Harlem Renaissance

“The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line” (Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, 372) and the problem with the Harlem Renaissance is identity of the black community associated with it. Writers during this period looked in two separate directions for a common identity-some focused on their race in their work while others tried to disassociate themselves from racial identity altogether. Through protests against social injustices and depictions of struggling lives, writers of the Harlem Renaissance never quite found one voice for which to embody their race and culture. Whether the participants of the movement liked it or not, “to be a black intellectual is by definition to labor in an ethnic province” (Posnock, Color & Culture, 7) and, therefore, one must carry the label associated with it.

To understand the problem with the duality of identity, one must understand the history of black culture thus far in the United States. Before Reconstruction, there was no identity for the black population except as slaves, and after the Civil War educational opportunities were severely lacking for the newly-freed people. Fred De Armond says that to understand any culture, one must study its literary and other artistic expression throughout history (“A Note on the Sociology of Negro Literature,” 369). And at this point in history, there was little black literature and art available or accessible-there was mostly an oral history with Western influenced gospels and folk songs. In essence, the period following Reconstruction was a time for the black population in America to find an identity.

Here at a stroke of the pen was erected a government of millions of men,-and not ordinary men either, but black men emasculated by a peculiarly complete system of slavery�and now, suddenly, violently, they come into a new birthright (Du Bois, 378).

Most of the writing by blacks up until the Renaissance was in the form of gospels or in classical form like the poetry of Phillis Wheatley and Jupiter Hammon. Backed by W.E.B. Du Bois during World War I, many black men enlisted in the military in the hopes that they would gain acceptance from the government and white community through their show of loyalty for the country. And soon after the war, many southern black families migrated to northern urban centers like Harlem because, “By the 1920s few black intellectuals still believed that the future of their race lay in the South” (Wintz, Black Culture and the Harlem Renaissance, 6). This move was seen as freedom for the intellectuals. “A freedom from the inhibitions of the Southland is shown by the Negro press, the pulpit and by publicists, black and white” (De Armond, “A Note on the Sociology of Negro Literature,” 370). But this freedom was met with “only indifference” (370) by the white community. Langston Hughes describes the situation in contradictory terms in “The South.” He portrays the South as a warm and beautiful place, full of hate and stupidity-resentful of the successes of blacks in the North. He contrasts his portrayal of the South with that of the North being “cold-faced” (line 24) but kinder than the South, and place of hope for future generations. But even with the improved conditions in the north, many blacks remained poor and uneducated. With more than double the population of most southern cities, New York was home to fewer black-owned businesses than cities like Atlanta, Houston, and New Orleans (Wintz, 26), and had a lower per capita sales figure than the rest of the United States (27). New York also had a higher mortality rate for blacks than its southern counterparts (28). And still, this was where the black population placed its future-in a self-segregated ghetto.

As Cary D. Wintz puts it, “The Harlem Renaissance was basically a psychology-a state of mind or attitude-shared by a number of black writers and intellectualsâÂ?¦. They were participants in a new awakening of black culture in the United States” (2). Alaine Locke called the black intellectuals of the time New Negroes while others of the time like W.E.B. Du Bois called them the Talented Tenth. While both men shared similar visions for the artists of the movement, Du Bois’ definition encompassed all the black intellectuals of the time while “Locke’s New Negroes centered their hopes on a new vision of opportunity, social and economic freedom, and a chance to organize and fight for improved racial conditions” (Wintz, 30). There was a sense of community in Harlem with established writers such as Du Bois and Locke helping younger writers such as Claude McKay and Countee Cullen to connect with the white publishers of the day. This sense of community became divided with Du Bois, Hughes, and Locke urging pride in their heritage and Cullen, Jean Toomer, and Zora Neal Hurston attempted to keep their work race neutral. Some of the later work-beginning in the 1930s and continuing after the Harlem Renaissance-of writers like Du Bois and Hughes focused on political movements within the black community-mainly socialist and communist-in an effort to radically change the country in a time of economic depression.

Until this period, black literature followed the stylistic constraints of traditional English literature-some even followed the traditional styles through the Harlem Renaissance. Some saw the traditional styles as unoriginal and not representational of the black culture while others viewed it as a step to reach a wider audience. “The Negro, the world over, is famous as a mimic. But this in no way damages his standing as an original” (Hurston, Characteristics of Negro Expression, 179). The concept of mimicking styles made writers realize that the content of the work is what is important and what makes a work an original. “While he live and moves in the midst of a white civilization, everything that he touches is re-interpreted for his own use” (179). No matter what style the black writer uses he or she will always, in some way, be influenced by white predecessors and viewed as a reinvention of such influences.

While there was a division in the ideology of the movement, most of the literature centered on race and race consciousness-even if the writers disagreed with such a perception. Many viewed the literature as a weapon for civil rights. Others “believe in the promise of aesthetic freedom-that art and culture can be practices resistant to racial identity” (Posnock, 6). James Weldon Johnson said, a “successful literary movement would undermine prejudice, win respect for black intellectuals and artistic achievements, andâÂ?¦promote the cause of civil rights” (Wintz, 191). Johnson’s comments could be taken in differing directions-the writers should take a more active stance politically in their writing to enact change in society or possibly make their work more artistic in form and less about race to gain wider acceptance in the white community. Either way Johnson’s comments are taken, there is the acceptance that one should not take an extremist stance. Even Du Bois realized that a responsibility came with the movement-“education among all kinds of men always has had, and always will have, an element of danger and revolution, of dissatisfaction and discontent” (Du Bois, 385). According to Du Bois, there was a responsibility to use the education that blacks were afforded to further themselves in society-he also emulated what the white community was afraid of: blacks fighting for civil rights.

The division of the ideology in the Harlem Renaissance is most prominently portrayed in Hughes’ “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain.” This essay is a response to the comments made by Cullen that “If I am going to be a poet at all, I am going to be POET and not NEGRO POET” (Watson, 78). Cullen’s comment might have been influenced by his use of the sonnet and villanelle forms in his poetry-forms that would make his poetry more acceptable by the white population. Hughes disagrees with Cullen, for the most part, in his essay-Hughes interprets the statement of not wanting to be a black poet as a longing to be white. He sees the black culture as filled with inspiration for the artists. This is precisely why Hughes “moved away from the Anglophilia that dominated American verseâÂ?¦to pursue a native American voice” (Watson, 52). According to Arnold Rampersad, he “never sought to be all things to all people but rather aimed to createâÂ?¦work that epitomized the beauty and variety of the African American and the American experiences” (3). His work portrays his affection for all black Americans, regardless of the their class or gender (Rampersad, 3). Yet, with his concept of originality and racial identity Hughes found much inspiration in the style of work of white American poets like Carl Sandburg and Walt Whitman. His conceptual influence, however, were drawn from the Bible and Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk. From these inspirations, he managed to find his own voice to accompany the jazz and blues styles that he emulated in verse.

If Hughes kept at the center of his art the hopes and dreams, as well as the actual lived conditions, of African Americans, he almost always saw these factors in the context of the eternally embattled but eternally inspiring American democratic tradition, even as changes in the world order�redefined the experiences of African peoples around the world (Rampersad, 5).
Hughes does see the dilemma that artists faced at the time: “The Negro artist works against an undertow of sharp criticism and misunderstanding from his own group and unintentional bribes from the whites” (“Negro Artist”). He understands that the black community wants works showing their achievements while the white community wants works that portray the contemporary stereotypes. This idea is echoed by James Weldon Johnson who saw “the problem of the double audience” (“The Dilemma of the Negro Author,” 247). Johnson believed that “Even revolutionary literature, if it is to have any convincing power, must start from a basis of conventions, regardless of how unconventional its objective may be” (“Dilemma,” 248). He knew that for a black writer to be accepted by more than simply the black community, the writer must avoid writing what is unfamiliar to the white audience.

Early in his career, Hughes used the double audience to obtain the purpose of his verse in “America.” In “America,” he portrays the sides of race in America and proclaims, “You are America / I am America” (lines 6-7). The idea behind this poem is to unite the population and show that all should be one in the country. He claims that everyone, black and white, came out of poverty and ghettos and into America to “reach always / After stars” (lines 53-54). It is not until the final few lines of the poem that Hughes tells his audience to which group of people he belongs. He takes a similar approach to “I, Too” in which he proclaims, “I, too, am America” (line 18). He writes of the future he envisions in which “Tomorrow, / I’ll be at the table / When company comes” (lines8-10) because the people will “see how beautiful I am” (line 16). In “The White Ones,” he addresses his white audience specifically by telling them, “I do not hate you” (lines 1 and 3). But in this short poem, he asks, “Why do you torture me?” (line 7). In the short space that he utilizes, Hughes not only praises the white population for its beauty but pleads for similar kindness in return as well. He often portrayed the people he encountered in Harlem-the jazz and blues musicians, black dancers, prostitutes, and the “Beggar Boy.”

The majority, black or white, did not share some of the conceptions that Hughes created in his poetry-“Gods” contained such views. What he created in this poem could be considered sacrilegious for its portrayal of gods for individual races and calling them “only silly puppet gods” (line 10). But his point is that the people who worship these gods also created them, and the people do not use them to their advantage-they do not relieve the fear in the people. “To Certain Intellectuals” is another that was critical of perceptions of the time. He criticizes the intellectual community for turning its back on the poor blacks they claimed to be helping with civil rights advancements. This poem is response to the writers who did not want to be labeled black and, therefore, according to Hughes, wanted to be white.

Claude McKay saw black culture of the time in a similar light as Hughes and Du Bois-but he began his career by publishing his work in white-owned publications and also utilized the sonnet form instead of the musical forms that Hughes found to portray his culture. Even though he was conscious of his mixed audience, he kept his identity with the black community. Unlike other writers who catered to their white audience, “his associations were with the black working class and the white left-wing intellectuals of Greenwich Village” (Wintz, 70) and not with Harlem’s literary intellectual community. But not everyone viewed his poetry this way, “one should remind oneself of the vast gulf that [McKay] has bridged between his art and his savage African ancestry” (De Armond, 369). Like Du Bois and Hughes, he saw his poetry as a means for racial propaganda and political protest. “If We Must Die” was his response to race riots in 1919-although there is no indication that race is an issue in the poem, it was used to support rebellion against the racial injustices of the time. In it he urges the black community to stand up for itself-violently, if necessary-and attain respect through bravery.

As Cullen attempted to make his way as a poet without being labeled a Negro poet, he did manage to mull his own culture in “Heritage.” The poem was written for Harold Jackman in response to Cullen’s avoidance of the racial issues of the time. In this, Cullen sees his heritage as nothing more than what can be learned in books. He writes, “Africa? A book one thumbs / Listlessly, till slumber comes.” (lines 31-32). All he references is information that could be found in a book. He views Africa as nothing more than a place where his ancestors lived-a place with which he cannot identify.

One three centuries removed
From the scenes his fathers loved,
Spicy grove, cinnamon tree,
What is Africa to me? (lines 7-10).

It is because of this distance that Cullen finds himself identified as an American-he references the “heathen gods” (line 85) of Africa and his own Christian and Western beliefs. “Cullen was sensitive to the demands placed on young Negro poets to create a positive image” (Watson, 48). Even with his attempts to not be labeled, Cullen did praise works that had a racial focus-he called Cane “a real race contribution” (Watson, 47), although Jean Toomer would have disagreed. Contradictory to his ambitions, Cullen also reflected race in the titles for his poems and collections. This is most evident in his poem “A Brown Girl Dead” in which there are no racially defining characteristics within the verse-the title is all the reader has to identify this work racially.

Like Cullen, Toomer attempted to escape the label attached to his profession-he wanted to avoid being the constraints that were associated with the label. As Cullen avoided racially suggestive verse while keeping the titles, Toomer made no racial implications in his titles. And unlike his contemporaries who wrote of the people they encountered on the streets of Harlem, he found inspiration in the Southern black population, particularly in Cane. After publishing Cane, he wrote very little for publication-the majority of his work was published posthumously. He was urged by Du Bois and Locke to make more race contributions with his writing, even though he claimed the movement was “something that has no special meaning for me” (Watson, 47). In his posthumously published work, Toomer envisioned “an emergent ‘American race,’ a new mixed and higher race consciousness that would abolish the stalemate of white versus black and bring a human world” (Posnock, 30). In his poem “Georgia Dusk,” there are no outwardly racial implications-without knowledge of who he is or in-depth analysis of the verse, there is no reason to label the poem as written by a black poet. The image the poem portrays is that of rural life in the South; no indications of black or white among the people present.

During the years of white interest in black literature, the intellectuals of Harlem attempted to control its own image. They wanted to veer away from the perception of being an “exotic icon” or a “noble savage” (Watson, 105). This perception was an improvement into the positive realm of American culture, but it still did not raise their economic status or abolish any Jim Crow laws. They wanted to utilize the double audience by giving their people a racial identity while still maintaining a positive image for their white readership. Du Bois and black civic groups wanted the literature of the time to stress beauty and truth-defined in Du Bois’ writing as propaganda portraying “black gentility” in the Talented Tenth (93). He believed vernacular expressions and seedy Harlem settings as doing a disservice to the community. He didn’t entirely reject the concept of such racial expression, but “believed that they would assume more elevated ‘artistic’ forms as the race evolved” (94). Cullen put it this way, “Decency demands that some things be kept secret; diplomacy demands it” (93). The idea was to only portray in literature what would make the black community appealing and sympathetic while keeping true to racial identity. The problem with this perception was that the settings and vernacular were what attracted white readers to the works. Contrary to this belief, the younger writers, including Hughes and Hurston, sought to embrace the vernacular and the Harlem settings. Just as Hughes dictated in his essay, this group of writers believed Du Bois, Cullen, and their followers were betraying their heritage. Locke made an attempt to bring the two visions together by encouraging writers to portray black respectability based on all classes while keeping in tune with the vernacular and black heritage. He thought the quality of the work mattered more than its propaganda value. He saw Harlem as less a political center and more as a “cultural phenomenon” (95).

In the latter part of the Harlem Renaissance, Du Bois, McKay, Hughes, and others supported socialist and communist parties in elections throughout America-finding hope in the success of the Bolshevik revolution. They equated the black population as similarly oppressed as the proletariat in Russia-although, even with the support of prominent writers of the time, the communist party failed to attract much more support among the black intellectuals. Publications like Crisis printed commentaries by leaders of the parties in an effort to gain support-they saw socialism and communism as a viable avenue toward equality. Opportunity took a slightly more mainstream America approach to its political coverage than did Crisis. The political ideology of the movement was not radical, “in fact, their values and objectives were basically middle class” (Wintz, 30). The thought was that the ballot was the greatest weapon in the world (Du Bois, 481) and, using this weapon to their advantage, by manipulating the black population with political propaganda in literature, their goals could be achieved. Every writer during the movement wrote a work of protest, but only McKay and Hughes “made protest a significant element in their work, and even for them protest was never the exclusiveâÂ?¦characteristic of their writing” (Wintz, 191). Even early in his career, Hughes wrote of the injustice against the poor in “God to Hungry Child.” There is no racial identity in the poem, but it does show his view of the class structure of a capitalist society by showing that the world was created for the rich and the rich do not care to help the poor. The political views are also prevalent in “Park Benching”-depicting the jobless and hungry throughout the white-controlled world. It is unclear, however, if the poem is a depiction of biased hiring practices or simply an overall view of economic conditions. Through the propaganda and racial pride that Du Bois promoted in literature, he hoped to give the black population not only equality but also economic and spiritual guidance that was lacking following the Civil War (484). Fred De Armond saw that “improvement in inter-racial relations will have the effect of turning Negro thought away from channels of controversy and propaganda” (371). Once equality was achieved, the label attached by American society to black writers could be dropped (something that still has not come to fruition).

In the decade or so that encompassed the Harlem Renaissance, differing views were expressed as to how identify the black community and how to use that identity in literature to portray a positive image and gain greater acceptance in American society. Even in later years, some of the movement’s leaders saw the movement differently. In 1950, Locke said that the Harlem Renaissance “‘failed to accomplish all that it could,’ for it was hampered by race chauvinism’s ‘false conception of culture'” (Posnock, 184). Locke even went so far as to admit that he turned race into a commodity-thus cheapening the revolutionary efforts of the writers (185). This lends credence to debates as to whether the Harlem Renaissance ever aided the civil rights movements that followed and whether there was a cultural identity to be associated with the Harlem Renaissance and the writers who were a part of it. Ross Posnock claims, “The price of betraying one’s genuine black identity is to drift in the vacuous abstractions of mystical consciousness” (32). No matter what the personal ideologies of the participants of the period, they all realized, in some way, that they could not escape the label society had given them and they all gave some meaning to their culture searching for an identity in America. And they all create what would become an identity, “they were participating in a new awaking of black culture in the United States” (Wintz, 2).

Works Cited
Cullen, Countee, Claude McKay, and Jean Toomer. Trouble the Water: 250 Years of
African-American Poetry. Ed. Ward, Jr., Jerry W. New York: New American Library, 1997. pp.130-135, 91-93, 94-97.
De Armond, Fred. “A Note on the Sociology of Negro Literature.” Opportunity. pp.
369-371, December 1925.
Du Bois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folk. Course Source Book.
Hughes, Langston. “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain.” The Nation. 23 June
Hurston, Zora Neal. “Characteristics of Negro Expression.” and Johnson, James Weldon.
“The Dilemma of the Negro Author.” The Harlem Renaissance 1920-1940. Ed. Cary D. Wintz. New York: Garland Pulishing, Inc., 1996.
Posnock, Ross. Color & Culture. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998.
Rampersad, Arnold, ed. The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes. New York: Vintage
Books, 1995.
Watson, Steven. The Harlem Renaissance. New York: Pantheon Books, 1995.
Wintz, Cary D. Black Culture and the Harlem Renaissance. Houston: Rice University
Press, 1988.

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