Harlem Renaissance Poems Essay

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African-American culture flourished during the Harlem Renaissance. Although often characterized by and punctuated with the “double consciousness” of being both black and an American, the work of Harlem Renaissance writers and poets was variable and diverse. Countee Cullen is unique among Harlem Renaissance poets. Many of his works reflect the English poetic traditions, even more so than American or African-American ones. “Cullen considered the Anglo-American poetic heritage to belong as much to him as to any white American of his age,” (“Harlem Renaissance: American Literature and Art”). Implicit in Cullen’s poetic styles and formats was the belief in a blended identity, and yet the poem “Simon the Cyrenian Speaks” shows that Cullen indeed did struggle with the double consciousness. Langston Hughes took a different approach than Cullen did, in terms of poetic style, subject matter, and approaches to race. Contrary to Cullen, Hughes believed “black poets should create a distinctive Negro art, combating what he called the “urge within the race toward whiteness,” (“Harlem Renaissance: American Literature and Art”

1). In Hughes’s poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” Hughes resolves the double consciousness not through reconciliation with whiteness, but through an affirmation of Blackness. Taken together, “Simon the Cyrenian Speaks” and “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” show how different Harlem Renaissance poets conceptualized the double consciousness of racialized identity in America.

In “Simon the Cyrenian Speaks,” Countee Cullen reveals the deep personal and collective conflicts within the African American soul. The speaker of the poem, Simon of Cyrenian, is called to carry the cross for Jesus. His calling is spiritual: “He never gave a sign to me / And yet I knew and came,” (Cullen lines 3-4). At first, Simon has far too much pride to assume the burdens of one who he does not know. Also, Simon believes that “He only seeks to place it there / Because my skin is black,” (Cullen lines 7-8). Yet Simon changes his mind, feeling an outpouring of pity on Jesus, who was “dying for a dream,” but in whose eyes “there shone a gleam / Men journey far to seek,” (lines 11-12). By agreeing to carry the cross, Simon essentially trades places with Jesus, becoming a martyr. “I did for Christ alone / What all of Rome could not have wrought / With bruise of lash or stone,” (lines 15-16). The last line refers directly and explicitly to….....

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Works Cited

Cullen, Countee. “Simon the Cyrenian Speaks.” Retrieved online: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/browse?contentId=16356

“Harlem Renaissance: American Literature and Art.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved online: https://www.britannica.com/event/Harlem-Renaissance-American-literature-and-art/Poetry

Hughes, Langston. “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” Retrieved online: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44428/the-negro-speaks-of-rivers

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