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New Negroes, Harlem Renaissance and Society

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In this essay, I will demonstrate the effects of the Harlem Renaissance on society in the United States through using different modes of expression such as poetry, religion, and music. Centralized around New York City’s Harlem district, a blossoming of cultural advancement would use music to connect social divides, religion to institutionalize, and poetry as a mode of political and economic advancement.

The 1920s was a decade of extraordinary creativity in the arts for black Americans and much of that creativity found its focus in the activities of African Americans living in New York City, particularly the district of Harlem. The second half of the decade witnessed an outburst of publications by African Americans that was unprecedented. Here is where the term “Renaissance” is coined, marking revival of art and literature. Although the term Harlem Renaissance is convenient, it is important to remember that what took place in NYC was the unusual cultural enlightment that was unseen anywhere else. Because Harlem was imagined to be “a district…distinctly devoted the mansions of the wealthy, at the homes of the well-to-do, and the places of business of the trades that minister to their wants”. The district began to take form an idea that black people had a chance to succeed and fulfill their true identity, and new develop new ways of thinking that would flourish. Expressed in multiple ways, the creativity of black Americans came from a common source — the urge to create bold, expressive art of a high quality as a response to their social conditions.

What happened in the United States should also be linked to certain trends sweeping the country. Between 1890 and 1910 the black population of New York City almost tripled as the first generation of blacks born after the Emancipation Proclamation moved steadily away from the south, fleeing racial violence and seeking a different and better way of life. In the aftermath of WWI, the black population began to acquire an unexpected community, a sense between the links of events within the confines of the nation. Much of these thoughts formed out of environmental changes, such as new technologies (mass transportation and media) and new ideas geared by influencers such as Langston Hughes, Alain Locke, and Duke Ellington. Expedited ideas that are viewed through the eyes of 350,000 African Americans who fought in WWI. The district of Harlem began to take form an idea that black people had a chance to succeed and fulfill their identity with a new way of thinking that could flourish. 

For black writers and intellectuals, theological ideas became attractive due to the belief that art could cut across political divisions. With an optimistic sense of progress and opportunity remaining the overall mood, some of them, however, were convinced that class consciousness would not work without race consciousness. Thus in 1920 when the Harlem radical editor and street speaker, Hubert Henry Harrison, counseled that “before the Negroes of the Western world can play any effective part they must first acquaint themselves with what is taking place in that larger world whose millions are in motion.” On the other hand, even the black intellectuals who avoided direct political involvement were drawn to international concerns due to the belief that black artistic accomplishment could pave the road for other minorities. Thus, the philosopher Alain Locke noted in that “as with the Jew, persecution is making the Negro international.”

Traditionally in discussions of Afro American literature and culture, “modernism” implies the work of British, Irish, and Anglo American writers and artists of the early twentieth century. While this may originate from a tendency among critics to view African American literature as separate and distinct from Anglo American, British, and Irish literature, the Harlem Renaissance’s connection with the modernist movement reflects the conceptualization of racial identity and consciousness. Consequently, poetry of the Harlem Renaissance attempts to capture the perspective of African American writers within the context of the modern world. 

Like their Anglo American, British, and Irish counterparts during the early twentieth century, writers of the Harlem Renaissance created poems which featured modernist characteristics such as fragmentation, multiple narrative voices/speakers, stream of consciousness, non-linear narrative and highly experimental language. However, the Harlem poets also transformed modernist themes, techniques, and strategies to convey the African American experience within America. This was accomplished by creating poetry that also incorporated aspects of black heritage in the United States, including the black vernacular, blues/jazz rhythms, and the oral storytelling tradition. 

Poetry of the Harlem Renaissance represents diversity in perspectives and aesthetics based on different ways of lifestyle. The intertwined connection of social and political forces that created this movement left a legacy of poetry that continues to influence contemporary African-American writers today. The relationship between the Harlem Renaissance and modernism is complex, capturing the attempt by African American writers and intellectuals to reflect a black cultural perspective through the use of the African American vernacular, jazz/blues, the oral storytelling tradition, and Afrocentric themes. Through poetry and literature, the Harlem Renaissance symbolizes the collective voice of African Americans authors in the era of modernity. 

Rachel Blau DuPlessis argues that there was an institutionalization of the Renaissance in the black church and that this institutionalization came in the form of the social gospel movement, a movement of social Christianity, which commenced among white protestants in the north around 1880 and spread to the black church.

She claims that the connection between the Harlem renaissance and the black church was not dependent upon the religious faith of Renaissance artists and intellectuals. For example, it does not matter that Claude McKay considered himself to be “pagan” or Langston Hughes denied adhering to Christianity. Although artists sometimes attended or performed in black churches, the point is that the black churches that practiced the social gospel themselves comprised an individual piece of the Renaissance, components that collectively created one whole social norm.

Under the pastorate of Rev. Hutchins C. Bishop, St. Philip’s became the largest black congregation in the Protestant Episcopal denomination and the wealthiest of all black churches in the country. The church owned a substantial amount of property in Harlem and its financial gains only increase in capacity. This happened because more New Negroes were able to locate educational and financial means because there were more members there than at any other black church in the city. 

The Harlem Renaissance has been treated primarily as a literary movement with jazz and concert artists viewed as side pieces to the movement. However, music’s role was much more basic and fundamental to the movement. Whether it involves unifying a community, integrating social groups, or providing a universal platform for change, music in the Harlem Renaissance acted as a vehicle driving change. Comments from prominent figures about music and jazz during the period suggest the authority of music to Renaissance philosophy and practice. The idea that black music was America’s only distinctive contribution to American and world musical culture was accepted and emphasized by Renaissance leaders and by some of the rank and file. The cultural environment created by Renaissance leaders advocated primarily literature, while music served as a network of physical elements that consisted of night life, cocktail parties, or day to day interactions. The music of the black theater shows, dance music of cabarets, blues and ragtime of speakeasies, and the spiritual songs all created an ambiance for Renaissance activity and contemplation.

Additionally, pre-Renaissance activities of black musicians had created an environment in which the movement could stem and receive ongoing sustenance. Renaissance leaders were determined to create a “New Negro,” one who would attend concerts and operas in hopes that an ideally integrated society would be economically and socially prepared for the diffusion of cultures. At first the “lower forms,” such as blues and jazz, of black music were frowned upon. Jazz and show entertainers were being viewed by white people as symbols of primitive indulgence, as symbols “of that freedom from restraint for which the white intellectual longed so ardently.” These leaders realized that a new stereotype was developing simultaneously with their efforts to destroy the old ones. In efforts to create a homogenous sound that could permeate the social walls of America, this stereotype was reinforced by “primitive” African American culture and the rise of jazz in the Renaissance years. 

In the New Negro’s attempt to define and build a culture, music provided much of the movement’s color, spirit, and quality. It provided a base for the general mood and style for the intellectual train of thought of the time. This fact is reflected in some of the writings of Hughes when he refers jazz to “the tom-tom of the revolt.” In his experience music played an important, indispensable role, while being taken for granted by most of the other black intellectuals. In cases, there were divides between musicians and African American intellectuals, who were sometimes referred to as “The Talented Tenth.” The Talented Tenth referring to a designated leadership class of African Americans in the Harlem Renaissance. Black jazzmen helped, or in some cases made the situation worse. Duke Ellington’s “Dicty” set and Henderson’s song “Dicty’s Glide,” both served as inspiration for were meant to poke fun at Talented Tenth minded people. George Redd’s studies imply that it was the more educated jazz musicians who helped to bring the two philosophical camps together.[footnoteRef:14] He points out that Ellington, Henderson, and other jazz musicians presented an image that was acceptable to the intellectuals. Ellington was able to present this image through displaying a dignified bearing, an aristocratic flair, and a self-assurance in any company, which would exemplify the New Negro in and outside the jazz world. Amongst the controversy between intellectuals and “show people,” Langston Hughes stated: 

Let the blare of Negro jazz bands and the bellowing voice of Bessie Smith singing Blues penetrate the closed ears of the colored near-intellectuals until they listen and perhaps understand… We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter…If the colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn’t matter either. We build temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountains, free within ourselves.

Hughes is making a plea to the greater black community, calling for a reminder that they are all fighting the same fight. Locke weighs in his opinion by declaring that jazz had an epochal significance-it was not superficial, it was fundamental. Locke said it was to play the decisive role in launching “The Afro-American Epoch” in music history. 

For black concert and recital music, the decade of the 1920s was one of significant musical progress. This was largely stimulated by the newly formed National Association of Negro Musicians (NANM). Organized in 1919, the group’s purpose paralleled that of the New Negro leadership: to stimulate “progress, to discover and foster talent, to mold taste, to promote fellowship, and to advocate racial expression.” Could it be that Charles Johnson and Alain Locke took the NANM as a general platform for their later and more loosely knit literary movement? Was it the example of music that gave the initial momentum to the Renaissance’s artistic philosophy? 

The Harlem Renaissance was captured by a number of cultural, historical, and worldly events that ultimately led to the expression of the black community. The dichotomy between black and white, intellectuals and jazz, and the church and institutionalization of culture were all factors that played a role in the early twentieth century. Despite the large sum of differences and experiences, the Harlem Renaissance was a successful revitalization and enlightenment of African American that told the story of the black community. While staying true to their roots, they told stories about that past that would spread across the globe and be forever etched in time.

References

  • Baker, Houston Jr. Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.
  • Bone, Robert A. The Background of the Negro Renaissance. Grove City, NY: Doubleday and Company, 1968.
  • Donald, James. Some of These Days: Black Stars, Jazz Aesthetics, and Modernist Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.
  • DuPlessis, Rachel Blau. Genders, Races, and Religious Cultures in Modern American Poetry, 1908-1934. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Accessed 17 October 2019. https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=E4LhwkYFX60C&oi=fnd&pg=PR11& dq=harlem+renaissance+religion&ots=MsbWg0OT4l&sig=NkKjQ5gA3e8CRIFYuutcu xDy9cs#v=onepage&q&f=false.
  • Floyd, Samuel A. Black Music in the Harlem Renaissance : a Collection of Essays. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1993.
  • Gates, Smith, Andrews, Benson, Edwards, Foster, McDowell, O’Meally, Spillers, Wall. The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1997.
  • Jones, Sharon Lynette. 2007. ‘The poetry of the Harlem Renaissance.’ The Cambridge Companion to Modernist Poetry 2 (2007): 195-207.
  • Jongh, James De. Vicious Modernism: Black Harlem and the Literary Imagination. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
  • Lewis, David Levering. When Harlem was in Vogue. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1981.
  • Locke, Alain. The Negro and his Music. Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, 1936.
  • Redd, George Nathaniel. 1981. The Harlem Renaissance Remembered. Interview with Betty Leonard. Audio tape, Fisk University.
  • Southern, Eileen. The Music of Black Americans. Toronto, Canada: George J. McLeod Limited, 1983.

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