Prejudice and discrimination against people based on the color of their skin or belonging to a particular ethnic, cultural, or religious group continue to be a critical issue in the United States. As with any societal issues, racism and bigotry are often reflected in contemporary art, including music, photography, cinematography, and literature. This essay will discuss the life of African Americans during the Harlem Renaissance and examine how the poems Saturday’s Child by Countee Cullen and If We Must Die by Claude McKay reflect that experience.
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Harlem Renaissance was a unique cultural and artistic movement of the African American community in the United States. This revival of arts and culture centered in Harlem, New York, took place between the 1920s and 1930s (Azmi et al. 575). The movement highlighted the unjust position of African Americans in society and served as an output for a generation, an emerging identity, and a political statement to the world (Azmi et al. 576). The surge of arts in the African American community also allowed its members to discuss the institutional discrimination they endured throughout their lives and everyday experiences of biased and unfair treatment. Overall, the Harlem Renaissance offered the community a chance of artistic, cultural, and political self-expression it never had before.
The poem Saturday’s Child by Countee Cullen is a pivotal reflection of the life of African Americans during the Harlem Renaissance. It highlights the fact that some people are blessed from birth while others are marked by poor fortune (Cullen). The poem details the experiences of a child born into an underprivileged family and compares them to those of a person born into a well-to-do one (Cullen). Although the author does not categorially use the terms “black” or “white,” allusions to skin color are made in the first two verses (Cullen). Saturday’s Child asserts the understanding that the life of African Americans in the 1920s was one of institutional racism. The poem implies that white Americans are more fortunate and have better chances of success because of their skin color, while black Americans are put at a disadvantage from birth. Thus, Cullen suggests that society does not allow its black members to succeed and enables their continuing discrimination.
Unlike Cullen, who describes the African American experience and compares it to one of white Americans, Claude McKay uses his poem If We Must Die to call for political resistance of the oppressed minorities. The author claims that subjugated people must unite and fight for their honor, even if that struggle leads to their deaths (McKay). The verse shows that African Americans’ life during the Harlem Renaissance was a continuing effort “to remove the masks of racialism” (Hashemipour 10). McKay understands what it means to be a black person in the United States of America as the existence of constant effort against hostile forces. Overall, it can be argued that the poem is particularly appropriate today due to the enduring discrimination, and it still reflects the African American experience.
In summary, Harlem Renaissance saw a rise of artistic expression in the African American community that revealed the lives of black people in the country and attempted to combat racial bias. The poems Saturday’s Child and If We Must Die by Countee Cullen and Claude McKay, respectively, illustrate the lives of black Americans and depict institutional discrimination and struggle. The works also compare the experience of black and white individuals in the United States and call for active action against racism and bigotry.
Azmi, M. N., et al. “Art as a Vehicle for Social Change: The Harlem Renaissance.” KnE Social Sciences, vol. 3, no. 4, 2018, pp. 575-585.
Cullen, Countee. “Saturday’s Child.” Poetry Foundation, 2020.
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Hashemipour, Saman. “The Harlem Origin of the Negro Renaissance: The Poetics of Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen and Claude McKay.” Scholar Critic, vol. 6, no. 1, 2019, pp. 10-24.
McKay, Claude. “If We Must Die.” Poetry Foundation, 2020.