The Harlem Renaissance, also known as the ‘New Negro Movement,’ refers to the blossoming of African American intellectual and cultural life in the decade of the 1920s. The Renaissance was sandwiched between two challenging periods in history – World War 1 and the Great Depression (Wintz & Finkelman 3).
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During this period, the black community advanced a new black identity, and African Americans were able to transform themselves from the old into something new through group expression and self-determination (Huggins 3; Rowen para. 1). Huggins argues that the Harlem Renaissance was the point of transformation for the Afro-American culture, whereby the Afro American writers became self-assertive, confident, and racially conscious as though it was for the first time.
Unlike in the past where blacks used to be treated with contempt, and as people in need of pity and assistance, the Harlem Renaissance saw African American writers demand to be treated with respect since they were also American citizens in their own right.
The renaissance reminded other Americans that Black Americans had indeed revived and inspired themselves to compete for the same resources, eye for eye since they were also intelligent, articulate, industrious, and self-assured in the same manner as the mainstream white society (Huggins 3). As such, it can be argued that Negro writers became more assertive and more aware of their cultural background during this period.
To the best of the literature that exists to date, the Harlem Renaissance was triggered mostly by the fact that blacks were increasingly becoming modernized. Indeed, according to historians, the migration of the Negros from the south to the north transformed the image and stature of the African-American from rural, undereducated, and subjugated peasants to one of urban, cosmopolitan erudition (Huggins 5; Wintz & Finkelman 69).
Due to the modern lifestyles in urban areas, the ‘new Negro’ writer cut across a figure of someone demanding for his rights by using various channels such as poetry, songs, theater, editorials, novels, among others.
This new identity, arising from the transformation of blacks from sharecroppers and laborers to urbanites, led to a superior consciousness, and Negro writers became players on the world map, intensifying intellectual and socio-cultural contacts internationally (Watson 23). It is, therefore, safe to argue that Negro writers during the Harlem Renaissance were consciously modern.
The ‘New Negro’ writers exercised more assertiveness, self-control, and self-confidence than the ‘Old Negro’ writers. Indeed, writers during the Harlem Renaissance directly questioned the authority and aesthetic standards exercised by the dominant white society over other minority racial groupings viewed as of less value by the whites (Wintz & Finkelman 67). The methods used – poems, novels, songs, among others – were revolutionary, and could traverse the whole world (Huggins 11).
Poets such as Countee Cullen and Claude McKay, and novelists such as Zora Neale Hurston, Jean Toomer, among others, came up with masterpieces that made the rights and aspirations of the Afro American to be recognized within and outside the US in ways that had not been witnessed before.
According to Wintz & Finkelman, “…the fiction writers of the Harlem Renaissance broke away from the earlier tradition in that they gave African American culture a more urban, assertive, and cosmopolitan voice” (69). As such, it is only fair to conclude that this particular genre of writers was more assertive than early writers.
Huggins, N. I. Voice from the Harlem Renaissance. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN: 0195093607
Rowen, B., & Brunner, B. Great Days in Harlem: The Birth of the Harlem Renaissance. 2009. Web.
Watson, S. The Harlem Renaissance: Hub of African-American Culture, 1920-1930. New York City, NY: Pantheon. ISBN: 0679758895
Wintz, C. D., & Finkelman, P. Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance, Vol. 1. London: Taylor & Francis. 2004. ISBN: 1579584578