Following the Great Migration, after World War I there was a diaspora of African Americans from the American South that found themselves moving north and westward for career and education opportunities, as well as to seek refuge from Jim Crow Laws that prohibited them from fully being integrated into society as free individuals with rights. The famous end to their journey north was Harlem, New York where “Harlem was the Mecca to which black writers, artists, musicians, photographers, poets, and scholars traveled (Wormser); fleeing the oppressive caste system of the south. My cultural artifact is a product of the Harlem Renaissance, a poem titled Theme for English B by poet and play write Langston Hughes. Poetry was one of the many mediums through which art and philosophy were produced throughout the Harlem Renaissance in the early to mid-twentieth century.
Upon first hearing the term “cultural artifact”, I immediately thought of this poem and knew that I wanted to use it as the topic of one of my blog posts. Theme for English B was taught in my high school poetry class and now six years later it is still my favorite poem. I even wrote my own interpretation using the original as a model in a college poetry course here at UW. What draws me most to this poem is how it plays with the concept of identity and what it is like to not only be a person of color living in the United States, but how it feels to be a student person of color. At the age of sixteen I was the only female Mexican student in a very small high school. Although my school itself lacked diversity, I was fortunate enough to have a very progressive English teacher that encouraged knowledge in language, culture, and geography. With those concepts in her reading curriculum, I was able to have access to course material written by authors of color that ranged from poems, to novels, to autobiographies. These works and especially Theme for English B helped me hold on to my Mexican American identity and be proud of my roots and the sacrifices my parents have made. These texts also kept me from developing a reverse ethnocentric ideology that is often adopted by children of immigrants. I am forever grateful to that high school teacher who pushed me to put my history in my work and encouraged me to continue learning about and respecting other cultures.
Born James Mercer Langston Hughes, Langston Hughes was particularly known for his insightful, colorful portrayals of black life in America from the twenties through the sixties. He wrote novels, short stories and plays, as well as poetry, and is also known for his engagement with the world of jazz. Unlike other notable black poets of the period, Hughes refused to differentiate between his personal experience and the common experience of black America. He wanted to tell the stories of his people in ways that “reflected their actual culture, including both their suffering and their love of music, laughter, and language itself”(Poetry Foundation). This philosophy is noted in Theme for English B as he describes his love of life and notes that his interests may overlap with someone who is white but they don’t change his experience as an African American in the U.S. because white’s are “somewhat more free”. Hughes, more than any other black poet or writer, recorded faithfully the nuances of black life and its frustrations. Although Hughes had trouble with both black and white critics, he was the first black American to earn his living solely from his writing and public lectures.
Hughes put out the majority of his work during the years following the height of the Harlem Renaissance (Theme for English B was published in 1949). In the years between World War I and the Great Depression which was a prosperous period in the United States; jobs were plentiful in cities, especially in the North. Between 1920 and 1930, almost 750,000 African Americans left the South, and many of them migrated to urban areas in the North to take advantage of the prosperity—and the more racially tolerant environment. The Harlem section of Manhattan, which covers just 3 square miles, drew many African Americans, turning the neighborhood into the largest concentration of black people in the world. Harlem became a symbol and point of reference for everyone to recall. The name more than the place became synonymous with new vitality, black urbanity, and black militancy. So why all go to Harlem? The reason was primarily racist housing practices that segregated people of color into unwanted communities.
The push factors that brought African Americans from the rural south to places like Harlem in the North between 1910 and 1930 included difficulty to accumulate wealth, high sharecropping fees, racial violence, lack of employment opportunities, and environmental factors. Pull factors were greater chance for employment, education, and voting opportunities outside the south.(Pittman)
Although moving north promised a better life than living in the south, African Americans still faced challenges following their journey to the North. Such challenges included difficulty finding affordable housing. Blacks were given the least desirable neighborhoods and charged more for them than their white counterparts. Another challenge was that although employment opportunities were better in the north, black women were confined to domestics and often paid too little to live off of and given service pans that ineffectively supplemented their low income. Between the demanding domestic service jobs the women had, and the unstable jobs the men had, African American families suffered domestic issues such as diminished authority of parents, higher truancy rates in children, and unequal division of labor in the household.(Pittman)
The Harlem Renaissance and all of its products are important because they were crucial to helping African Americans survive and endure Jim Crow era racism in the Great Migration and spurred early parts of the civil rights movement. Poems like Theme for English B also demonstrate the double consciousness (W.E.B. DuBois) that African Americans adapted to survive in a hostile and uncertain environment.(Pitman) This double consciousness cultivates a strong African American identity while still understanding the color line. Hughes demonstrates his double consciousness in his comparisons to himself and his white professor that imply they are inherently different while challenging the reasons there are inequalities by mentioning that his professor learns from him as much as he learns from his professor in the following lines:
“Sometimes perhaps you don’t want to be a part of me.
Nor do I often want to be a part of you
But we are, that’s true!
As I learn from you,
I guess you learn from me—
although you’re older—and white—
and somewhat more free.”
Furthermore, the Harlem Renaissance was the center for the creation and reliance of Black culture where expression of culture in Black communal sites helped African Americans celebrate and enjoy themselves outside the critical eye of white society. The invention of the Blues in the southern states, prominence of social sites like barbershops, and freedom of the arts all supported the ethnic enclave of Harlem and other traditionally Black residencies throughout the United States.
The double consciousness however, is not just a product of the Harlem Renaissance. It is still present today in society. There is still a color line, that although is not overt, still sabotages the advancement of African American’s education, healthcare, career opportunities, and housing options through institutional racism and policies. While the Harlem Renaissance may have contributed to a certain relaxation of racial attitudes among whites, perhaps its greatest impact was to reinforce race pride among blacks.
Written By: Blanca Chavez
Hughes, Langston. “Langston Hughes: Theme for English B.” Langston Hughes: Theme for English B. Web. 10 Dec. 2015. <http://www.eecs.harvard.edu/~keith/poems/English_B.html>.
“Langston Hughes.” Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation. Web. 10 Dec. 2015. <http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/langston-hughes>.
Pittman, LaShawnDa. “Introduction to African American Studies.” AFRM 101 Lecture. University of Washington, Seattle. 2015.
Wormser, Richard. “The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow.” PBS. PBS. Web. 10 Dec. 2015. <http://www.pbs.org/wnet/jimcrow/stories_events_harlem.html>.