This essay will consider the work of Langston Hughes and Georgia Douglas Johnson. Both of these writers are strongly associated with the Harlem Renaissance, and both may be considered to have contributed to the movement through their literary work as well as through the strength of their own personalities. After having given an outline of their involvement within the movement itself, the essay will consider a poem by each of the authors, in order to consider how it expresses the simultaneously universal and specifically African American tendencies and consciousness within the their literature.
Hughes is arguably the most famous writer associated the renaissance and it is his work that is most often thought of when the movement is cited in contemporary circles. His contributions to the various journals associated with the movement, together with his correspondence with many of its key members have led him to be considered one its most important leaders. Johnson is equally a poet who contributed several poems to the key journals associated with the movement, but she is also someone famous for anti-lynching campaigning and for hosting various meetings which Hughes and other writers were able to attend. She can be seen therefore as both a key intellectual and social figure amongst the group of writers associated with the movement’s publications.
According to Ernest Julius Mitchell (2010), it is incorrect to view the Harlem Renaissance as simply a movement by African Americans and for African Americans. Rather, at its time it was understood to be something that would mean that black culture would become “material for all American artists, regardless of their race…just as the earlier Renaissance diffused Greek culture throughout Europe” (p. 645). The renaissance should therefore be seen as something that moved towards a universal view of culture, at the same that it remained localized around a specific area of Manhattan and specific demographic of the American population.
This double, and perhaps contradictory, nature of the Harlem Renaissance can be seen in the poetry of both Hughes and Johnson. Hughes’ poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” contains a clear tension between a universal view of history, and a paticularized African American speaker. Indeed, through the poem, the speaker comes to fully represent the entire history of the African American individual. The poem begins: “I’ve known rivers: / I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins” (1994, p. 7). This expresses a double consciousness in the sense that the poet could not possibly have known such rivers, given his position in America, but that he nonetheless feels a strong connection to history as it leads from the earliest people on earth, to his own historical position.
This tension between the universal and the particular can also be seen in Johnson’s poem “Common Dust.” Here the speaker asks the rhetorical question as to who should be able to distinguish different races and classes of people once all has been reduced to dust and concludes with the restatement of the question: “Can one then separate the dust? / When mankind lie apart, / When life has settled back again / The as from the start?” (2015, p.20). This poem acknowledges the universal nature of history, and suggests that all life has come from the same source, and may indeed return to it. However, the poem also necessarily maintains distinctions in the present. Although the poet seeks to question notions of the division of humanity, these divisions remain in her present, and in a certain come to form the focus of her poem. As in the case of Hughes, it is not possible to separate her work from its historical specifics, even as it motions towards a universal view of history.
Two key themes present within the Harlem Renaissance are the strength of the African American subject and also the nature of diaspora and its effect on the identity of this subject. Several writers of the period stretch back to African history at the same moment that they draw attention to the fragmented nature of what it means to be of African descent and living now in America. This tension is, I believe, present in Hughes line: “My soul has grown deep like rivers” (p. 7). This line both affirms the history of the African America subject and her unique connection to both the African and the American continent, but also manifests a separation from the particularity of the named places which constitute the rest of the poem. This line ends Hughes’ poem and suggests both a strong subject, but also one that is fatally isolated from the rest of the world, even as it draws its strength from this world.
Johnson introduces the potential for a power that can range across location with the lines: “Here lies the one unlabelled, / The world at large his home!” (2015, p. 20). This individual is named immediately after a list containing references to individual race and classes. Its inclusion in the poem suggests a degree of autonomy for the one who wanders and is free from the restriction of a specific homeland, but it also draws attention to the fact that no individual may be capable of escaping death, a universal force in the poem. In this sense, although the African, diasporic subject is strong, it is also fragile in the same ways as those around it, and perhaps even more so as it lacks any fixed identity at all. In both Hughes and Johnson, therefore, it is possible to see a firm faith in a particular mode of African American subjectivity, at the same time that this is qualified by its isolation and existence in diaspora.