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The Complicated Failure of the Harlem Renaissance

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At the dawn of the 1920s, the United States of America was a melting pot of cultures. Many people with different cultural backgrounds interacted with each other in America over the previous century, creating the many-layered culture that defined the U.S. at the time. No place provided a better example of this than the shining city of Manhattan, home to thousands of people from all different backgrounds. In this city, a cultural phenomenon was going on; the Harlem Renaissance, a time of enlightenment and black cultural progression in a subsection of the city, called Harlem. Commonfolk followed business owners as they followed the path of the Great Migration; eventually, there were about 60,000 black people in Manhattan alone. As New York had replaced Boston as the center of the book publishing industry as well, it was the perfect place for the major literary and cultural movement that was the Harlem Renaissance to happen. Because of this, it boomed; Jazz music became a cultural phenomenon overnight, and many important figures started campaigns there in the next few months. However, as it gained traction, this mock-up renaissance also gained more unwelcome elements as well, facing more opposition and many greedy patrons that saw an opportunity to make money. The Harlem Renaissance, while being a major literary movement and black culture movement, highlighted the culture it was trying to help blend in, ultimately failing one of its main goals of helping merge black culture into America.

As the Harlem Renaissance came about, it sparked new hope in some of the weary, battle-hardened black population that had recently served in World War I in an effort to end discrimination. With the creation of plays like Shuffle Along, many moved to Harlem as it became a newspaper-worthy event, as people attempted to fix the early portrayals of African Americans in the media. The Civic Club was the event that officially started the Harlem Renaissance; with author Alain Locke presiding over it, 100 guests were invited to the dinner, celebrating African American writers in general. Locke even saw the unifying of black people from all parts of the world in Manhattan as “their greatest experience.” Groups like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or NAACP, gave enough protection so that many could speak up about their situation who couldn’t before. They fought discrimination and violence against their people, using magazines like the Crisis to call attention to it. All this attention that Harlem was getting with magazines and progressive groups accomplished the goal of showing the violence against them off into the world. However, as the poets of Harlem like Countee Cullen and Claude McKay influenced exponentially more people, they made a name for themselves too fast. It was such a foreign idea to the rest of America, it contradicted itself; instead of helping the acceptance of black culture, people started to view it as an exotic sight to be seen.

In every movement, there are certain leaders or important people that become its face and come to represent it; the Harlem Renaissance is no exception. For instance, W.E.B. Du Bois, well known for his views against black assimilation, had many followers when he moved to New York; this brought many people to Harlem that were ready and willing to speak out about their opinions. Poet Langston Hughes, who is still a very influential figure in history and English classes in America today, describes just how much he, as a young man, wanted to go to Harlem: “I didn’t want to do anything but live in Harlem, get a job and work there.’ Hughes was ecstatic to have a place that is finally cultivating black culture, saying that he’s going to express his culture and pay no mind to what anyone else thought. With the help of his many poems explaining how much black people have accomplished and contributed to society with little credit, Hughes became one of the most influential figures of the time – a force to be reckoned with. These figures were the face of the Harlem Renaissance, able to show the movement off to the world and promote its objectives. Other large figures helped support them in the background; one such person was Arthur Springarn, who devoted much of his time to the movement. Springarn created the Springarn Medal, which was awarded to talented blacks in different areas. Hughes and W.E.B. Du Bois were two such winners as well, and as the medal came with a large sum of money behind it, inspired many to achieve such a medal. Before this, the media continually conditioned black people to think that they were burdensome; These were the first steps to fixing the media’s portrayal of black people and showing them that they could achieve amazing things in the right conditions. This much-needed transition, however, couldn’t go unnoticed; by fixing this stereotype, and promoting the movement in such a way that the major figures did, they made it impossible for black culture to blend invisibly into American culture in general, even making Harlem be considered a ‘jungle’ by some, and it’s inhabitants ‘primitive creatures.’

While some avoided Harlem because of all the attention, some saw it as an attraction, like that of an amusement park. People of all races were beginning to flock into Harlem, thinking they’d find solace there from the rest of the country’s Puritainistic views; capitalizing on the fame, some store and restaurant owners started to kick out black clientele. The Harlem Renaissance began to thrive off of white money alone; many grants, prize money, and awards involved it, and the majority of establishments that published and recorded these great works were white-owned. Many, like Carl Van Vechten, reinforced the stereotypes of black people set earlier in history. Other authors and writers, in their good-hearted endeavors to promote the movement, have given an unintentional hostile light toward black culture in suggesting that more white people should turn to it. Generally, as white patrons continued to support this movement, it began to rely on the patron’s money to keep itself going, forcing people who were already experiencing success in the Harlem Renaissance into having to please the patron instead of themselves. These interactions put the Harlem Renaissance to the point where it couldn’t survive without white money and filtered the movement so that only the patrons’ wishes published, recorded, and sent out to the public; the patrons had the power to take away funding and send the movement crashing down at any moment. Even though people were just living their lives and promoting their culture together, others put them on a pedestal and tried to make money off of them or control what they made. With these patrons came the spotlight, and as more of the wealthy backed this movement, the more it stood out, and the harder it was to blend in.

Some historians think that white patrons fueled the Harlem Renaissance, and without them, it would never have happened; they think they were instrumental in this movement. While they did help push it along, many white people at the time marveled at the fact that black people could even attempt to progress literature and art; they had never seen them try before, even though they’ve made significant contributions to all cultures in the past. Therefore, this patronage happened because they just wanted to see how it would flourish, and the patrons generally did not care for the culture and therefore helped black culture stand out.

The fact that black culture in America was highlighted by this event by important people and backed by white patrons isn’t necessarily a bad thing; black culture today certainly wouldn’t be where it is today without the Harlem Renaissance, and it accomplished its goal of developing racial pride amongst black folks at the time. However, that doesn’t mean that they accomplished all of their goals; rather, that they had to drop one of them so that the rest could succeed. The movement didn’t fail completely, as some thought when it ended, but didn’t completely succeed in all of its goals, either. Because the movement had to highlight many important people, and fix the media’s portrayal of black people, it had to highlight black culture in general, making it impossible for it to blend peacefully into so-called American culture, forcing people to treat it differently. The Harlem Renaissance, while being a major literary movement and black culture movement, highlighted the culture it was trying to help blend in, ultimately failing one of its main goals of helping merge black culture into America.

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