The Harlem Renaissance
Or the New Negro Movement
The dawn of the 1920?s ushered in an African American artistic and cultural movement, the likes of which have never and will likely never be seen again. Beginning as a series of literary discussions in Greenwich Village and Harlem, the ?New Negro Movement? (later dubbed the Harlem Renaissance by Alain Locke) came to exalt the unique culture of African Americans and redefine African American expression. The movement spread throughout all areas of the arts and humanities, gaining a wider audience as it went along. Soon it became more than just an artistic movement, it was at the same time a social ideal. The authors and artists of the era simultaneously struggled with and embraced their African heritage and American birth and lifestyle. The arts became a means of rebellion against the racism running rampant through the south, as well as a way for African Americans to finally prove they had their foot in the door of American (especially elitist) culture.
The Beginning After years of unfair treatment and humiliation, black people from the South started a migration northwards. Large metropolitan cities such as Washington D.C., Chicago, and New York City became hubs of creativity and interaction for African Americans. This migration changed the Black image from rural to urban, from peasant to sophisticate, and introduced them to international ideas that they would most likely have had no contact with in the South. Locke described this movement in The New Negro as ?something like a spiritual emancipation.? Now they were in a land where ?whites only? signs were few and far between and speaking one?s mind was not only allowed, but also encouraged by peers. It was the time and place for freedom, freedom of speech, music, ideas, and life. So what started it all? The causes of this renaissance were financial and educational. Blacks participated in the postwar prosperity, although to a much lesser extent than did whites, and the young generation of literate and literary blacks made the best of it. Fueling this movement was the wish of blacks to prove to their former oppressors that not only had they flourished, but had turned their hardships into art. Add to this a whole new white audience frequenting Harlem nightclubs, and black culture began to receive serious critical attention from white intellectuals.
Leaders of the Movement If this movement could be said to have any definite leaders, they would be Alain Locke, and W. E. B. Dubois. They were joined by such greats as Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson, Zora Neale Hurston, and Countee Cullen.
Alain Locke, often called the ?midwife and mentor? to the movement, was a sociologist, critic, and author. Though his most influential work, The New Negro wasn?t published until halfway through the movement (1925), it is still seen by many as the work that most precisely defined the causes and effects of the Renaissance. He expressed optimism that blacks were shedding the ?formula? of conformity and were finally feeling free to be themselves in society. He believed that ?the life of the Negro community is bound to enter a new dynamic phase, the buoyancy from within compensating for whatever pressure there may be? from without. Locke also observed that blacks themselves had work to do on the race issue, having unnecessarily excused themselves for the ways whites had treated them. ?The fiction is that the life of the races is separate and increasingly so,? he wrote. ?The fact is that they have touched too closely at the unfavorable and too lightly at the favorable levels.?(The New Negro) Increased contact between races at all levels of society would provide something of a safeguard against rising racial tensions. Locke believed that blacks needed to assert themselves in all aspects of society in order to gain equality. Further, Locke believed that “in social effort the cooperative basis must supplant long-distance philanthropy”. Intellectual exchange between all races must also be fostered, according to Locke.
W.E.B. Dubois, perhaps one of the more radical proponents of the Renaissance, was cofounder of what is now the NAACP, and editor of the magazine Crisis. He did not share Locke?s beliefs that racial equality should be a goal reached through interaction, instead, Dubois believed that an educated Black elite should lead Blacks to liberation. He further believed that his people could not achieve social equality by emulating white ideals; that equality could be achieved only by teaching Black racial pride with an emphasis on an African cultural heritage. His most acclaimed work was The Souls of Black Folk, a collection of poetry and prose dealing with the ?color-line? that Dubois was so concerned with. The notion of ?twoness?, a divided awareness of one’s identity, was introduced by Dubois. “One ever feels his two-ness – an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled stirrings: two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”(The Souls of Black Folks)
Themes and Styles The theme of alienation ran rampant through the works of the greats listed above as well as most of the other authors and artists of the time. After living so long as no-class and sub-human in the South, blacks in the south took time to gain footing in the North, perhaps not yet sure of their surroundings. They continued to write with the sorrow of slave songs, the structure of native African folktales, and the movement of blues music. Poetry and prose explored, perhaps more in depth than ever before, the past of African Americans, from their African roots, to slavery, to present times. What was taboo before, the Black man, was suddenly chic, exotic, all the rage. From this came the racial pride that Dubois called for so many times. Literature, jazz and blues music, and visual arts all began to mesh and have similar characteristics. They all seemed to tell a story, or hold a conversation. It was as if the people were expressing their newfound vocalism any way possible. ?Yet do I marvel at this curious thing: To make a poet black, and bid him sing? (Yet Do I Marvel, Countee Cullen).
The Harlem Renaissance was a flowering of literature, and to a lesser extent, other arts, in New York City during the 1920s and 1930s. It has long been considered by many to be the high point in African American writing. Although the Renaissance was not a school, nor did the writers associated with it share a common purpose, as was the case with Locke and Dubois, nevertheless they had a common bond: they dealt with African American life from an African American perspective. The Harlem Renaissance transformed African-American identity and history, but it also transformed American culture in general. Never before had so many Americans read the thoughts of African-Americans and embraced the African-American community’s productions, expressions, and style.