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Harlem Renaissance also called the Black Literary Renaissance or the New Negro Movement was essentially a challenge against white paternalism and racism. The focal point of the renaissance was the suburb of Harlem in New York City. The movement began with the end of World War I in 1918, flourished around 1920, and faded away in the mid-30s. It had its nemesis with the start of the Great Depression. This also marked the birth of Afro-American or African American literature. Although it was primarily a literary movement, it was closely related to developments in African American music, theater, art, and politics and the whole nation began to seriously take cognizance of the happenings. It was during this period, a group of talented Afro-American writers produced a sizable body of literature in the four prominent genres of poetry, fiction, drama, and essay.
At the turn of the 20th century, there was general unrest among Afro-Americans due to an increase in their population. The Afro-Americans, hitherto confined to the southern states as slaves, began to expand their economic prosperity. Gradually they had become a middle-class society spurred by their increased education and employment opportunities following the American Civil War (1861-1865). This also made the Afro-Americans migrate from the economically poor southern states to the more prosperous northern ones. The end of World War I had created immense job opportunities and they began to take advantage of this. For once, they were considered to be urban and not rural, since they started to settle in all the major American cities. It was during these migrations that they began to slowly settle around the suburb of Harlem in New York City. When many educated and socially conscious Afro-Americans started settling in Harlem, it developed into a major political and cultural center of black America. For a lot of colored people, the whole idea of being in Harlem brought to them a sense of belonging, a feeling of oneness with their kind. However, there were quite a few Afro-Americans who felt that they would be misfits in Harlem! A strange feeling, but certainly one that was also in existence.
The Harlem Renaissance – a few basic facts
The origins of the Harlem Renaissance have a major say in the abolition of slavery. It was the cultural, social, and political upheaval of the blacks. The failure of Reconstruction and the Jim Crow laws were vital blows to the Afro-Americans since their civil and political rights were denied. This in turn made them migrate to the richer northern parts of America. Most of the participants of this movement that consisted of a literary awakening descended from a generation that had gone through the rigors of Reconstruction and the American Civil War. The liberated Afro-Americans began to strive for civic participation and political equality. The improvement in their economic status and the reaffirmation of their cultural self-determination were also responsible for the Harlem Renaissance (Helbling, 6).
It was around this time that they began to advocate racial equality with the Americans and with the birth of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909 their struggle for the advancement of their rights began to gather force. Marcus Garvey’s, Back to Africa movement inspired racial pride among the Afro-Americans. It went against the grain of the majority of the while population to acknowledge the contribution of colored writers and thinkers on one hand and being able to deal with the proliferation of the blacks into their territory on the other. The end of World War I heralded the arrival of the black soldiers to their homeland and much to their dismay their achievements were not acknowledged. This in turn led to major racial riots during the year 1919 and also other civil injustices.
Harlem by now was becoming a hotspot for Afro-Americans and their music; Jazz and Blues were in full flow in the clubs and cabarets of Harlem. White people also became interested in Afro-American music and literature and began to offer them help. Afro-American literature began to gain importance and a lot of writers began to write about their plight.
In the literary world (in the early 1920s) three works signaled the arrival of Afro-Americans (Cary, 6) on the writing scene. Harlem Shadows by McKay became the first literary work to be published by a mainstream, national publisher (Harcourt, Brace, and Company). It was followed by Cane, by Jean Toomer (a novel that combined poetry and prose in documenting the life of American blacks in the rural South and urban North) and finally, There is Confusion by Jessie Fauset, which depicted the life of Afro-Americans from a woman’s point of view.
If there was one person who could be considered the anchor of what could have become a runaway literary storm, it is W.E.B Du Bois. A scholar and a writer, in his own right, he was recognized as a person who brought out the angst of a people who had been suppressed for far too long. Apart from being the editor of a magazine called Crisis, he was the author of various works like The Souls of Black Folk, John Brown, Black Reconstruction, Then and Now, and The Negro. Du Bois, in his lifetime, spurred a lot of other young black writers to express their views on the American way of life in general and those of their black brethren in Harlem, in particular. He was a person who realized that there was no single solution to the problem of racial discrimination. Any kind of solution would have to be a broad-based integration of politics, religion, and of course, social life (Wikipedia, 6).
Another great literary star who paved the way for many behind him was Langston Hughes. His poetry was music: this is not an empty claim when you realize that he was able to capture the mood of a group of people whose lives had been shaped by the color of their skin. What set him apart from most of the other black writers of his time was the fact that he celebrated life and urged people like him to do the same. His sense of pride in being black was brought out in all his works; black to him, was always beautiful and something to be eternally thankful for, even though it meant having to face a great deal of hardship. This was best exhibited in his poems that spoke about the travails of black people in America. In his poem Merry-go-round (also called Colored child at a carnival) he speaks of a little boy who is trying to find a suitable horse on a merry-go-round that he could ride, without being blamed for sitting in white man’s territory. The boy wonders where the Jim Crow section is on the merry-go-round, as he is not able to find the front or the back portions of the wheel! It is a poignant piece of literary art that brings out the reality of the situation that the black boy is in, while also pointing out the futility of discrimination based on the color of a person’s skin. Similarly, in his seminal work titled A Dream Deferred, Hughes brings out the injustice of racial discrimination against a backdrop of changing political and economic scenarios. This work is also called Harlem; it has become a bible of sorts for people who have to tread the difficult path of writing on Afro Americans, after him (Hughes, 6).
The phrase ‘stark reality’ best suits the song “Strange Fruit” written by Abel Meeropol, who was a.k.a. Lewis Allen. A radical thinker, she had scant respect for the so-called racial equality that the southern states purported to have. Produced and sung by Billie Holiday, yet another important symbol of Harlem, this song brought to light the actual picture of intense disquiet among the Blacks, that led to violent events such as lynchings. This song was a cry from the collective heart of society for racial equality, one that heralded the others that were to come during the Civil Rights Movement.
Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves
Blood at the root
White bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees
Pastoral scene of the gallant south
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
The scent of magnolia sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh
Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck
for the rain to gather
for the wind to suck
for the sun to rot
for the tree to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop
If “Strange Fruits” painted a grotesque scene, “Take the ‘A’ Train” was a lot milder. Written by Billy Strayhorn and sung by Duke Ellington‘s band, it was a Jazz piece that became quite popular for its lilt and lyrics. VOA used this piece as a signature tune in its program The Jazz Hour. For Duke Ellington, this was the piece that his band was best known by. This was a song that the upper crust among the blacks liked to identify with (Wikipedia).
You must take the A Train
To go to Sugar Hill way up in Harlem
If you miss the A Train
You’ll find you’ve missed the quickest way to Harlem
Hurry, get on, now, it’s coming
Listen to those rails a-thrumming (All Aboard!)
Get on the A Train
Soon you will be on Sugar Hill in Harlem
Landmarks in art
Aaron Douglas portrayed the resilience of the Black people and endeavored to spur them on to achieving recognition, through all their sorrows, hopes, and disappointments. His painting titled Into Bondage depicted a long line of people, some still in fetters, looking toward a possible brighter horizon. Some of the figures showed despondency and resignation, whereas the figure in the foreground seemed to be looking at a better life through all his pain and suffering. An important contributor to the Harlem Renaissance, Douglas brought out the ‘New Negro’ in his works.
An artist who tried to bring out the beauty and the severity of life in Harlem, William H. Johnson is best known for his many works that show the common desire of a race who wants to be accepted as they are. He used a kind of “folk” style in his painting that was attractively combined with the thoughts of Black tenacity and the will to survive against all odds.
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Whether it was an artist, a writer, or a musician, every star in the Harlem Renaissance sky, spoke of a people who had to face subjugation by another race; the reasons for this subjugation were penury on the one hand and the cultural heritage of slavery on the other. The one common agenda that they all had was to combat the social evil of discrimination and rise, victorious. Over the years, it has been seen that literature, art, and music have contributed a great deal in shaping the political face of many nations; the Harlem Renaissance is no exception. Though racism has colored (pun intended) the views of writers and thinkers, it has also strengthened the resolve of Afro-Americans to become an integral part of a great country.
- Cary, D. Wintz. Black Culture and the Harlem Renaissance. Houston: Rice University Press, 1988.
- Wikipedia. W. E. B. Du Bois. Web.
- Helbling, Mark. The Harlem Renaissance: The One and the Many. Westport: Greenwood, 1999.
- Jackson, Caroline. Harlem Renaissance: Pivotal Period in the Development of Afro-American Culture. Web.
- Hughes, Langston. Selected Poems of Langston Hughes. Vintage Books, Random House, New York, 1974.
- Strange Fruit.
- Wikipedia. Take the A Train. Web.
- Aaron Douglas.
- William H. Johnson.