Poems of the Harlem Renaissance
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New Negro

I have contributed this short article to Black History Month activities where I work.


Poems of the Harlem Renaissance
- recommended by Janine Booth

Maya Angelou, Langston Hughes and Claude McKay were all black American poets who were part of the Harlem Renaissance movement which began after the First World War. Associated with the 'New Negro' label, they played a key role in asserting that the American Negroes were no longer a slaves, no longer had to feel grateful for emancipation, and were ready to place their culture and humanity proudly in the public sphere. The Harlem Renaissance involved music, theatre and literature as well as poetry.

Claude McKay's If We Must Die is a response to the 1919 'Red Summer' when mobs of white racists attacked and killed black people in riots across America. Langston Hughes' The Negro Speaks Of Rivers is a tour de force locating black history and black humanity in the history of the earth itself, and in particular of the great, free-flowing rivers that have carved their mark on its surface. And what can I possibly say about a poem as awesome and inspiring as Maya Angelou's And Still I Rise? Every time I read it I choke up, in a good way. Read it and rise.

 

If We Must Die
by Claude McKay

If we must die, let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursèd lot.
If we must die, O let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
O kinsmen! we must meet the common foe!
Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one death-blow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!

 

The Negro Speaks of Rivers
by Langston Hughes

I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.

I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

I’ve known rivers:

Ancient, dusky rivers.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

 

Still I Rise
by Maya Angelou

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I'll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
’Cause I walk like I've got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I'll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries?

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don't you take it awful hard
’Cause I laugh like I've got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own backyard.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I've got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?

Out of the huts of history’s shame
I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise
I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.