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Important Men and Women of the Harlem Renaissance Movement

Updated June 14, 2021
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Josephine Baker

Background

Freda Josephine McDonald was born on June 3, 1906, and died on April 12, 1975, due to a cerebral hemorrhage. She converted to Josephine Baker after her marriage. Josephine was born in St. Louis, Missouri. Her mother was Carrie McDonald, but her father’s true identity had remained a mystery to the world. However, most of her family and herself believed that her father was the German who had employed the family during the period her mother became pregnant.

As Josephine grew, she developed a passion for becoming an entertainer, which caused problems for her and her mother (Clark). Josephine was married to Willie Baker at the age of 15 but later divorced. She continued to use his last name professionally for the rest of her life. Josephine decided to move to France because of the racism in the country, and due to the turmoil with her mother

Struggles

Josephine Baker, like any other person of color in the early 20th century, struggled with racial conflict. She states that she was astonished by segregation as a child, as she did not understand the difference between people (McAuliffe). As a young person, her family also faced financial constraints and struggles, since both her parents could not get-well paying jobs.

She decided to move away to France and denounce her American citizenship because of her discontent with segregation in the country. Josephine struggled to live in the racist community and decided to move to France. She also went to France because she felt she could not continue with the struggle of her constant turmoil with her mother. For Josephine, the move to France was a move away from her daily struggles, the perfect escape plan.

Conflicts

Josephine was involved in two major conflicts in her life, the fight against Nazi Germany and the fight against racism. Due to her status as a world star, she was recruited by French secret Intelligence to act as their spy against the Axis powers (Clark). She would attend parties, listen to conversations between the Japanese, Italians, and Germans, and would report back to France. She also provided support to all the free French against the collaborators. Her efforts during this conflict helped save some lives and win some battles. French intelligence took advantage of her popularity and used her as a spy.

After the World War, Josephine was involved in the fight against racism during the Civil Rights Movement. She fought racism and segregation in the country and was a prominent figure. Her presence in the movements was considered to be essential that some of the black leaders offered her an unofficial leadership role after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr (Gwinn). She declined the offer for safety reasons but remained a crucial figure in the civil rights movement. She clashed openly with the government and used her art to fight segregation and racism in the United States.

Accomplishments

As an entertainer, Josephine Baker will always be commended for her works on the screens. One of her accomplishments was that she was the first African American individual to feature in a blockbuster movie. In 1927, Josephine was the first black person to feature in a major motion picture. She featured in the 1927 silent film, Siren of the Tropics, which was directed by Henri Estevan and Mario Malpas (Clark). Featuring in the movie was considered an achievement because, during this period, women were not afforded such opportunities. Even more, she was an African American, and any other black person had not achieved such a feat in the society.

Another one of her iconic accomplishments was her involvement in World War II, with the French Resistance. The French resistance was a group of movements which opposed Nazi rule in French, and the collaborators of the Nazi, the Vichy Regime. Josephine was an active member of the resistance in fighting Nazi rule in France. After the war, her efforts were recognized, and she was awarded the Croix de Guerre by the military of France as a show of her bravery and to honor her efforts and sacrifice.

In conclusion, Josephine Baker remains one of the most prominent unspoken leaders in the mid-20th Century. Josephine will be remembered as the first African American actress to feature in a blockbuster film, and for her contributions in the Second World War. Josephine’s efforts in the war and the civil rights movements make her an icon for women of color in the world today. She represents the power that artists and talents have in changing the world.

Langston Hughes

Personal Life

James Mercer Langston Hughes was an American poet, novelist, playwright, columnist and social activist from Joplin, Missouri. He was the son of Charles and Mary Langston, with an older sister. Langston, like many of the African Americans in the country, had a complex ancestry. His paternal great-grandparents were enslaved Africans, while both of his paternal great-grandfathers were white slave owners from Kentucky (Donnelly).

Hughes grew up in different towns, first shifting between Midwestern towns. After his parents divorced, he lived mostly with his maternal grandmother in Lawrence, Kansas. Hughes states that his grandmother instilled a sense of black pride in him, and was imbued with a duty always to help the downtrodden and neglected black people in the society whom he would later glorify in his works.

Accomplishments

Langston Hughes is recognized as one of the most prominent black leaders of the Harlem Renaissance. One of the significant accomplishments he had was the publication of his first poem, The Negro Speaks of Rivers (Chinitz). The poem was critically acclaimed and went on to win a significant number of awards because of the message that is sent to the people, about black people.

Langston Hughes also won the Harmon gold medal for literature in 1930. He was awarded this gold medal for his novel “Not Without Laughter” (Chinitz). He went on to receive more awards and recognition for his works, including a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1935, a Rosenwald Fellowship in 1941. In 1941, he was recognized by the Lincoln University which gave him an honorary doctorate.

Langston Hughes is also credited with shaping African American culture and American literature. Langston has long been seen as a pioneer of jazz poetry. It was through his jazz poetry that he communicated his views of the American Negro and would become a prominent leader in the Harlem Resistance.

Struggles

One of the many struggles that Langston faced was the fact that he was a black man in America. During this period, the country was marked with racism that forced African Americans to fight back. They were discriminated in all aspects, both legally and illegally. Being a black man meant that Hughes had to tolerate being given harsh treatment (Donnelly). When he joined the Harlem Renaissance, it meant that he had a target on him, making him the focus of a biased government system. During this period, it was harder for a black person to live in the country.

Another struggle that he constantly faced was living in a society as a gay man. Langston struggled to live with the hate of society after he openly expressed himself as a gay man. He was discriminated against, ridiculed, and abused, especially since being gay was unacceptable during this period (Scrimgeour). Being gay during this period was seen as obscenity and a taboo. Living as a homosexual individual, for both the men or women meant that one either hid their true sexuality or embraced it and lived an unhappy life, filled with discrimination and hate.

Conflicts

In his novels, Langston reveals that he was in open conflict with his father because of his sexuality. As soon as the world knew of his sexuality, Langston states that his relationship with his father became estranged (Donnelly). He struggled because he tried communication, but they ended up in conflict as his father expressed his disappointment and anger. His father, who also did not like Negros, showed disapproval of Langston’s sexuality. In his artwork, Langston depicts that his sexuality affected his relationship with society and his family.

In the short story, Thank You Ma’am, he shows the conflict between character and society because of the character’s personality and against society. Langston paints a picture, using characters like Roger and Mrs. Jones to show how society clashes with an individual because of their personality, which symbolized his sexuality and their race. He is able to communicate his life as a black gay man during this era.

In conclusion, Langston Hughes is one of the most prominent artists of the Harlem Renaissance and in American literature. He will always be remembered as one of the engineers of jazz poetry to the American culture. One of the highlights of his life was that he was gay, which made him clash with the community and his family, which made them overlook his achievements.

Works Cited

  1. Chinitz, David E. ‘Langston Hughes and the McCarthy Committee Behind Closed Doors.’ The Langston Hughes Review 25.1 (2019): 95-104
  2. Clark, Shanita P. ‘Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker.’ Language Arts 93.4 (2016): 320.
  3. Donnelly, Andrew. ‘Langston Hughes on the DL.’ College Literature 44.1 (2017): 30-57.
  4. Gwinn, Meghan. ‘Josephine Baker & Me: Black Femme Identity in Performance.’ (2019).
  5. McAuliffe, Mary. When Paris Sizzled: The 1920s Paris of Hemingway, Chanel, Cocteau, Cole Porter, Josephine Baker, and Their Friends. Rowman & Littlefield, 2016.
  6. Scrimgeour, J. D. ‘Hughes, Langston.’ Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature. 2017.
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