When considering essential movements in American poetry, no conversation would be complete without a discussion of the Harlem Renaissance. With a lyricism seated in the popular blues and jazz music of the time, an awareness of Black life in America, its assertion of an independent African American identity, and its innovation in form and structure, the poetry of the Harlem Renaissance is unmistakable.

Though the exact dates of the movement are debatable, most consider its beginnings to be rooted in the end of the Reconstruction era, when legal segregation made living conditions for African Americans in the South unbearable. The lack of economic opportunities, and, more importantly, the prevalence of prejudice, lynching, and segregation in public spaces all contributed to the intolerable conditions of African Americans.

When the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, jobs previously held by white males suddenly became available, and industrial expansion in the North provided opportunities for African Americans to seek a new lifestyle. They settled in various northern cities during this Great Migration, though New York City was the most popular, particularly the district of Harlem. African Americans of all social classes joined together in Harlem, which became the focal point of a growing interest in African American culture: jazz, blues, dance, theater, art, fiction, and poetry. 

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Camp Activities

The following activities have been adapted from “Teach This Poem: “America” by Claude McKay.” They can be done alone or with a guardian, sibling, friend, or partner.

  1. Warm-up: Think about the well-known song “America the Beautiful.” How does this song make you feel? What are some of the reasons you feel this way? (If you cannot call the song to mind, think instead about how the phrase “America the beautiful” makes you feel.)
     
  2. Before Reading the Poem: Listen twice to Ray Charles singing “America the Beautiful.” (He adds his own words at the beginning in praise of veterans and soldiers. This may be difficult to understand, but the rest of his lyrics are clear.) The first time, listen all the way through to get an idea of how he sings this song. The second time, write down what you hear when he sings—the lyrics, the tone, the emotions he evokes in you. Is this arrangement what you expected? Why or why not? Share what you have written if you have a partner.
     
  3. Reading the Poem: Read the poem “America” by Claude McKay silently, then write down the words, phrases, and structures that jump out at you.
     
  4. Listening to the Poem (If you have a partner, take turns reading the poem aloud): Listen as the poem is read and write down any additional words and phrases that jump out at you.
     
  5. Small-group Discussion: Share the words and phrases you noticed when you read and heard the poem. What do these words and phrases tell you about how the speaker in the poem feels about America? Does the way the speaker feels change over the course of the poem, or does it seem to stay the same?
     
  6. Whole-class Discussion: Based on what you noticed in the song and the poem, what are the similarities and differences between the feelings Ray Charles evokes about America and the way the speaker in Claude McKay’s poem seems to feel? How might America’s history influence these feelings? 
     
  7. Extension for Grades 7–8: Claude McKay wrote “America” in the form of a sonnet. This poem was first published in 1921, at the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance. Learn more about this literary movement, of which McKay was a key figure, then consider why he might have chosen to write this particular poem in such a traditional form.
     
  8. Extension for Grades 9–12: What do you think the speaker in the poem might mean in the last four lines? Try to write a poem (perhaps in the form of a sonnet) that shows, through powerful images, how you feel about the ideals on which America was founded and what you see happening to this foundation today.

Videos to Watch

 

“La Vie C’est La Vie” by Jessie Redmon Fauset “The Weary Blues” by Langston Hughes

Read and listen to  “La Vie C’est La Vie” by Jessie Redmon Fauset and “The Weary Blues” by Langston Hughes. Follow poets.org on TikTok for more videos.

Poems to Read

Length of Moon” by Arna Bontemps 

Harlem Shadows” by Claude McKay

Lift Every Voice and Sing” by James Weldon Johnson

Lady, Lady” by Anne Spencer

To the Negro Farmers of the United States” by Alice Dunbar-Nelson 

Cotton Song” by Jean Toomer

The Negro Speaks of Rivers” by Langston Hughes

I Have a Rendezvous With Life” by Countee Cullen

Poets to Know

Term to Learn

Sonnet: a fourteen-line poem traditionally written in iambic pentameter, employing one of several rhyme schemes, and adhering to a tightly structured thematic organization.