Degrees of Transcendence: Opposing Views by McKay and Hughes on the Consumption of Art

Writing during the emergence of the “New Negro” movement, Claude McKay and Langston Hughes work to reconcile black life in white America. The trope used by the two poets within “The Harlem Dancer” and “The Weary Blues” is that of a performance and a single speaker’s recollection of it. While both depict an African-American performer presumably consumed by the isolation and oppression of their condition, the intensity of the performances prove to be vastly disparate. Hughes’ “The Weary Blues” features a much more transcendent performance than that of McKay’s “The Harlem Dancer” not only because of the relationship between the audience and the performer, but the degree of ubiquity in descriptions of the performer and the poetic form through which the performance is framed. While neither performer attempts to gain anything from their audience, the impact of their art on the speaker identifies the importance McKay placed on art as a means to build racial pride as well as Hughes interest in art as a means to communicate a common struggle.The degree of transcendence attained by a particular performance depends largely on the relationship the audience has with the performer. Claude McKay’s Harlem dancer is initially framed through the gaze of a group of rambunctious youths, densely packed into a Harlem night-club. The young men accompanied by their prostitutes cheer and laugh, debasing the dance to a lewd exhibition. Where the seductive disrobement of the dancer would be thought to warrant a level of hypnotic control over the viewers, their capacity for the manipulation of her image indicates that the performance holds little to no significance. While “perfection” is attained by the sway of her half-clothed body, rather than a testame…

…ce taking place within a limited audience, allowing it to grow and develop to eventually define the culture of the New Negro. The transcendent quality of the blues, featured in the poem by Langston Hughes, may be placed in opposition to McKay as there is undeniable value in shared experience. While the nature of blues music within the poem is undeniably black and meant to connect black people, the poem presents music as something that is important for expression and formulation of identity as a dynamic community. The two poems, in their depiction of the performances, propose different solutions to the black condition of isolation. While McKay suggests that the strength to counter oppression and alienation is present in the hidden capacity of the individual, Hughes presents a man who is kept alive through struggle and persistence fueled through a communal tradition.

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