Poetry In The Harlem Renaissance

By: Jasmine Khetan, Paxton Baird, and Gardiner Perotti

Historical Context

The Harlem Renaissance spanned from the 1920's to the mid 1930's and was centrally located in Harlem, New York. At the time, white publicists were very eager to publish black writers because of their interest in the culture of Harlem, so the movement was very publicized and nationally known. It was an intellectual, literary, and artistic movement by the African Americans of the time period and is said to have influenced the Civil Rights Movement later on in the century through its strong writers and artists. The movement emphasized the want of African Americans to melt both their African Heritage and American Culture together so that they could form a new and adapted society for themselves in the United States. The Harlem Renaissance not only profoundly impacted African American culture, but also American culture as a whole.

Poetic Trends:

- lots of references to jazz music

- emphasized a realistic picture of black lives by depicting ghetto slums with descriptive imagery

- referenced the racial division between blacks and whites and the effects it had on how blacks viewed themselves

- theme of duality (how blacks see themselves vs. how they believe others see them)

- highlights the difference between urban and rural lifestlyes (influenced by the Great Migration after African Americans moved from the South to the North)

- references to African Heritage

Major Poets

Three Poems from the Harlem Renaissance

"The Weary Blues" by Langston Hughes

Droning a drowsy syncopated tune,
Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon,
I heard a Negro play.
Down on Lenox Avenue the other night
By the pale dull pallor of an old gas light
He did a lazy sway . . .
He did a lazy sway . . .
To the tune o’ those Weary Blues.
With his ebony hands on each ivory key
He made that poor piano moan with melody.
O Blues!
Swaying to and fro on his rickety stool
He played that sad raggy tune like a musical fool.
Sweet Blues!
Coming from a black man’s soul.
O Blues!
In a deep song voice with a melancholy tone
I heard that Negro sing, that old piano moan—
“Ain’t got nobody in all this world,
Ain’t got nobody but ma self.
I’s gwine to quit ma frownin’
And put ma troubles on the shelf.”

Thump, thump, thump, went his foot on the floor.
He played a few chords then he sang some more—
“I got the Weary Blues
And I can’t be satisfied.
Got the Weary Blues
And can’t be satisfied—
I ain’t happy no mo’
And I wish that I had died.”
And far into the night he crooned that tune.
The stars went out and so did the moon.
The singer stopped playing and went to bed
While the Weary Blues echoed through his head.
He slept like a rock or a man that’s dead.



This poem was written in free verse with a random rhyme scheme because Hughes wanted it to be as similar to real life speech and music as possible. The singer of the poem exemplifies the disappointment and difficulties of African American Society while the title itself tells about the "weary" and hopelessness felt by African Americans. This represents the Harlem Renaissance adeptly because it illustrates the emotions and situation of African Americans in America at this time and demonstrates how they were able to channel them into music and art.

"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!



This poem was written in iambic pentameter and is a Shakespearean sonnet and features a change in tone in the ninth line. The lines previously are describing how the characters know they are going to die and how they wish to not go down in a bad way. The lines following the ninth line exemplify the will and determination of the characters and how even though they know they are going to die, they will die fighting. A central theme in this poem is mortality because the poem in its entirety is describing the expected death of the characters. However, there is also another central theme: honor. The theme of honor is also prevalent and plays a key role in the latter part of the poem where the characters are impassioned to die fighting. This poem exemplifies the time period during the Harlem Renaissance because it symbolizes the will of African Americans to break free from the bonds placed on them in the primarily white society of America. This poem illustrates how African Americans are going to fight for their freedom and honor passionately and forcefully even if they must die trying.



The title “If We Must Die” gives off a sense that the poem is going to be morbid however the “If” in the title also makes the reader think that it may not be a shameful death.


If we are going to die don’t let it be a bad death

Sitting and waiting for death to strike

All the while our friends and family watch

While they live on and see our sorrow

If we are going to die, then let us die in a good way

So that we don’t die in vain

So that we will have the respect of everyone once gone

Death is for everyone

We can’t escape death anymore

We will not die like cowards

But instead we will die with a fighting spirit


Diction- The poet uses synonyms and antonyms of glory and honor throughout the poem to describe types of death.

Imagery- At the beginning of the poem he sets the scene of a death as a hog hunt where the pigs are slaughtered in a cruel death. Towards the end of the poem the image of death has shifted to a glorious death fighting a losing battle where they are vastly outnumbered.

Symbolism- The battle that is being fought at the end of the poem is symbolic of the racially battle between white and black people.


The poet’s attitude in this poem toward the subject is that it must be fought at all costs. He believes that they can’t just simply die without fighting for what’s right


The poem shifts from despair to determination to get what is right for African- Americans. He goes from describing the scene of what would be a shameful death to an example of what many consider a heroic one.


After analyzing the poem the title to me means that if death is inevitable then at least die for something worth fighting for.


A central theme in this poem is mortality because the poem in its entirety is describing the expected death of the characters. However, there is also another central theme: honor. The theme of honor is also prevalent and plays a key role in the latter part of the poem where the characters are impassioned to die fighting.

"Invitation to Love" by Paul Laurence Dunbar

Come when the nights are bright with stars
Or come when the moon is mellow;
Come when the sun his golden bars
Drops on the hay-field yellow.
Come in the twilight soft and gray,
Come in the night or come in the day,
Come, O love, whene’er you may,
And you are welcome, welcome.

You are sweet, O Love, dear Love,
You are soft as the nesting dove.
Come to my heart and bring it rest
As the bird flies home to its welcome nest.

Come when my heart is full of grief
Or when my heart is merry;
Come with the falling of the leaf
Or with the reddening cherry.
Come when the year’s first blossom blows,
Come when the summer gleams and glows,
Come with the winter’s drifting snows,
And you are welcome, welcome.



This poem elicits a strong feeling of longing and love throughout its entirety, and adeptly describes the author's approach to his writing. Despite the sadness and hopelessness that African Americans had felt, Dunbar wrote poems that still had emotions such as love and longing during the Harlem Renaissance. Being the son of two freed slaves, Dunbar wrote this poem to illustrate their longing and love for each other due to the distance that separated them during their enslavement. This resilient love symbolizes the will and determination of African Americans to continue to strive for freedom and happiness no matter the obstacles and to encourage African Americans to continue to express themselves and succeed during the Harlem Renaissance