The Harlem Renaissance 

Although Langston Hughes wrote “Harlem” in the early 1950s, the poem extends his legacy as a leading figure of the Harlem Renaissance. The Harlem Renaissance refers to a major explosion of Black intellectual and artistic activity that erupted in the 1920s. Though centered on the Harlem neighborhood of New York City, the Renaissance had an international reach that witnessed the flowering of Black intellectual discourse, literature, visual art, music, and fashion. All these forms of cultural and artistic production sought to challenge racism, subvert predominant stereotypes, and develop a progressive new politics that advanced Black peoples and promoted integration. At the center of the Harlem Renaissance stood the figure known as the New Negro. The “Old Negro” remained hampered by the historical trauma of slavery. The “New Negro,” by contrast, possesses a renewed sense of self, purpose, and pride. Langston Hughes contributed to this vision of the “New Negro” through his poetry. In early works like “Youth,” for instance, he professed his faith that the next generation of Black Americans would achieve their freedom. “Harlem” at once echoes this vision and complicates it. More specifically, he draws attention to the ways this vision has failed to become a material reality.

Black Life in the 1950s

Hughes wrote “Harlem” in the early 1950s, and given the poem’s prophetic tone, it’s easy to see how it anticipates the Civil Rights Movement that would emerge at the decade’s end. The 1950s was a challenging decade for many Black communities throughout the United States. Despite ongoing hopes for greater integration and prosperity, the reality of Black life in much of America remained dispiriting. For one thing, political equality was still an unrealized dream. For another thing, many barriers continued to stand in the way of Black upward mobility. For instance, redlining tactics in many cities forced Black people to live in the least desirable parts of town. Even in cases where a bank would approve a loan to purchase property in middle-class neighborhoods, harassment from white neighbors could make life a living hell. The ongoing barriers to political equality and social mobility were especially disappointing in the postwar years. Many Black men served alongside in the Second World War, only to return home and remain unable to partake in the postwar economic boom. It was precisely these and other frustrations that led directly to the emergence of the Civil Rights Movement at the end of the 1950s.