The Harlem Renaissance poets had to overcome many obstacles to establish themselves in the world of American poetry. They faced overt racism, harsh criticism, and racial isolation. Out of these impediments came a multitude of great literary contributions. However, some of the best poems came from the critical self-analysis of four highly influential Harlem Renaissance poets. Hughes, McKay, Cullen, and Bennett each wrestled with the issue of uncertain racial identity. Each pair had poems with identical titles: “Mulatto” for Hughes and McKay and “Heritage” for Cullen and Bennett. The analysis of each pair of poems and how the respective authors handle the subject material will reveal a distinctive pattern of racial confusion. For many of the Harlem Renaissance poets, establishing a definitive place of belonging was virtually impossible. Their poems portray individuals are conflicted as to where they belong and how they identify themselves. While the differences between the poems are telling in their own right, the similar theme of racial identity is what links all four poets together in the larger context of being “negro poets”.
“Mulatto” is the strongest case for racial confusion of the two titles that will be analyzed. A mulatto is someone who is classified as a person of mixed white and black ancestry, especially a person with one white and one black parent. It is this exact type of person that Hughes and McKay are writing about in their identically titled works. During the 1920’s, when both of these men were writing poetry, people of mixed races were looked down upon by both blacks and whites. They were oddities and not accepted by either ancestral group. This fostered feelings of isolation in these individuals. Conflicted, they did not know where or who to turn towards. The most important factor of the historical context of these poems is the relationship that resulted between the child of mixed race and their white parent. In both “Mulatto” poems, the relationship that is presented is the dynamic between a “mulatto” child and his white father. The situation is identical, but Hughes and McKay take different routes with the offspring’s reaction to his racial confusion.
Hughes’ poem is posed as a conversation. It begins with a plea of recognition from the child: “I am your son, white man! (Nelson 506). The father replies, “You are my son! Like hell!” (506). The mulatto child, being renounced by his white father, is representative of this fictional individual and all mulattos. The poem uses nature to draw color comparisons as well. The moonlight is silver, which represents the whiteness and purity of the race of the white father. The stars however, are yellow, just like the child who is referred to in the poem as “a little yellow bastard boy” (506). Both celestial bodies are in the same place: the night sky. And both the father and son come form the same lineage, but there is a significant physical difference between the two.