Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen: Perspective on Religion

In the 1920s, the somewhat genteel world of American poetry was shaken to its foundations when the Harlem Renaissance started. During those times, all over the United States, there was an outburst of strong black voices, writing with African-American cadences and rhythms. Moreover, during that period, generally different and diverse subject matters and styles subsisted in poetry. Furthermore, the blues and jazz clubs in Harlem served as an opportunity for the up-and-coming Black writers who wrote to increase the awareness of the Negro people and inculcate pride in their African heritage.
Among these writers were Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes. These writers employed the political, religious, and social facets of the African American happenings as springboard for poetic illustration. Nevertheless, these two writers differ in their life influences, style, and language usage. A proclaimed poet of the Harlem Renaissance, Countee Cullen, uses his poem, Yet Do I Marvel, to send a very strong and passionate message.
The poem is a first-person monologue in which a Black poet, indistinguishable from Cullen, voices doubt and confusion about the world, about the relationship between God and man, and about this particular poet’s place in the world. No audience is addressed directly. The poet begins by professing his belief in a God who is all-good, good-intentioned and almighty. He also affirms that God has reasons for everything that happens in the world, even if these reasons are often difficult for humans to understand.

In particular, the poet wonders why such an all-good Supreme Being could allow things like physical disabilities and death. In the two quatrains the poet observes several examples of worldly imperfection. He mentions the blindness of the mole and the mortality of human flesh. He also refers to the never- ending punishments of two figures from Greek mythology: Tantalus, plagued by unquenchable hunger and thirst in the midst of unreachable food and drink; and Sisyphus, faced with the impossible task of rolling uphill a rock which ontinuously slips back to the starting-point before the task is finished. In the sextet the poet wonders whether there is any way to explain the blindness of the mole, the punishments of Tantalus and Sisyphus or the death of human beings and decides that only God has a satisfactory explanation for these worldly imperfections. The ways of God are beyond understanding and human beings are too distracted by the everyday cares of life to see reason behind the mighty hands of God. The poet does not mention that he is Black until the final couplet.
The “I” at the beginning of the poem is an anonymous human. At the end of the poem this “I” proudly reveals himself to be not only a poet, but a Black poet. This revelation transforms the poem from a general comment upon the human experience to personal reflection. Of all the incomprehensible actions of God, the most amazing for the poet to understand is that God made him both a poet and Black. The strong mood of religious reflection in this poem stems in large part from the central position of the Christian church in the culture of Afro-Americans.
Intensity of religious fervor and a vivid sense of divine anthropomorphism are common themes in the poetry of Black American poets. A second important theme for Cullen is his race. Blackness is a focal point of the poem. It is the last of a series of imponderables in the human condition. On the one hand, the poet’s black skin is included in the same category as the blindness of the mole or the punishments of Tantalus and Sisyphus. It is another example of the mysterious ways of a God who inexplicably made humans of different skin color.
On the other hand, the blackness of the poet is a source of pride, a gift of that Almighty Creator whose ways are always right. Thus Cullen, a poet of the Harlem Renaissance in the early part of the twentieth century, was asserting the mysterious beauty of black skin long before the Civil Rights movement made Black pride fashionable later in the century. At the same time, Cullen’s experience as a Black man is set in the context of his role as a poet. He is a poet made Black, not a Black made a poet. Like his black skin, Cullen’s poetic talent is a mysterious source of both pain and joy.
This poet who fashions a highly polished poem filled with sophisticated allusion is, at the same time, a member of an oppressed race often denied the opportunity to acquire such erudition and poetic skill. Indeed, Cullen emphasizes the involuntary nature of his poetry. He did not choose to be a poet any more than he chose to be Black. It was God who made him both a poet and Black. It is God who commands him to sing. The poet cannot help himself anymore than he could change the color of his skin. The source of his poetic power is divine and lies outside him.
While some poets find this source in nature or in the personal subconscious, Cullen attributes this power to the Supreme Being who dominates this poem. Cullen’s insistence upon the divine inspiration of the poet is appropriate in a poem which combines themes from Classical and Biblical sources, for both traditions affirm the ability of supernatural beings to speak through humans. The Greeks called these deities of inspiration Muses while the Biblical God inspires prophets with warnings for humans. A similar God bids Cullen to sing.
In the end, the poem offers more than the personal perspective of a Black poet. It speaks not just of the Black condition but of the human condition. All humans feel the irony of a life filled with petty cares, with mysteries, with struggle and with death, but a life brimming with the marvel of God’s great deeds, with the excitement of divine inspiration, and with an appreciation for the beauty of a poem well made. Langston Hughes was one of the first black men to express the spirit of blues and jazz into words. An African American Hughes became a well known poet, novelist, journalist, and playwright.
Because his father immigrated to Mexico and his mother was often away, Hughes was brought up in Lawrence, Kansas, by his grandmother Mary Langston. Her second husband (Hughes’s grandfather) was a fierce abolitionist. She helped Hughes to see the cause of social justice. As a lonely child Hughes turned to reading and writing, publishing his first poems while in high school in Cleveland, Ohio. The speaker in “The Negro Speaks of River” delivers his claims in a cosmic voice that extends throughout all time and space. This voice includes all peoples.
Hughes’ ancestry included three major race groups; he lived as an African-American (Hughes referred to himself as “colored” or “Negro,” because he was writing before the term “African-American” was accepted widely); his parents were African-Americans. But Hughes’ interests far exceeded racial limitations. He embraced all of life. He suffered the color-line, when racism was strong in early twentieth-century America, but he rose above racial hatred and felt love and compassion for all races. His acceptance is especially evident in “The Negro Speaks of River” spoken by a cosmic voice that includes and unites all people.
The poem begins, “I’ve known rivers: / I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the / flow of human blood in human veins. ” The river symbolizes the linkage of all human life from the earliest time to the present. He continues naming rivers that represent the history of Western culture. From the Euphrates to the Mississippi, the history of mankind from Biblical times to the period of the American Civil War is represented. The Euphrates is considered the cradle of Western civilization. The speaker of the poem claims to have “bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young. Thus the cosmic voice begins at the origin of civilization. The speaker then moves westward to the Congo claiming, “I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep. ” Here he focuses on the African experience, as he does in the following line, “I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it. ” Neither claim limits the voice to a black voice, because the white and yellow races have lived along the Congo and were among the slaves employed by the ancient Egyptians in constructing the pyramids.
Hughes’ cosmic voice unites the races in one cosmic person. He highlights the American experience claiming, “I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln / went down to New Orleans . . . .” Lincoln reminds us of the process of emancipation of slaves, and the Mississippi River symbolizes the human blood of all races. The speaker repeats “My soul has grown deep like the rivers. ” Because the soul is the life force of the body, the stream of energy, the person who recognizes that his soul has grown deep recognizes his own identity.
In this poem the river symbolizes the link of mankind as the blood in the body is believed to be linked because we are all children of God, and thus we have the common ancestry originating with Adam and Eve, the symbolical first parents. The cosmic speaker portrays selfhood and recognizes his roots, his identity as a child of not only one set of biological parents but as a child of the cosmos (or of God), and he is linked with all humanity, all races, all creeds for all time through the depth of his own soul.
Susan Glaspell lived in a time where the most evident social issue was the inequality between men and women, and that women greatly relied on men in order to live. Glaspell, as a budding writer and feminist, tried to prove them wrong by writing plays regarding the freedom of women against the gender roles that the society dictates. With the help of her husband and friends, she started the Provincetown Players, where they are able to experiment on new plays which explores sensitive social issues like gender inequality. Glaspell’s Trifles is a good example of these plays.
This play depicts the role of women in the society during the time it was made. During that time, men are still considered to be superior to women. It is also the time when men usually undermines the capabilities of women, as well as question their decision-making ways . The play showed how women were usually ruled by their emotions and intuitions, which they used to successfully unmask the case . The story revolves around the case of the murdered John Wright, who was strangled with a rope while he sleeps in his farmhouse. The main suspect was his was wife, Minnie Wright, who was already arrested and is not portrayed in the play anymore.
The problem of the characters would be to prove whether Minnie Wright was really guilty of murdering her husband. Susan Glaspell was born on the late 19th century, where women are not yet recognized as equals of men. Her writing style is influenced by her Midwestern background. The first career she took after graduation was a reporting job for a daily newspaper. The play Trifles was based on an actual murder case that she has worked on during her days as a reporter. After she quit her work as a reporter, she began writing fiction novels. Susan Glaspell became open to radical ideas when she met George Cook, a married man from Davenport.
She was able to work on the traditional gender roles, just like what is being tackled on Trifles. Glaspell and Cook developed an affair, and were married afterwards. With Cook being a nonconformist, Glaspell was able to freely do what society restricts her to do because of her gender and class. It was also through Cook and some of her friends that she was able to exercise her literary freedom and come up with plays that talk about societal issues of her time. Charlotte Perkins Gilman was a self-proclaimed philosopher, writer, educator and an intellectual activist of the women’s movement from the late 1890’s through the mid-1920’s.
She demanded equal treatment for women as the best means to advance society’s progress. She was an extraordinary woman who waged a lifelong battle against the restrictive social codes for women in late nineteenth-century America. “The Yellow Wall-Paper”, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, reflects women’s role in the Nineteenth Century. Women were controlled by their husbands and other men. Women did not have much social life. Women did not have any. Gilman uses many complex symbols, such as, the house, the bedroom, and the wallpaper to forces on the major theme of the story.
The story is an interpretation how women are oppressed by males in society. Gilman attempts to reveal this oppression through her use of male imposed confinement. One woman’s struggle with both mental and physical confinement represents the greater battles between women and men. Confinement represents classic male oppression and the woman represents all women and their struggle to break free from male dominance. The significance of the confinement is seen in both the vivid descriptions which symbolize the male dominance and the woman’s subsequent reaction to this incarceration.
The yellow wallpaper paints a distinct picture of confinement in both the physical and symbolic sense. Physically the house itself serves to lead to feelings of isolation. It represents the classic institution, that part of society which attempts to constrain the individual. Symbolically the narrator being confined to the room by her husband is representative of opportunity to see the oppressive society in its truest light. Within the pattern the narrator sees nursery complete with “rings and things” in the walls and a bed nailed to the floor.
It is in this men had over women, the ability to ensure a woman’s dependence on a man through exerting the began to tear down the walls of female oppression that exist to this day. She broke free from the confinement that suffocated her and for a moment showed society its greatest flaw, inequality. Completely in the end as her insanity dominates her, she does begin the process, a process which his wife to the nursery John exercised this dominance over his wife. The story “The Yellow Wallpaper” is about a woman who fights for her right to express what she wants, and fights for her right for freedom.
The story also shows the uneven balance of power between husband and wife in the Nineteen Century. Gilman uses many symbols to show the readers women’s social condition, lives, and all unfair treatment they had in the Nineteenth Century at different level of scopes. By using symbols, Gilman represents the effect of the oppression of women in society in late the Nineteenth Century. This story is primarily existential in nature. Gilman believes that with the fight, she can be free; all women can get freedom from the male dominated world.
From her story, she does not agree women have to accept the unfair truth. She believed women can change their own situation. Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois, both early advocates of the civil rights movement, offered solutions to the discrimination experienced by black men and women in the nineteenth and twentieth century. Despite having that in common, the two men had polar approaches to that goal. Washington, a man condoning economic efficiency had a more gradual approach as opposed to Du Bois, whose course involved immediate and total equality both politically and economically.
For the time period, Washington overall offers a more effective and appropriate proposition for the time whereas Du Bois’s approach is precedent to movements in the future. Both have equal influence over African Americans in politics. Washington’s proposal excels in reference to education while Du Bois can be noted for achieving true respect from white Americans. Du Bois urged African Americans to involve themselves in politics. Gaining this power would be essential to immediate beseeching of rights.
Political association would prevent blacks from falling behind because “when the Negro found himself deprived of influence in politics, therefore, and at the same time unprepared to participate in the higher functions in the industrial development which this country began to undergo, it soon became evident to him that he was losing ground in the basic things of life” (Doc I). Du Bois also directly challenged Washington when he stated “that the way for a people to gain their reasonable rights is a not by voluntarily throwing them away and insisting that they do not want them” (Doc E). W. E. B.
Du Bois goes on to criticize that “that the principles of democratic government are losing ground, and caste distinctions are growing in all directions” (Doc F). All of these political demands are comprehensible but Du Bois desired a radical change; “Negroes must insist continually, in season and out of season” (Doc E). This is close to nagging, which was surely unfavorable among primarily white politicians. The effectiveness of perpetual complaining would steadily decrease. Washington avoids political involvement which in general is a neutral action neither promoting nor causing defacement of the Negro population.
In 1880 the percentage of 5-19 year olds enrolled in school for whites was approximately 60% while the percent of blacks was roughly half that, which was a vast improvement over just thirty years before when black enrollment was around zero (Doc A). Although black students appear to be bettering themselves, it is still quite unfortunate; there may be more black students enrolled but their education system was still below that of white folk. This in effect explains why the illiteracy rate of the white population was at 10% while the percentage of the black population unable to read sky-lined at 60% (Doc B).
Both Washington and Du Bois recognized the gap but took completely different approaches to achieve a remedy and also had differing views of what necessary education was. Washington believed that if blacks focused their attention on striving economically they would eventually be given the rights they deserved. To do this, he encouraged attending trade schools like the ones which he worked with. The Tuskegee Institute of Alabama, which he founded, was where “no time [was] wasted on dead languages or superfluous studies of any kind”.
Then he proposed working either industrially or agriculturally since their education would be based on “what is practical” and “what would best fit [the] young people for the work life” (Doc G). Du Bois, on the other hand, had grown up well rounded culturally. A historian specializing in the history of blacks and a renowned sociologist, at the age of 93 he became a member of the communist party and exiled himself to Africa. Du Bois had high hopes for the “Talented Tenth”: after thorough education they could succeed. The fight for first class citizenship could be earned through the university educated Negro through the court systems.
Although it is a well thought out solution, the number of black college students enrolled was still quite low at the time. He believed along with others, “that industrial education [would] not stand [African Americans] in place of political, civil, and intellectual liberty” (Doc H). It is true that being cultured is important but for the time, labor was the necessity and would bring supposed status. W. E. B Du Bois, however, is able to surpass Washington in the area of overall respect and morality concerning white folk. Booker T. Washington made a point that if blacks could prove themselves useful, they could achieve their rights.
Washington stated, “No race that has anything to contribute to the markets of the world is long in any degree ostracized. It is important and right that all privileges of the laws be ours, but it is vastly more important that we be prepared for the exercise of those privileges. The opportunity to earn a dollar in a factory just now is worth infinitely more than the opportunity to spend a dollar in an opera house”. In theory, Washington concluded that in order for African Americans to succeed, it was imperative for them to befriend the white men. Only then would the struggle for blacks end.
He continually sounds of begging when stating to the white men: “Casting down your bucket among my people, helping and encouraging them as you are doing on these grounds and to education of head, hand, and heart… While doing this you can be sure in the future, as in the past, that you and your families will be surrounded by the most patient, faithful, law-abiding, and unresentful people that the world has seen”. All this had been said in his Atlanta Compromise Address in 1895 (Doc D). It was also apparent to everyone African American who did not totally agree with Washington’s idea that this was a sign of submission for the black race.
The submissive part was, if none else, the fact that we were to accept that black people were going to continue to use their hands as a means to be productive to a white society. Many blacks turned away from such a statement and this is where W. E. B. Du Bois came to relieve them. Although Fortune stated, “It is impossible to estimate the value of such a man” (Doc G), Du Bois rejected the philosophy of Booker T. Washington declaring that he was “condemning their race to manual labor and perpetual inferiority”.
He argues “that the way for a people to gain respect is not by continually belittling and ridiculing themselves” (Doc E). The De Facto segregation, such as a separate water fountain “for colored only” (Doc J) proposed by Washington did alleviate white and black tension but nonetheless was degrading. He presents that “the wisest among my race understand that the agitation of questions of social equality is the extremest folly, and that progress in the enjoyment of all the privileges that will come to us must be the result of severe and constant struggle rather than of artificial forcing” (Doc D).
Barnett criticized that “[Washington], one of the most noted of their own race should join with the enemies” (Doc H). Such attitudes from Washington could truly be appreciated by Southern whites who in no way would want to be equivalent to a Negro. Although both men approached the topic differently, the advancement of civil rights would not be as far along today if it were not for both simultaneous views. Each needed the other to achieve his agenda. However, the most experienced in dealing with the sensitivity of the prejudices was Washington.
He seemingly knew what buttons to push and how far he could push them. Curiously, the year Washington gave his Atlanta Compromise Address in 1895, the number of blacks lynched dropped from 170 the previous year to just above 120. It is also interesting to note that after Du Bois gave his speech about The Niagara Movement in 1905, the numbers began to steadily increase again (Doc C, D, F). Du Bois’ approach of “ceaseless agitation, unfailing exposure of dishonesty and wrong” (Doc F) was not ready for the time where Washington is more rational in his gradual approach.

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