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The term refers to the timeline between 1920s and 1930s that marked a great flowering of the African American culture and intellectual life. The move had a sounding impact in the entire United States cultural spectrum, social thought and political arena which affected the social structure then and has remained significant up to date. The Harlem Renaissance witnessed a period where the blacks decided to challenge the white racism paternalism.
In this context, African-American intellectuals and artists decided to take pride from their black dignity and creativity and stopped imitating the white’s lifestyles. This paper will analyze the events that characterized the Harlem Renaissance as the blacks strived to celebrate full freedom of expression in their own terms in tie with African native culture. Being accessible to only limited economic resources and under a heavy pressure of racism, the blacks resorted to literature to form an avenue through which they could express themselves…jazz was born to help in social disillusionment, besides other steps that this paper will highlight.
The Historical Aspect
The Harlem Reissuance grew after the abolition of slavery and later culminated into a greater force with the consequences brought about by WWI and the change in the cultural and social structure in the American community. It was also during that period which marked the onset of industrialization that saw a sudden shift of migration to urban areas, hence giving way to mass culture…many African-Americans set out to the Northern cities.
Work brought them together giving them a chance to encourage each other and solidify their belief on the new found freedom (Barnes, pp.17-20). With a united front and driven by common interests, blacks pushed for political and economic equality, quality, civic participation and cultural self-determination. Prior to this migration, whites South established unpleasant conditions with legislations of oppressive rules like the Jim Crow Laws that supported segregation. Blacks were disenfranchised and therefore became poor…life in the South became unbearable.
Unable to take no more of the blatant institutional and open inequalities, blacks were left with no choice but migrate northwards. “Harlem Renaissance came to an end with the onset of the Great Depression in 1935 coupled by the death of patron A’Lelia Walker but the notion of its objectives still make part of Americas present society” (Barnes, p.21).
The Harlem Renaissance
The political figurers that made a name for themselves during the Harlem were the ones who kept on reminding Africans of their hopes to getting freedom someday and make the then oppressions part of their history. It was the need to acquire full freedom that made the Harlem Era a hot political arena.
Art became the chief driving force of the movement with several black artists forming organizations which published contents with poetry and scenes depicting purely black culture that is free from white intervention. Several groups of talented and skilled African-American writers came up with wonderful artistic materials like poems, skirts and essays in different genres which they used to flood the literature arena. Some of the common themes that characterized the era were the use of blue tradition and folk material (David, p.43-51).
David ads that “Harlem culminated into what could not just be defined as a literary movement, but a massive move of racial consciousness” (David, p. 53). He referred to this as the “Marcus Garvey’s movement”. The main objective being to achieve a racial integration in the United States; the drive led to the establishment of spiritual practices, paintings and revues that hold African origin.
Harlem sparked democratic reforms in America, it was an agent of a change which the American society could not ignore and just as Venetria and Maureen puts it in that “there is no force as strong as an idea whose time has come (Venetria and Maureen, p.57)”.
Harlem pushed for a new way of doing things and there was no way the American Society was going to escape it. The issue that it brought to the table had to be addressed whatever the cost. Though their quest to affect equality failed then, the blacks had made known their intention and were it not for the effects of the Great Depression, their then objective could have been achieved relatively much earlier. The Great Depression shattered many other programs as well especially due to the centrality view that the Society had on economy, culture and other social realities.
From face value, it can be said that Harlem failed but taking a critical look at the facts, the significance that the time had was quiet remarkable leaving a symbolic name that will be remembered by several generations to come…a name that points out to the vitality of the black community, black militancy and black urbanity…an urban pluralism. It brought the entire black society together and made them move with a common goal; “the rich, the poor, young, old, politicians, artists, adventurers, criminals, social outcasts and preachers joined the force with different expectations and motives, but the greatest purpose that cut across all the groups was getting to find one another and knowing the strength in unity” (Coleman, p.131). It was a reality check for all blacks to appreciate their black life and be proud of it against strong forces.
The successes of Harlem include but not limited to the following; renewed way to appreciate folk rots and culture, with the African culture appreciated among the black community, the peasant folk materials in America during Harlem together with the spirituals were used for the purpose of racial imagination to trace the roots. The blacks who had all along felt humiliated then believed that they were freed from the historical bondage. Failure too came in handy; it was not a unit percent for the movement, after some years the drivers of the move lost direction and instead started mimicking the whites who they were supposed to be independent from.
The blacks were imprisoned in their innocence dominated by the whites with their culture and wanting to imitate the African culture, a culture which was far off reach. In the long run, “Harlem Renaissance was unable to acquire a fully black culture, and instead settled for a compromise culture between the two extremities” (Coleman, p.135). They only proclaimed the new race consciousness in the mind but continued to wear clothes and act in a way that suggested a white mans sophisticated lifestyle. It was not an easy thing to overcome the massive dominance that the white culture had had on them and had defined their culture and art for ages.
Coleman suggested that in order to completely an successfully reject and shun all values related to the whites, “…the blacks had to be fully independent culturally, free from any awe of hate or love for whites, avoid any fantasy and appreciate themselves as the cream of pure culture and art” (Coleman, p.137). This as can be seen was close to impossible and due to the period that Harlem was in force, is apparent that achieving 100% black art and culture was not possible.
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The paper has established that the Harlem Renaissance had profound impact to all the blacks living in America and even beyond. Every individual who had affiliations to black ancestry became part of the movement. The black community surged above all odds to show their self determination and openly expressed their feelings. The timing of the Harlem Renaissance seemed to have been perfect as it was between the WW I and the Great Depression when economic growth was massive in the United States; African-Americans therefore migrated to racially friendly environments to the North where they consolidated their accord and acted as a united front.
The incidences that characterized Harlem led to blacks changing their image worldwide by making themselves significant for a good course after their social status had been ruined by slave trade. The era acted like a cross road which offered a platform to blacks to interact with other individuals across the boarders, share ideas and make international impacts. To sum up, this paper reveals that Harlem Renaissance had succeeded in creating an ethnic provincialism, a fact which also contributed to its failure. But it did help African-Americans from fading away due to a crippled self doubt.
Barnes, P.C. New Voices on the Harlem Renaissance. Fairleigh Dickinson Univ. Press (2005). Pp.17-21.
Coleman, L. Carl, Van Vechten and the Harlem Renaissance: A Critical Assessment. New York: Garland Pub. (1998). pp.131-137.
David, K. A Beautiful Pageant: African American Performance Theater, and Drama in the Harlem Renaissance, 1910-1927. Palgrave Macmillan. (2002). pp.43-62.
Venetria, K. P. and Maureen, H. Double-Take: A Revisionist Harlem Renaissance Anthology. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press. (2001). pp.55-59.