Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen: Perspective on Religion

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American Literature II Authors:

Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen: Perspective on Religion Susan Glaspell and Charlotte Gilman: Roles of Women W.E.B Du Bois and Booker T Washington: Political View

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 continuously 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...