The Harlem Renaissance:. The “New Negro Movement” in American Life. Important Features. Harlem Renaissance : period from the end of World War I and through the middle of the 1930s Depression, during which a group of talented African-American writers produced a sizable body of literature.
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The Harlem Renaissance: The “New Negro Movement” in American Life
Important Features Harlem Renaissance: period from the end of World War I and through the middle of the 1930s Depression, during which a group of talented African-American writers produced a sizable body of literature. The notion of "twoness, “ a divided awareness of one's identity, was introduced by W.E.B. Du Bois, one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the author of influential book The Souls of Black Folks (1903) Common themes: alienation, marginality, the use of folk material, the use of the blues tradition, the problems of writing for an elite (white) audience. HR was more than just a literary movement: it included racial consciousness, "the back to Africa" movement led by Marcus Garvey, racial integration, the explosion of music particularly jazz, spirituals and blues, painting, etc.
Significance of Harlem Renaissance Harlem became synonymous with new vitality, Black urbanity, and Black militancy. It became a racial focal point for Blacks the world over; it remained for a time a race capital. The renaissance was associated with the New Negro Movement, so called because of the anthology THE NEW NEGRO (1925) edited by Alain Locke, whose introductory essay "The New Negro" is the closest to a manifesto or statement of ideals that the Harlem Renaissance has. Writes of the Negro who is no longer apologetic for blackness but who takes a new pride in a racial identity and heritage, of the "renewed self-respect and self-dependence" felt in the contemporary black community, which is "about to enter a new phase."
One characteristic of the Harlem Renaissance was a move toward so-called "high art" in black writing, rather than the use of folk idioms, comic writing, and vernacular. The shift mirrors the change from rural to urban life. • The Harlem writers also engaged in intense debate regarding the place of the African American in American life, and on the role and identity of the African-American artist.
For example, the artistic differences between Langston Hughes and the poet Countee Cullen: Cullen believed that an African-American poet should be free to write in mainstream established traditions, and need not radicalize poetry. "I want to be a poet, not a Negro poet," he said, and wrote in forms such as the sonnet and became a translator of Euripides. Hughes, on the other hand, saw this attitude as a betrayal of racial identity, an aping of white European-ness, and sought in his work to accept and explore his blackness using forms and idioms that he associated with it.
An Explosion of Culture in Harlem • 1917 saw the premiere of Three Plays for a Negro Theatre. These plays, written by white playwright Ridgely Torrence, featured black actors' conveying complex human emotions and yearnings. • They rejected the stereotypes of the blackface and minstrel show traditions. • Seen as "the most important single event in the entire history of the Negro in the American Theatre."
Another landmark came in 1919, when Claude McKay published his militant sonnet "If We Must Die”. Although the poem never alluded to race, to black readers it sounded a note of defiance in the face of racism, race riots and lynching's taking place. “If we must die, O let us nobly die/ […] Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack, / pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!”
The Harlem Renaissance and the 1920s embodied jazz music. Jazz gained national and worldwide recognition. However, many of the middle and upper-class negro families were unsure or even hostile towards jazz music because they believed that “Negros”—at least affluent “Negros”—should “assimilate into the white business culture.” Some of the more popular nightclubs included the Savoy Ballroom, the Apollo Theatre, and The Cotton Club.
The traditional jazz band was composed primarily of brass instruments and was considered a symbol of the south, but the piano was considered an instrument of the wealthy. With this instrumental modification to the existing genre, the wealthy black people now had more access to jazz music. Innovation was important characteristics of performers like Duke Ellington, Jelly Roll Morton, and Billie Holiday, three musicians who laid the foundation for future musicians.
During this time period, the musical style and culture of black people was becoming more and more attractive to whites. White novelists, dramatists and composers started to exploit the musical tendencies and themes of African-American in their works. Composers used poems written by black poets in their songs, and would implement the rhythms, harmonies and melodies of African-American music—such as blues, spirituals, and jazz—into their concert pieces.
Impact of the Harlem Renaissance 1. Brought the Black experience clearly within the body of American cultural identity. 2. Legacy of the Harlem Renaissance redefines how America viewed the African-American population. 3. This new identity led to a greater social consciousness, and African-Americans became players on the world stage, expanding intellectual and social contacts internationally.
4. The progress became a point of reference from which the African-American community gained a spirit of self-determination. 5. Provided a growing sense of both Black urbanity and Black Militancy. 6. Foundation for the community to build upon for Civil Rights struggles in the 1950s and 1960s.
7. Foundation for the community to build upon for Civil Rights struggles in the 1950s and 1960s. December 1, 1955
Criticism of the movement • The Harlem intellectuals, while proclaiming a new race consciousness, became mimics of Whites, wearing clothes and using manners of sophisticated Whites. • Harlem Renaissance could not overcome the overwhelming White presence in commerce which defined art and culture. What was needed was a rejection of White values. • War between artists of various genres over the direction of the black movement.
Some thought Renaissance relied too heavily on white publishing houses and white-owned magazines. • African American musicians and other performers also played to mixed audiences. Harlem's cabarets and clubs attracted both Harlem residents and white New Yorkers seeking out Harlem nightlife. • Harlem's famous Cotton Club carried this to an extreme by providing black entertainment for exclusively white audiences. • Ultimately, the more successful black musicians and entertainers who appealed to a mainstream audience moved their performances downtown.
W.E.B Du Bois (1868 – 1963) A central thinker in civil rights struggle. His entire career is understood as an unremitting struggle for civil and political rights. Educated at Fisk , Harvard, and University of Berlin. Despite having thesis published by Harvard Historical Studies, he was not able to secure appointment at major university. Taught at Penn and Atlanta University. There he began an examination of “so-called Negro problem.”
On way to appeal for innocence of a man accused of murder and rape, learned a lynch mob had dismembered and burned at the stake the man he was defending. Later, it was learned that they had put on display man’s knuckles in grocery store. Grows increasingly more radical… Later became founder of NAACP.
The Souls of Black Folk Comes to national attention with publication of The Souls of Black Folk, which is considered to the “preeminent text of African American cultural consciousness.” “The problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color-line” Notion of “twoness” or ‘double consciousness” is born. Begins very open debate with Booker T. Washington, founder of Tuskegee institute.
Claude McKay (1889 -1948) Background: Jamaican by birth, U.S. citizen in 1940. Left Harlem as Renaissance was getting started. Criticized Du Bois often… Nevertheless, Harlem Shadows (1922), a book of poems, is generally considered the book initiated the Renaissance. Widely regarded as one of the most important black writers of the 1920s.
His Work, In General … 1919, “If We Must Die,” appears in left-wing journal The Liberator. His poetry, much of it written in strict sonnet form, married race matters, radical politics, and poetic techniques into compelling statements that were also good poetry according to traditional standards.
McKay’s Radical Politics • Radical politics rose from his belief that racism was inseparable from Capitalism, which he saw as a structure designed to perpetuate economic inequality. Attacking Capitalism was attacking racial injustice. • 1923 – went to Moscow (welcomed as a celebrity amongst Soviets). Connections to communist regime made him a target of FBI.
Langston Hughes(1902 – 1967) Considered the most popular and versatile of Harlem Renaissance writers. In contrast to Countee Cullen or Jean Toomer (who both chose to work with patterns of written literary forms), Hughes aspired to capture the dominant oral and improvisatory traditions of black culture in written form. In 1926 essay he wrote, “The Negro artist and the Racial Mountain” appeared. Insisted on courageous artists to rise up. Avoid mere imitation of white counterparts.
Radical Politics of L. Hughes • Drawn to communist party. • Visited Soviet Union in 1932 and produced radical writing. • In 1953 was called before the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in connection with “subversive” activities and in connection with 1930s radicalism. • FBI listed him as a security risk until 1959 – could not leave country as he would not have been allowed back in.
As an artist Hughes chose to focuses work on modern, urban black life Modeled stanzas on improvisatory jazz music and adapted everyday black speech to poetry. Acknowledged white writers who allowed for his kind of “free” verse – Whitman’s singing of America, etc. Was keenly aware that the modernist “vogue in all things Negro” among white Americans was potentially exploitative and voyeuristic (racial tourists) Demanded that not only African-American artists but regular folk, too, become owners of the culture they gave to U.S. and as fully enfranchised American citizens.