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The Making of African American Identity: Volume III, 1917-1968
Theme: SegregationTheme: MigrationsTheme: ProtestTheme: CommunityTheme: Overcome?
Theme: Protest

Countee Cullen
Countee Cullen
- Claude McKay, "If We Must Die," 1919
- Gwendolyn B. Bennett, "Hatred," 1926
- Sterling A. Brown, "Strong Men," 1931 (PDF)
- Countee Cullen, "Scottsboro, Too, Is Worth Its Song," 1934 (PDF)
- Langston Hughes, "Ballad of the Landlord," 1943 (PDF)
- Gwendolyn Brooks, "The Chicago Defender Sends a Man to Little Rock," 1960 (PDF)
- Sonia Sanchez, "right on: white america," 1969 (PDF)

A study of black protest poems from the early part of the twentieth century through the late sixties can provide insight into the issues African Americans faced during that time and the ways they responded to them. It can also provide insight into the self-conception of the "protestor." The poems offered here do not illustrate the full range of African American protest poetry written from 1917 to 1968, but they do offer a rich field of comparison through which to chart changes in the voice of black protest as the political, social, and psychological position of African Americans changed through the century.

Like satire, protest literature stakes out a moral position from which to criticize its object. The protest writer says, in effect, "Based on these moral values, this behavior or these circumstances are unjust and deserve to be condemned." As you read these poems, consider the moral tradition upon which each establishes its critical perspective and ask how the author invokes that tradition through language, form, or content. Consider, too, the literary tradition in which the poet situates his or her work. Does the poetic voice remind you of any other works? Why would an author choose to invoke a certain pedigree? What does the pedigree suggest about the poem in particular and about the African American voice in general?

The discussion questions below suggest lines of inquiry specific to each poem. For all of the poems, consider the poetic voice and its gender perspective; the poem's form and language; its audience and the assumptions the speaker makes about the audience. Consider, too, the object, goal, and strategy of the protest. (10 pages.)
  • Many critics consider Claude McKay (1889-1948) the first major poet of the Harlem Renaissance. He wrote the sonnet "If We Must Die" in response to the Chicago riot of 1919 (see Theme II: MIGRATIONS).
  • Gwendolyn B. Bennett (1902-1981) was a poet, illustrator, and columnist who achieved minor fame during the Harlem Renaissance. In her poem "Hatred," the contrast between the calm landscape and the speaker's intense emotion offers a chilling insight into the black psyche at a time of severe racial oppression.
  • Sterling Brown's (1901-1989) 1932 volume of dialect poetry, Southern Road, established him as a major folk poet of the Harlem Renaissance. At the beginning of "Strong Men" he quotes Carl Sandburg. Like Sandburg's work, the poem celebrates the endurance of the common man, in this case the African American common man, in the face of insult and oppression.
  • Countee Cullen (1903-1946) was a favorite among the leaders of the Harlem Renaissance, esteemed even more than Langston Hughes. Subtitled "A Poem to American Poets," "Scottsboro, Too, Is Worth Its Song" protests the case of the "Scottsboro Boys," nine African American teenagers who, in 1931, were accused of raping two white prostitutes.
  • Langston Hughes's (1902-1967) "Ballad of the Landlord" ostensibly protests the housing woes of urban blacks but with humor and irony illustrates how society views black assertiveness.
  • Setting "The Chicago Defender Sends a Man to Little Rock" in the fall of 1957, Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000) alludes to the federal intervention that was necessary to integrate the local high school. The poem derives its power from the contrast between the well-ordered and proper society of America in the 1950s and the ugly, unchristian violence it fostered.
  • In "right on: white america," Sonia Sanchez (1934-) reinterprets the frontier myth of American culture and suggests its implications for blacks. (10 pages.)
Discussion questions
  1. What explains the "racelessness" of "If We Must Die"?
  2. Compare "If We Must Die" to these lines from Alfred Lord Tennyson's 1842 poem "Ulysses":
    We are not now that strength which in old days
    Moved earth and heaven: that which we are, we are;
    One equal temper of heroic hearts,
    Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
    To strive, to seek, and not to yield.
    What do these lines have in common with McKay's poem? Why might McKay have taken Victorian poetry as a model for "If We Must Die"?
  3. In "Hatred," why will "memory" cause the reader to understand the speaker's emotion?
  4. How does "Strong Men" reflect the proletarian sympathies of the 1930s?
  5. In "Scottsboro, Too, Is Worth Its Song," what effect does Cullen achieve with his use of words like "fell," "strophes," "citadel," "epitome," and "minstrel"?
  6. In "Ballad of the Landlord," how does Hughes implement the aesthetic theory he articulates in "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain" (see Theme IV: COMMUNITY)?
  7. In what ways does "Ballad of the Landlord" illustrate different views of African Americans?
  8. How is "Ballad of the Landlord" a blues poem?
  9. In what ways are "Scottsboro, Too, Is Worth Its Song," "Ballad of the Landlord," and "The Chicago Defender Sends A Man to Little Rock" about the invisibility of African Americans' lives?
  10. How would you characterize the voice of the reporter in "The Chicago Defender Sends a Man to Little Rock"?
  11. How does "The Chicago Defender Sends a Man to Little Rock" question the value of integration?
  12. For what audience has Sonia Sanchez written "right on: white america"?
  13. What accounts for the fragmented form of "right on: white america"?
  14. Compare Sanchez's response to America and American violence with Claude McKay's?

Framing Questions
  •  What forms did African American protest take?
  •  How did protest strategies and goals evolve over time?
  •  In what ways was African American identity shaped in opposition to the larger American society?

Claude McKay:  2
Gwendolyn B. Bennett:  1
Sterling Brown:  2
Countee Cullen:  1
Langston Hughes:  1
Gwendolyn Brooks:  2
Sonia Sanchez:  1
TOTAL 10 pages
Supplemental Sites
Brief biographies in African American World (PBS/Encyclopedia Britannica)

- Gwendolyn B. Bennett
- Gwendolyn Brooks
- Countee Cullen
- Claude McKay

Overviews and bibliographies in The Black Renaissance in Washington (District of Columbia Public Library)

- Gwendolyn B. Bennett
- Sterling Brown
- Langston Hughes

Overviews and links, from Howard University Libraries

- Langston Hughes
- Sonia Sanchez

A Brief Guide to the Harlem Renaissance, with commentary on Sterling Brown, Countee Cullen, and Langston Hughes, from the American Academy of Poets

American American Writers, links to online texts, from Inez Ramsey, James Madison University

Scottsboro Case, brief overview, in African American World (PBS/Encyclopedia Britannica)

Little Rock [Arkansas] High School integration, 1957, overview and primary sources, from the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library & Museum

*PDF file - You will need software on your computer that allows you to read and print Portable Document Format (PDF) files, such as Adobe Acrobat Reader. If you do not have this software, you may download it FREE from Adobe's Web site.

Image: Winold Reiss, drawing of Countee Cullen (photograph of; 1 June 1941). Digital image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Manuscripts Division, Harmon Foundation Collection. Owner of original drawing unidentified.

1. Asking   2. Reasoning   3. Singing   4. Marching
  5. Boycotting   6. Arming   7. Voting   8. Separating
  9. Connecting   10. Writing   11. Poetry   12. Theater   13. Images

TOOLBOX: The Making of African American Identity: Volume III, 1917-1968
Segregation | Migrations | Protest | Community | Overcome?

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