (Ramesh & Rani 87) Yet, one can identify similarities to the form of the sonnet. He used the Venus and Adonis stanza which refers to an ababcc rhyme scheme and creates a unity of the poem.

Harlem Shadows is about the prostitution of women of color in Harlem. The speaker is located in Harlem and describes what he sees during a night in Harlem, observing these colored prostitutes. At the beginning of Harlem Shadows, the speaker utters “in Negro Harlem” (2) and at the end “in Harlem” (18) so that a link between the beginning and end of the poem is created. Moreover, McKay links his experiences to society and especially the negative sides of society concerning the life of Blacks in the US. His experience guides the reader through the poem.

At the beginning of Harlem Shadows, the speaker only hears the footsteps of a girl: “I hear” (1). Then, it seems as if his eyes become accustomed to the dark as he sees more girls emerging from the shadows: “I see” (3). In this stanza, he only observes the women, describes their movements and does not judge them as individuals. Moreover, he describes the girls in “slippered feet” (5) which gives the expression as if they are moving rather fast and vivid.

Throughout the whole poem, Mc Kay uses adjectives like “dark” (5), “night“ (2), “gray” (8) and “dusky” (11) which highlight that the poem is set in the night. Furthermore, the motive of darkness could be used as an imagery for hopelessness which matches with the speakers’ experiences in terms of poverty and prostitution.

At the beginning of the second stanza, the girls still seem to be move vivid: “know no rest” (8). The night seems to go by, and the girls already move on “tired feet” (11), which is less lively than in the previous stanza. He repeats the phrase “Through the lone night” (7, 9), so that the motive of loneliness and hopelessness for the girls, and colored people in general, becomes more present.

In the last stanza, the speaker does not observe anymore, he rather reflects on what he saw during the night. He uses terms such as “poverty”, “dishonor”, and “disgrace” in line 14 which express how he feels about the prostitution of the girls. Furthermore, McKay talks about “sacred brown feet of my fallen race” (16) which represents that the speaker has the impression that the colored people, or rather his race, suffer and are oppressed. The girls seem to represent the black community as a unit. They then move on “weary feet” (17), so that it becomes clear that the adjectives to describe the feet become bleaker throughout the poem. Moreover, a rising atmosphere of hopelessness is created by using these dreary expressions towards the ending of the poem.

Each stanza closes with the words “street to street” (6, 12, 18) which gives the impression as if the walk of the prostituted girls is endless through the night. The poem makes clear that a connection between the speakers’ experience seeing the colored girls in the night and the state of society in the context of racism against African Americans is created.

3.2 Walking in Harlem Shadows

In Harlem Shadows, the speaker is located in Harlem at night. One gets the impression as if the speaker is standing and not walking down a street. He rather observes the happenings and movements around him – he himself is not moving or walking as it would be usual in a Walk Poem. In Harlem Shadows it is the case that the colored prostitutes are on a walk through the night. The speaker notes the movements of the girls and reflects on the social standing of African Americans. A connection between the prostitutes and the search for the identity of African Americans is created. The speaker relates to this search as being a part of them and he shares their emotions and experiences. The hopelessness and prostitution of the colored girls make clear, that the Blacks are worthless for the Whites and used for desire.

McKay describes the girls moving very lively and fast at the beginning of the poem. One gets the impression that the whole setting is not that hopeless and dark at first. As the number of dark adjectives and bleak movements increases, it seems that the girls become more bitter, tired and desperate. It is a tragic walk which is observed by the speaker. With the image of tiredness or hopelessness, McKay refers to the social standing of African Americans in the US concerning poverty and prostitution. The walk is limited on the streets of Harlem, which reflects that the Africans Americans did not have the chance to move and life freely.


Excerpt out of 18 pages


The topic of walking during the Harlem Renaissance. Differences between Claude McKays "Harlem Shadows" and Langston Hughes "The Negro Speaks of Rivers"
University of Göttingen
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harlem, renaissance, differences, claude, mckays, shadows, langston, hughes, speaks, rivers
Quote paper
Bauke Janssen (Author), 2020, The topic of walking during the Harlem Renaissance. Differences between Claude McKays "Harlem Shadows" and Langston Hughes "The Negro Speaks of Rivers", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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