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The Harlem Renaissance was one of the pivotal movements that shaped the history of African-Americans in the US. Specifically, African-American arts were reborn during this period, and some of the important contributing figures included Billie Holiday and Gwendolyn Bennett. During this period, distinctive thinking patterns and diverging creativity arose to define philosophical and religious ideals (Bracks & Smith, 2014).
Billie Holiday’s inordinate vocal style was unmatched even though she lacked formal music education. On her side, Gwendolyn Bennett’s artistic poetry and writing skills were outstanding, which earned her the title – “the true Renaissance woman”. This analysis will highlight historical backgrounds, struggles, triumphs of both Billie Holiday and Gwendolyn Bennett, and their impact on the movement and legacy of the Harlem Renaissance.
Born Eleanora Fagan on April 7, 1915, to unmarried teenage parents, Billie Holiday experienced a turbulent childhood. Her father, Clarence Holiday, abandoned the family shortly after she was born. Her mother, Julia Fagan, had to work as a maid, and thus Billie was brought up by Martha Miller, her half-sister’s mother-in-law (Rohan, 2016). At age eleven, she quit school before being placed under protective custody in 1926, as a state witness, after an attempted rape ordeal.
By 1929, aged fourteen years, she was a prostitute in Harlem, where she was arrested, alongside her mother, for advancing this social vice. To escape prostitution, Billie started singing in nightclubs where John Hammond, a record producer, discovered her in 1933 (Rohan, 2016). In November the same year, Billie made her debut recording with the Benny Goodman Band, and her career in music started and progressed unprecedentedly.
America’s attitude played a significant role in the musical career development of Billie Holiday. For instance, the song, Strange Fruit, was one of the influential pieces that popularized Billie. The song was a sorrowful cry for Civil Rights, especially against the wanton lynching of blacks in the South. Additionally, some whites were curiously interested in the “primitive culture” of African Americans. Therefore, they became fond of Billie’s works in their quest to understand primitivism. Ultimately, these attitudes contributed to the rise of Billie’s music career.
Billie hugely influenced the movement and development of the Harlem Renaissance. First, she defied the racial barriers and became one of the pioneer black women to work with a white orchestra. Additionally, she co-wrote numerous hits including Lady Sings the Blues and Don’t Explain among others, which became jazz standards at the time (Rohan, 2016). However, her signature song, Strange Fruit, is the most striking element of her impact on the Harlem Renaissance, as it was considered the first protest in music and words against the brutality that blacks experienced in the South at the time. This song aroused public consciousness and ultimately contributed significantly to the progress of the movement.
Born on July 8, 1902, in Texas, Gwendolyn Bennett had an easy childhood. However, at the age of seven years, Gwendolyn’s parents divorced, and she was placed under the custody of her mother (Wheeler, 2015). However, Gwendolyn’s father kidnapped her and lived hiding for many years. She did well at school where she ultimately pursued a career in fine arts before becoming a graphic artist in 1925 having studied at Columbia University and Pratt Institute. By the early 1920s, she was already participating in Harlem literary circles by volunteering in libraries and being involved in book discussions and different cultural events (Wheeler, 2015).
Like Billie Holiday, America’s attitude towards the black community in the South contributed largely to the development of Gwendolyn Bennett. She could not stand the violence and brutality meted towards African Americans in the South, and thus she decided to use her literary skills and education to speak against those social ills. Therefore, it suffices to say that America’s attitude towards blacks at the time prompted Gwendolyn to pursue her literary works as a way of agitating for Civil Rights.
While Billie Holiday used music to contribute to the Harlem Renaissance, Gwendolyn used poetry and teaching to influence the movement. For instance, she highlighted the existence of racial pride and talked about the importance of African values as a central aspect of the Civil Rights movement. She published topics on different areas and advertised most creative thinkers of the Harlem Renaissance.
For example, she co-founded a journal called Fire!! to highlight African-American experiences during the movement as a way of enlightening the masses (Wheeler, 2015). She also founded a literary column named The Ebony Flute emphasizing Harlem social life and culture. Finally, she started a group to support young African writers, who contributed significantly to the Harlem Renaissance in different ways.
The Harlem Renaissance was an intellectual and literary blooming of emergent black cultural identity, both philosophically and religiously. Billie Holiday and Gwendolyn Bennett contributed to this period significantly, albeit in different ways. While Billie used music as a vehicle to promote African ideals and criticize brutality in the South, Gwendolyn employed education to enlighten the blacks to claim their rightful place in society.
Both are remembered for leaving indelible marks on the Harlem Renaissance movement by awakening public consciousness and intellect to rethink and revise spiritual and philosophical ideals. Besides, they both inspired upcoming young writers and thinkers, who ultimately shaped the Harlem Renaissance by developing a sense of empowerment and community for African-Americans around the US. Information gathered in this paper helps accomplishing learning objectives from the course materials in understanding the role of artists in the birth and progression of the Harlem Renaissance.
Bracks, L. L., & Smith, J. C. (Eds.). (2014). Black women of the Harlem Renaissance era. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
Rohan, R. C. (2016). Billie Holiday (Artists of the Harlem Renaissance). New York, NY: Cavendish Square Publishing.
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Wheeler, B. (2015). Gwendolyn Bennett: A leading voice of the Harlem Renaissance. In C. Sherrard‐Johnson (Ed.), A companion to the Harlem Renaissance (pp. 203-218). New York, NY: Wiley & Sons.