‘Sonnet to a Negro in Harlem’ is an impactful poem by Helene Johnson, one of the many female writers active during the Harlem Renaissance. The poem is written in the style of a sonnet and follows a speaker’s intensely focused observations of a Black man they see on a street in Harlem. Alternating between criticisms about his pompous nature to praise over their towering individuality, the poem strikes a paradoxical note that underscores the difficulty of expressing Black identity and pride, especially in the 20th century.
Sonnet to a Negro in Harlem Helene JohnsonYou are disdainful and magnificent—Your perfect body and your pompous gait,Your dark eyes flashing solemnly with hate,Small wonder that you are incompetentTo imitate those whom you so despise—Your shoulders towering high above the throng,Your head thrown back in rich, barbaric song,Palm trees and mangoes stretched before your eyes.Let others toil and sweat for labor’s sakeAnd wring from grasping hands their meed of gold.Why urge ahead your supercilious feet?Scorn will efface each footprint that you make.I love your laughter arrogant and bold.You are too splendid for this city street.
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‘Sonnet to a Negro in Harlem’ by Helene Johnson describes with complex admiration a Black man seen by the speaker wandering around the streets of Harlem, NY.
‘Sonnet to a Negro in Harlem’ opens with the speaker describing the man they’re observing as both “disdainful and magnificent.” This contradictory statement is the first of many in the speaker’s characterization of the Harlem stranger, as they refer to their body as “perfect” but possessing a “pompous gait.” There is also hate in the man’s eyes, which causes the speaker to belittle them as “incompetent” because it’s seen as an attempt to mimic the very people he detests.
The speaker then describes the man as imposingly tall and in the midst of a “rich, barbaric song.” They perceive that the man doesn’t desire to “toil and sweat for labor’s sake” or for wealth. The poem ends with one final contradiction as they praise the man’s laughter for being both “arrogant and bold” before asserting they are far too “splendid” to be there in Harlem.
Structure and Form
‘Sonnet to a Negro in Harlem’ is a variation of the sonnet. It is composed of three rhyming quatrains and a final couplet, with a rhyme scheme of ‘ABBACDDCEFFEGG.’ The meter most closely resembles iambic pentameter.
‘Sonnet to a Negro in Harlem’ uses the following literary devices:
- Visual imagery: “Your shoulders towering high above the throng” (6); “Palm trees and mangoes stretched before your eyes” (8).
- Auditory imagery: “Your head thrown back in rich, barbaric song” (7); “I love your laughter arrogant and bold” (13).
- Oxymoron: “You are disdainful and magnificent” (1); “Your perfect body and your pompous gait” (2).
- Metaphor: “Your dark eyes flashing solemnly with hate” (3); “And wring from grasping hands their meed of gold” (10); “Scorn will efface each footprint that you make” (12)
You are disdainful and magnificent—
Your perfect body and your pompous gait,
Your dark eyes flashing solemnly with hate,
Small wonder that you are incompetent
‘Sonnet to a Negro in Harlem’ unfolds from the speaker’s point of view, shifting between diction and imagery that both chastises and praises the man being observed. The first line describes him through oxymoron as “disdainful and magnificent” (1). This contradiction is further emphasized when the speaker refers to their “perfect body…pompous gait” (2) — an image that compliments their physical appearance but then dismisses it as pretentious. The speaker also notices that their eyes are “flashing solemnly with hate” (3) and that this makes them “incompetent” (4).
To imitate those whom you so despise—
Your shoulders towering high above the throng,
Your head thrown back in rich, barbaric song,
Palm trees and mangoes stretched before your eyes.
In the second quatrain of ‘Sonnet to a Negro in Harlem,’ the speaker reveals that the Black man is trying to copy (perhaps in the way they walk and their inclination toward hate) the very people they despise. Although it’s somewhat ambiguous, one interpretation is that their anger is directed at the White people who look down on them.
The speaker juxtaposes this criticism with more compliments. Through visual imagery, Johnson illustrates the way the man towers over everyone else in the street. Auditory imagery also comes into play when the speaker describes the way the man’s head is “thrown back in rich, barbaric song” (7). Both of these images bolster the man against any perceived faults in the speaker’s mind.
Let others toil and sweat for labor’s sake
And wring from grasping hands their meed of gold.
Why urge ahead your supercilious feet?
Scorn will efface each footprint that you make.
The final quatrain of ‘Sonnet to a Negro in Harlem’ finds the speaker urging the man with some words of advice. They tell them not to “toil and sweat for labor’s sake” (9) — not out of laziness — but rather as a refusal to participate in any kind of degrading hustle for money. Or as Johnson puts it using a beautiful metaphor: “And wring from grasping hands their meed of gold” (10).
The speaker also questions the merits of the man continuing to carry this sense of arrogant superiority: “Why urge ahead your supercilious feet?” (11), warning them that the only thing they’ll leave behind is just more scorn.
I love your laughter arrogant and bold.
You are too splendid for this city street.
The ending couplet of ‘Sonnet to a Negro in Harlem’ resolves the poem with another oxymoron. The speaker explains that they love their laughter — and no doubt everything about the man — because he is both “arrogant and bold” (13). Emphasizing that it is both their faults and their strengths that kindle admiration within the speaker for them. This sentiment is emblazoned in the sonnet’s final line, which asserts that the man is far “too splendid for this city street” (14). A belief that ironically echoes the man’s own grandiose perceptions about themselves.
The poem’s theme is one of honest celebration. The speaker might just be observing a single Black man, but Johnson uses the image as a proxy for the way many Black Americans wrestle with questions of identity and pride.
Johnson was one of the youngest writers in the Harlem Renaissance. As a result, her poems often sought to uplift the Black community. This poem reveals the difficulty of trying to develop some sovereignty apart from White America in a way that is true to the Black individual.
Johnson uses oxymorons throughout the poem to underscore the understanding that despite man’s faults, he is a figure to be praised and awed. Although the speaker can identify elements that they don’t, such as their egotism, it is also rendered mesmeric and inspiring.
- ‘Harlem Shadows’ by Claude McKay – this poem also explores Harlem and, specifically, the experiences of Black sex workers.
- ‘Harlem (A Dream Deferred)’ by Langston Hughes – this famous poem articulates the difficulty of navigating a society dominated by White people.
- ‘Harlem Hopscotch’ by Maya Angelou – this poem also explores what it was like to grow up in Harlem in the 20th century.