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Degrees Of Transcendence: Opposing Views By Mc Kay And Hughes On The Consumption Of Art

1944 words - 8 pages

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 testament to the elegance of her movement, it merely references the successful coercion of her beauty into a concrete object, a black novelty item (2). Amongst the judgmental stares of the audience that has bestowed an image of pathetic vulnerability upon the dancer, the poem’s speaker emerges to provide a portrait of the dancer that is much less lascivious, acknowledging that “Her voice was like the sound of blended flutes / Blown by black players upon a picnic day” (3-4). The sudden juxtaposition of a “picnic day” vis-a-vis a crowded night-club highlights the speakers attempt to remove the sexualized image of the dancer with the intent of identifying her noble power as a member of the black community. The elegance of the dancer, recognized by her soft voice, is affirmed by the speaker’s specific mention of “black players,” displaying black heritage as containing multi-faceted artistic potential. While the poem begins with a dehumanizing portrayal of the dancer, the speaker successfully reformulates the identity of the dancer into a component of a larger black tradition.
While the speaker has succeeded in providing an enhanced image of the performer, the act of assigning meaning to the performance and the representation...

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