The Harlem Renaissance

In 1925, sociologist and critic Alain LEROY Locke coined the term “The New Negro” in reference to the huge amounts of literature and art coming from New York City’s Harlem neighborhood. The New Negros were those African-Americans that participated in this unprecedented outburst of creative activity from 1920 until around 1930.

Many celebrated and quasi-famous artistic and literary free thinkers were functioning in their prime at that time. Urban philosopher Langston Hughes, poet Arna Bontemps and painter Palmer Hayden are just a few of the hundreds of artists and poets that came from and contributed through a small neighborhood in Manhattan. It was at this time and through these people that the “Back to Africa Movement” began. This movement, due to in no small part to the efforts of Marcus Garvey, embraced as it’s own and reflected many of the prominent themes of the Harlem Renaissance.

Born in Jamaica in 1877, Marcus Garvey traveled to New York friendless and without employment. He rose to prominence as a streetside speaker and began to gain a considerable amount of influence in the African-American community by preaching a new kind of self-awareness. The black community in Harlem was coming into it’s own and Garvey was on the leading edge of the “New Negro” or the change in the black identity. The idea that African-Americans were alienated from the outset by the rest of the country and that they were indeed a race unto themselves. The complacency and subjugation of slavery were beginning to change into a sense of purpose and expression unlike anything that the African-American community had experienced to date was showing itself. Led by Garvey and other prominent leaders such as W.E.B. DuBois, the community began to rise up and express themselves in literature, poetry and art.

DuBois, a founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), was instrumental. He proposed that African-Americans were inherently possessed of two opposing halves. He called this “twoness, ” a divided awareness of one’s identity. DuBois states in his book The Souls of Black Folks (1903), “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.” This idea of twoness evolved into a greater sense of alienation and gave rise to Marcus Garvey’s “Back to Africa” campaign.

Garvey instituted a campaign that, ideally, would allow all African-Americans that wished could be sent back to Africa. Garvey even started his own shipping line, Black Star Shipping, to accomplish that end. His ideals and DuBois’ notion of twoness contributed to the prolific output of the Harlem Renaissance. The artists and writers of the time picked up on their own alienation and it was reflected in a great many of their works.

Arna Bontemps, in her poem “God Give to Men,” expresses the sense of alienation that was prevalent during the Renaissance. Bontemps laments the fact that God gives to other races more than He gives to the black race. Even though the black man asks less of God than the other races, Bontemps gives a clear cut sense of alienation from the other races of the world. The only common thread being that they share the same planet.

Zora Neale Hurston opens her short story “Black Death” with a line that describes the black writer’s sense of alienation. DuBois’ assessment of the inherent twoness in the black community is expressed here. The speaker in the story is obviously American, from Eatonville, but is set apart from the rest of the country. The story opens, “We Negroes in Eatonville know a number of things that the hustling, bustling white man never dreams of. He is a materialist with little care for overtones. They have only eyes and ears, we see with the skin.”

Hurston immediately segregates the population of Eatonvilee between Negro and Non-Negro. She then moves along to make a definite segregation from the white man in particular, even to the point that the senses function differently. Of course, Hurston doesn’t believe that white and black men see in different ways physically, but that the color of one’s skin is paramount in their dealings with each other. There is a “twoness” in Hurston’s writing. The characters obviously feel out of place in their hometowns, but that is the only sense of identity that they have.

Another unique aspect of the Harlem Renaissance that affected the writings of that decade was the nativity of the artists. For the first time, this movement of black artists and authors were native Americans, born in the country. This accentuated the alienation and twoness that was prevalent in the community at that time. Langston Hughes, probably the most celebrated and enduring of the Renaissance poets, was an ardent believer in the idea of black authors being themselves. There was a war waging within each one, the twoness of DuBois, but their artistic expression should be the deciding factor of the individual. Langston, embracing the idea of a new black identity, emplored his fellow African-Americans to, essentially, be themselves.

One of Hughes’ finest essays appeared in the Nation in 1926, entitled “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain”. It spoke of black writers and poets, “who would surrender racial pride in the name of a false integration”, where a talented black writer would prefer to be considered a poet, not a black poet, which to Hughes meant he subconsciously wanted to write like a white poet. Hughes argued, “no great poet has ever been afraid of being himself’. He wrote in this essay, “We younger Negro artists now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they aren’t, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too… If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn’t matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, as strong as we know how and we stand on the top of the mountain, free within ourselves.”

DuBois had written on the training of African-Americans, “So here we stand among thoughts of human unity, even through conquest and slavery; the inferiority of black men, even if forced by fraud; a shriek in the night for the freedom of men who themselves are not yet sure of their right to demand it. This is the tangle of thought and afterthought wherein we are called to solve the problem of training men for life.” The opinion of a majority of the Harlem Renaissance writers, poets and free-thinkers is reflected in this simple statement. Throughout the decade, African-American attitude to their station in American life was based largely on the fact that they “didn’t belong.” Garvey’s “Back to Africa” program, DuBois notion of “twoness” and the huge output of prose and poetry exemplified this type of thinking.

African-Americans believed themselves to be a separate nation, to some extent. There were many comparisons to “white” ways of thinking, dress and speech that alienated the African-American populace even more. Slavery was still a hot issue and the desire to either become a separate people or go back to a way of life that was never known to them in Africa predominated the thinking at the time and is reflected in the works of art and literature that streamed from Harlem in the twenties.

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