Address on 3 Poets of the Harlem Renaissance Delivered on the 72nd Anniversary of the Poetry Society of Georgia
The address presented below was delivered February 16, 1995, at Christ Church Parrish Hall in Savannah, Georgia, on the occasion of the 72nd Anniversary of the Poetry Society of Georgia by author-poet Aberjhani. In addition to its discussion of works by Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, and Countee Cullen, it is notable for its reference to what at the time was considered a second major African-American cultural “renaissance” surpassing the first: The images, with photographs by David Duncan, are from the Georgia Guardian, a now defunct weekly newspaper formerly published by the Savannah College of Art and Design:
Good evening ladies and gentlemen. I would first of all like to say that I am extremely pleased and honored to present this evening’s program during a time as special as the society’s 72nd anniversary. Being here tonight, celebrating Afrocentric poetry and the society's 72nd anniversary on the same program certainly holds as much significance for me personally as it does for the Poetry society of Georgia Historically.
Too often, when we hear the phrase African-American poetry, we reflect in very singular terms upon that body of literature as if its sole qualification were the fact that it was written by an American black man or woman. In other words, we speak of such poetry as if the poet's color was the sole factor defining it, and, as if all African-American poets necessarily write from the same literary perspective.A
Suppose we take a moment to correct ourselves and recognize something very important. Those voices which make up the very rich canon of African- American poetry are, in fact, as diverse, distinct, and often universal as the very fertile culture from which they spring.
One of the most celebrated eras in African-American literary history is the Harlem Renaissance, an explosion of creative forces that began in the mid-1920s and boomed throughout the 1930s and 1940s. And it should be noted that although the cultural phenomenon was centered primarily around the artistic pulse that was Harlem, New York, there were many branches extending to such cities as Chicago, St. Louis, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia.
Many of the names from that era are well-known to us: Jesse Redmon Fauset, Zora Neale Hurston, Countee Cullen, Jean Toomer, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, and Claude McKay. Even a quick perusal of works by 3 of the poets just mentioned.––Countee Cullen, Jean Toomer, and Langston Hughes-- would demonstrate the diverse nature of the poetic voice among black poets. And their differences are not only in personal style, but in such elements as theme, content, subject matter, rhythm, and structure.
When reading, for example, the works or Countee Cullen, one encounters a mind more concerned with the classic Greek concepts of such themes as truth and beauty. In the works of Langston Hughes, the concern is not only for afrocentric folk wisdom and humor, but also for the many musical sound patterns inherent in black speech. And Hughes, as a matter of fact, was so intent on capturing these patterns in his poetry that he traveled throughout the country largely to participate in conversation with different African Americans and record their language and stories. One such place was on the docks of our very own Savannah River, where he met with longshoremen and probably worked a day or 2 to earn some pocket money for the road.
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The Renaissance in 1995
When we come to the literary art of Jean Toomer, we meet a poet similar to Langston Hughes in his love for the flowing rhythms of the blues and black folks’ gospel, but quite different in his thematic approaches. Jean Toomer is a rarity among the black poets of his era because his poetic vision was not so much racial, political, or even social as it was mystical and cosmic in scope. His sense of African-American destiny was linked as much to an awareness of universal forces as it was to an awareness of historical change.
The same kind of diversity apparent in these 3 poets is also present in the literary voices of those who followed their lead in the decades afterwards. For the sake of time, I won't go into any detailed analyses of these poets' work but I will mention just a few. Among such individuals as Gwendolyn Brooks writing in the 1950s, Nikki Giovanni in the 1960s, and Audre Lorde and Ntozake Shange in later decades, up to the present, we again witness a variety of poetic styles, voices, and subject matter. The same can be said of writers such as Amiri Baraka, Ishmael Reed, and Eugene B. Redmond.
In the October 10, 1994 edition of Time Magazine, the writer Jack E. White made public what many black poets were already stating in private. Namely, that we are presently enjoying the resurgence of a second black renaissance. [The headline on the cover reads, “Black Renaissance, African-American artists are truly free at last.”] Maya Angelou's inauguration poem is only one example. The fact that Rita dove has served twice as the nation's poet laureate is another and yet a third indicator is the Pulitzer Prize for poetry awarded to Yusef Komunyakaa.
In an article titled The Beauty of Black Art, Mr. White makes this observation: “Black artists are now embarked on one of the most astonishing outbursts of creativity in the nation's history. Never before -- not even during the legendary great Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s or the bristling Black Arts Movement of the '60s -- have black artists produced so much first-rate writing, music, painting and dance.”
In the midst of this now official renaissance, there are many distinguished voices indeed, a number of which reside in Savannah and some of which we shall hear tonight. As with the past, the concerns, the rhythms and the temperaments expressed are unique to the poets themselves. Again, quoting Jack E White’s observance in time magazine, today’s black artist recognizes race as an element to be acknowledged and most assuredly treasured, but not one to which he or she must necessarily feel restricted. Our pens draw nourishment from many sources: Africa, Europe, Native America, Asia––the public world of our professional lives and the personal world of our spiritual selves.
So: with all due respect to the past, we now step happily forward into the present.
© February 1995
A Member of PEN American Center and the Academy of American Poets, Aberjhani is also the Choice Academic Title Award-winning co-author of the world's first Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance.