Music, dance, literature, racial pride, painting and more various cultural and artistic expression began to overflow the in the 1920’s, this period known as the Harlem Renaissance. The Harlem Renaissance is immensely known for the African American community utilizing artistic and literary expression to establish a platform to advocate against the racial injustice (Standish 40-42). Through diverse literature by African American writers, readers are able to witness firsthand, “their attitude towards racism and discrimination [along with] their responses to discrimination and their proliferation of “’Black is Beautiful’” (Harden 11). Examples of themes constantly found in the writings released during this time period are “hope and oppression, the urban atmosphere, as well as racial pride and solidarity, and social and economic self-sufficiency” (Harden 11). Two authors who were greatly influenced and influencers during the Harlem Renaissance were Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston illustrate American identity physically, patiently, and pridefully in their writings “I, Too” and “How It Feels to Be Colored Me”.
Langston Hughes was an African American poet, playwright and activist (Standish 46). Born February 1, 1902 in Joplin, Missouri and died in 1967 (Bailey). Although his father denied sending Hughes to school, Hughes graduated in 1929 from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania (Bailey). To this time today, Langston Hughes’s work is said by many to embody the “Harlem Renaissance’s themes of historical pain, racial pride, and artistic renewal” (Standish 46). Hughes was even considered an “unapologetic voice of black America” speaking for Harlem (Standish 41). In his poetry, Hughes mimic “the rhythms of jazz and blues music” (Bailey). At some point in Harlem, New York Langston Hughes collaborates in writing a play called “Mule Bone” with his new apprentice, Zora Neale Hurston (Russell 130).
Zora Neale Hurston is one of the most influential American writers. Hurston was born in Notasugla, Alabama on January 7,1891 and died January 28,1960 (Jones 18). In 1929, she graduated from Barnard College in 1929 and was awarded fellowship by Columbia University after conducting two years of graduate work in anthropology (Jones 20). Hurston wrote novels, short stories, essays and more. In the majority of her writings, Hurston wrote about the “interior lives of southern blacks and whites, their gender relations, honor codes, and self-reliance” (Patterson 599). Hurston’s was also an anthropologist which gave her further insight in African American culture to create the fundamental writings of the Harlem Renaissance (Russell 130-131). Her writing is said to reveal her “quirky and fearless personality” but was looked down upon by others (Russell 126).
Both authors illustrate in their writings American identity has no relation to the color of a person’s skin. In Langston Hughes’s poem “I, Too”, he declares “I, too, sing America/ I am the darker brother” (Hughes lines 1-2). By saying he also “[sings] America” Hughes is explaining he also identifies as American. Hughes the brings up the color of his skin, while it is darker, is just another way an American person comes to look. He what he calls himself “the darker brother” also indicating that they are part of the same family, the American family. While Hughes uses the analogy of family Zora Neale Hurston utilizes a metaphor to get the same message across. In Hurston’s short story “How It Feels to Be Colored Me” she explains, “I feel like a brown bag of miscellany propped against a wall. Against a wall in company with other bags, white, red, and yellow. Pour out the contents and there is discovered a jumble of small things priceless and worthless” (Hurston 943). Hurston is describing that while the outside of a person is different in color, their insides are made up of the same material. Both authors are arguing the physical attributions that cause stir when it comes to American Identity. They believe they are just as American as the lighter skinned Americans. When the authors are met with the racist attitudes from others, their responses are something that one would not believe.
To clarify, Hughes and Hurston make it apparent in their writings that they do not mope or retaliate when others try to invalidate them of being American due to the color of their skin. In his poem Langston Hughes presents the example, “They send me to eat in the kitchen / When company comes, / But I laugh, / And eat well, / And grow strong” (lines 3-7). Being sent away from the table makes a person feel isolated and terrible but Hughes describes he does not take it to heart. Hughes rather than shed tears for being sent to solitude he grows from the abuse and will come back stronger. Zora Neale Hurston also displays no hurt when others attempt to discriminate her expressing, “No, I do not weep at the world – I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife” (Hurston 941). Hurston straight out states she does not cry to others for their pity but instead remains “sharpening [her] oyster knife”. Stating this Hurston means she is also preparing for her comeback. The authors state these cases to demonstrate that while they are not fighting back, but they are getting ready for when the right time comes, their time, whatever and whenever that may be. Through this the authors exhibit the composure and civility of American identity. Hughes and Hurston even go as far as to being a little vain when it comes to the rejection they face.
In their writings, the authors explain it is wrong for others not be around them or treat them so unfairly because they believe they are not American due to the color of their skin but each author allows the slander to bounce off. Langston Hughes goes on to assure readers, “Besides / They’ll see how beautiful I am / And be ashamed – / I, too, am American” (Hughes lines 15-18). Hughes explains that those who have done him wrong, segregating him because of the color of his skin, will feel remorseful for what they have done. He goes as far as to call himself “beautiful” showing he feels no embarrassment for the color of his skin, he still is American. Hurston is also onboard exhibiting the same self-admiration in times of others disapproval. Zora Neale Hurston confidently expresses, “It merely astonishes me. How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company?” (Hurston 943). Hurston also feels that because the Americans of lighter skin do not want to accompany her in any kind of way, they are the ones that miss out on enjoying her persona. Both authors show that although the American Identity, in that time period, has negative connotations of those with darker skin they themselves keep living their own lives allowing the others to deal with their negative mindsets because they know they are American.
Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston wrote “I, Too” and “How It Feels to Be Colored Me” in a more positive perspective in order to show that while at first, they are not thought as part of the American identity, they truly are. Although these pieces of writing are written during the time period of the Harlem Renaissance that does not make them irrelevant today. The harmful terms and actions that these authors faced in their time do not compare to what a person of dark skin has to deal with today but there is still racism that affects people, of all skin colors, toady. This positive attitude that the authors demonstrate in their writings is a lesson to be taken, society continues to make a change for the better just as American Identity has changed over time with an infinite spectrum of skin colors.
Bailey, Ellen. “Langston Hughes.” Langston Hughes (9781429806367), Aug. 2017, pp. 1–2. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lkh&AN=19327994&site=ehost-live.
Harden, Renata, et al. “Reading the Harlem Renaissance into Public Policy: Lessons from the Past to the Present.” Afro-Americans in New York Life & History, vol. 36, no. 2, July 2012, pp. 7–36. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=79324785&site=ehost-live.
Hughes, Langston. “I, Too.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Vol. 2: 1865 to the Present, by Nina Baym and Robert S. Levine, W.W. Norton & Company, 2013, pp. 1039–1040.
Hurston, Zora Neale. “How It Feels to Be Colored Me.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Vol. 2: 1865 to the Present, by Nina Baym and Robert S. Levine, W.W. Norton & Company, 2013, pp. 940–943.
Jones, Sharon L. Zora Neale Hurston. Salem Press, 2013. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=520341&site=ehost-live.
Patterson, Tiffany Ruby. “Zora Neale Hurston: A Biography of the Spirit.” Journal of American History, vol. 96, no. 2, Sept. 2009, pp. 599–600. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1093/jahist/96.2.599.Journal of American History, vol. 96, no. 2, Sept. 2009, pp. 599–600. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1093/jahist/96.2.599.
Russell, Mary Catherine. “Zora Neale Hurston: Scientist, Folklorist, Storyteller.” Pursuit: The Journal of Undergraduate Research at the University of Tennessee, vol. 8, no. 1, Jan. 2017, pp. 125–137. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=123884543&site=ehost-live.
Standish, Noah. “Pain, Pride, & Renewal: How Langston Hughes Embodied the Harlem Renaissance.” LOGOS: A Journal of Undergraduate Research, vol. 11, Fall 2018, pp. 40–50. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=133022504&site=ehost-live.