Harlem Renaissance

“These decisions, along with other cases such as McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Board of Regents (1950), NAACP v. Alabama (1958), and Boynton v. Virginia (1960), slowly dismantled the state-sponsored segregation imposed by Jim Crow laws. Generally, the remaining Jim Crow laws were overruled by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Despite this climate, the African-American community was able to make social progress in the major cities of the Northeast and Mid-West in the 65-year period between the end of the Civil War and the start of the Great Depression. What historians refer to as “racial uplift ideology” describes a prominent response of black middle-class leaders, spokes- persons, and activists to the crisis marked by the assault on the civil and political rights of these new African-Americans, primarily in the South from 1876 to 1954.

A generation earlier, the demise of slavery and emancipation had fueled African-Americans’ optimistic pursuit of education, full citizenship and economic independence, all crucial markers of freedom [long forgotten in 21st Century America]. A generation later, the black middle-class would be well on its way into the mainstream – until the Great Depression derailed the freedom train.

As we have seen, these post-emancipation aspirations for social advancement, or uplift, came under assault by powerful Southern whites seeking to regain control over African-American labor. With the withdrawal of federal troops from the south in 1877, Southern white authorities banded together with impoverished whites [who were also voters] under the banner of white supremacy, and instituted a new system of racial subordination.

The ideology of racial uplift, the idea that educated blacks are responsible for the welfare of the majority of their race, was a response to this post-Reconstruction assault on African-American civil and political rights gained as a result of the Civil War.

Many African-American men and women interpreted the rhetoric of uplift as a call to public service. They enacted ideals of self-help and service-to-the-group in building educational, reformist, civic and fraternal organizations, settlement houses, newspapers, trade unions, and other public institutions whose constructive social impact exceeded the ideological limitations of uplift.

The mass migration of tens of thousands of African-Americans from the South to northern cities during World War I provided new conditions and opportunities for social and political progress. The war had closed off immigration to America from southern and eastern Europe. Those, allegedly smarter and more easily trainable immigrants had formed the backbone of the original industrial working class in the America, while 90 percent of the African-American population remained in the South, confined to cotton production on sharecropping plantations.

Northern industrialists recruited African-American labor en masse to solve the labor shortage caused by the war’s cessation of immigration from Europe. African-American newspapers such as the Chicago Defender, covertly distributed below the Mason-Dixon line, encouraged southern blacks to leave behind poverty and the brutality of Jim Crow for freedom, the right to vote, employment, and educational opportunities in Northern cities.

As early as the 1890s, African-American leaders in the South had advocated out-migration by blacks as a means of protesting lynching and other forms of oppression, outraging southern authorities’ intent on keeping blacks “in their place” as a compliant and cowed agricultural work force. During this period, more than 4,000 African-Americans were lynched in the South but World War I finally provided the catalyst for the northward migration for African-Americans.

Black migration to the North’s great cities wrought profound transformations on African-American politics, society, culture and identity. African-American leadership became more protest-oriented and ideologically diverse. Organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), led by the Jamaican-born Marcus Garvey, attracted huge followings and gave voice to what many termed the “New Negro” spirit of protest and group assertiveness.

With the Great Migration and the concentration off African-Americans in the major industrial cities of the North, the politics of mass protest began to replace uplift as the way toward black social advancement. As African-American migrants to cities competed with whites for scarce resources in jobs and housing, white mobs attacked them, leading to full-blown race riots. The “Red Summer” of 1919 saw outbreaks of urban disorder in many cities, including Chicago and Washington D.C.

The African-American press proudly reported that African-Americans exhibited the militancy of the “New Negro” in fighting back against these mob attacks. Opportunistic black leaders spoke less of the crucial role of elites as agents of racial uplift and increasingly embraced a politics of mass protest, labor organization, and economic analyses of the plight of African-Americans. [Individualism was replaced by group-think and the long slog into government dependency had begun although it would accelerate in the New Deal.]

In the realm of culture, new urban musical forms (music being an essential part of the black experience in slavery) as the blues, gospel and jazz voiced the social outlook and aspirations of working class blacks, and increasingly came to define African-American popular culture, even as some educated blacks considered these musical styles controversial and not refined enough to represent the race in a respectable manner.

The new urbanity of black America fostered an awakening of African-American arts and letters. The first wave of Southern migrants seeking to escape the brutal economic and social apartheid of the Jim Crow South had created vibrant, although still segregated, communities, throughout the Northeast and Midwest. Harlem would become the Mecca, politically, culturally, and symbolically, of a new day in Black America and would give birth to the cultural movement known as the Harlem Renaissance.

Much like the European Renaissance of the Middle Ages, the influence of the Harlem Renaissance was felt in literature, philosophy, art, music, politics, science, religion, and other aspects of intellectual inquiry searching for realism and human emotion in art. The Movement also influenced new African-American cultural expressions across the urban areas in the Northeast and Midwest United States affected by the Great Migration of African-Americans, of which Harlem was the largest. In addition, many francophone black writers from African and Caribbean colonies who lived in Paris were also influenced by the Harlem Renaissance.

The Harlem Renaissance is generally considered to have spanned from about 1918 until the mid-1930s. Many of its ideas lived on much longer and formed the foundation for the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-20th Century. During the early portion of the 20th Century, Harlem was the destination for immigrants from around the country, attracting both people seeking work, and an educated class who made the area a center of culture, as well as a growing “Negro” middle class.

By 1930, there were over 200,000 African-Americans living in Harlem – out of almost 7 million people living in all of New York City. Black politicians, journalists, writers, scholars, collectors, and intellectuals converged on the area at the northern end of the island Borough of Manhattan above 125th Street – brought to New York City by the  promise of a new dawning of opportunities for black Americans and ready to fight the injustices that they still encountered, even in their new surroundings.

The district had originally been developed in the mid-19th Century as an exclusive suburb for the white middle and upper-middle classes; its affluent beginnings led to the development of stately houses, grand avenues and world-class amenities such as the Polo Grounds (the home of one of New York City’s three major league baseball teams – the New York Giants) and the Harlem Opera House. During the enormous influx of European immigrants in the late 19th Century, the once exclusive district was abandoned by the white middle-class, who had moved further north, through Yonkers, into Westchester County.

Harlem became an African-American neighborhood in the early 1900s. In 1910, a large block along 135th Street and Fifth Avenue was bought by various African-American realtors and a church group. Many more African–Americans arrived during the First World War as the war effort resulted in a massive demand for unskilled industrial labor in industries, such as shipbuilding along the Harlem River between Harlem and the Bronx,  in the vicinity of Yankee Stadium, home of the second of New York’s baseball teams – the New York Yankees. The Great Migration also brought hundreds of thousands of African-Americans to cities such as Chicago, Pittsburg, Philadelphia, Cleveland and Detroit, which concentrated ambitious people in places where they could encourage each other.

Various forms of religious worship existed during this time of African–American intellectual re-awakening. Although there were racist attitudes within the current Abrahamic religious arenas, many African–Americans continued to push towards the practice of a more inclusive doctrine. There were other forms of spiritualism practiced among African–Americans during the Harlem Renaissance. Some of these religions and philosophies were inherited from African ancestry.

For example, the religion of Islam was present in Africa as early as the 8th Century, as we have seen, through the Arab Trans-Saharan slave trade. It was most probably adopted as a gesture of good will by the same black princes and potentates who were selling their own people into slavery. Islam came to Harlem likely through the migration of members of the Moorish Science Temple of America, which was established in 1913 in New Jersey. Nevertheless, modern African-American adherents to Islam display an ignorance, cynicism or hypocrisy that is stunning, given the history of Islam and the African slave trade. Other traditional forms of religion acquired from various parts of Africa were inherited and practiced during this era. Some commons examples were Voodoo and Santeria.

The Harlem Renaissance was many things to many people, but it is best described as a cultural phenomenon in which the high level of black artistic and cultural production demanded and received mainstream recognition, where racial solidarity was equated with social progress, and where the idea of blackness became a commodity in its own right.”

“As a result, the “New Negro Renaissance” is the most widely discussed period of African-American literary history not only because of ongoing scholarly debates over its origins, beginning and end, but also because of its fundamental importance to 20th Century American thought and culture. The Renaissance coincided with the Jazz Age, the Roaring Twenties, and the Lost Generation, and its impact was keenly felt on an individual and collective level within the African-American community as well as on America’s robust cultural industries – music, film and theater – all of which fully benefited from the creativity and newly discovered contributions of African Americans.”

(The “Lost Generation” was the generation that came of age during World War I. The term was popularized by Ernest Hemingway, for his novel, The Sun Also Rises. In that volume, Hemingway gives credit for the phrase to Gertrude Stein, who was then his mentor and patron. In A Moveable Feast, published after Hemingway’s and Stein’s deaths, Hemingway claims that Stein heard the phrase from a garage owner who serviced Stein’s car. When a young mechanic failed to repair the car quickly enough, the garage owner shouted at the boy, “You are all a “génération perdue.” Stein, in telling Hemingway the story, added, “That is what you are. That’s what you all are … all of you young people who served in the war. You are a lost generation.”

In this sense, lost means not vanished but disoriented, wandering, directionless – recognition that there was great confusion and aimlessness among the war’s survivors in the early post-war years. It is used for the generation of young people born from 1883 to 1900, who came of age during and shortly after World War I, alternatively known as the World War I generation.)

“A new way of playing the piano called the Harlem Stride style was created during the Harlem Renaissance, and helped blur the lines between the poor African–Americans and socially elite African–Americans. The traditional jazz band was composed primarily of brass instruments and was considered a symbol of the South, but, among African–Americans, the piano was considered an instrument of the wealthy – they only knew of them from the plantation houses or the merchant mansions in the great Southern cities like New Orleans and Charleston. With this instrumental modification to the existing genre, the wealthy blacks now had more access to jazz music.

Its popularity soon spread throughout the country and was consequently at an all-time high. Innovation and liveliness were important characteristics of performers in the beginnings of jazz. Jazz musicians at the time such as Fats Waller, Duke Ellington and Jelly Roll Morton were very talented and competitive.

During this period, the musical style of blacks was becoming more and more attractive to whites. White novelists, dramatists and composers started to exploit the musical tendencies and themes of African–Americans in their works. Composers used poems written by African-American poets in their songs, and would implement the rhythms, harmonies and melodies of African-American music – such as blues, spirituals, and jazz – into their concert pieces.

The most famous and significant example of this is the stage show Porgy and Bess, an English-language opera composed in 1934 by the legendary American composer George Gershwin, with a libretto written by DuBose Heyward and Ira Gershwin from Heyward’s novel Porgy and later play of the same title. Porgy and Bess was first performed in New York City on September 30, 1935, and featured an entire cast of classically trained African-American singers.

[There was an earlier Broadway show produced, directed, choreographed, acted and sung entirely by African-Americans. It was entitled Shuffle Along, successfully staged in 1921 and revived as another all African-American production in 2015 – to great acclaim.]

After the original Broadway run of Porgy and Bess, a tour started on January 27, 1936, in Philadelphia and traveled to Pittsburgh and Chicago before ending in Washington, D.C., on March 21, 1936. During the Washington run, the cast – led by Todd Duncan – protested the segregation at the National Theatre. Eventually management gave in to the demands, resulting in the first integrated audience for a performance of any show at that venue.

Significantly, in 2001, Porgy and Bess was proclaimed the official opera of the state of South Carolina! The 1940/1942 Decca recording of Porgy and Bess, with members of the original cast, was included by the National Recording Preservation Board in the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry in 2003.

Characterizing the Harlem Renaissance was an overt racial pride that came to be represented in the idea of the “New Negro”, who through intellect and production of literature, art and music could challenge the pervading racism and stereotypes to promote the Progressive or Socialist politics of the major, urban, “big machine” Democrat politicians – who controlled all of the major cities – as well as racial and social integration. The creation of art and literature would serve to “uplift” the race. So, due to unfortunate circumstances of time and place, the “Party of Lincoln” – the Great Emancipator – which had fought valiantly, against the racist Democrat Party, to guarantee African-American rights, was forsaken by the decendents of the slaves they had freed.

However, there would be no uniting form singularly characterizing the art that emerged from the Harlem Renaissance. Rather, it encompassed a wide variety of cultural elements and styles, including a Pan-African perspective, “high-culture” and “low-culture” or “low-life,” from the traditional forms of music to the blues and jazz, traditional and new experimental forms in literature such as modernism and the new form of jazz poetry. This duality meant that numerous African-American artists came into conflict with traditionalists in the black intelligentsia, who took issue with certain depictions of black life.

Some common themes represented during the Harlem Renaissance were the influence of the experience of slavery and emerging African-American folk traditions on black identity, the effects of institutional racism, the dilemmas inherent in performing and writing for elite white audiences, and the question of how to convey the experience of modern black life in the urban North.

The Harlem Renaissance was one of primarily African-American involvement. It rested on a support system of black patrons, black-owned businesses and black publications. However, it also depended on the patronage of white Americans who provided various forms of assistance, opening doors which otherwise would have remained closed to the publication of work outside the African-American community. This support often took the form of patronage or publication.

There were other whites interested in so-called “primitive” cultures, as many whites viewed African-American culture at that time, and wanted to see such “primitivism” in the work coming out of the Harlem Renaissance. As with most fads, some people may have been exploited in the rush for publicity – the best example of which was actress Hattie McDaniel, Mammy in the movie Gone with the Wind (1939), for which she won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, the first African-American to win an Academy Award.

Some critics felt that McDaniel not only accepted the role but, also in her statements to the press, acquiesced in Hollywood’s racial stereotypes, providing fuel for critics of those who were fighting for black civil rights. Later, when McDaniel tried to take her “Mammy” character on a road show, black audiences did not prove receptive. In accepting the Academy Award on February 29, 1940, she said; “… I sincerely hope I shall always be a credit to my race and to the motion picture industry. My heart is too full to tell you just how I feel, and may I say thank you and God bless you.” She and her escort were required to sit at a segregated table for two.

Interest in African-American lives generated experimental but lasting collaborative work, such as Porgy and Bess and Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein’s Four Saints in Three Acts. In both productions the choral conductor, Eva Jessye, was part of the creative team. The music world also found popular white band leaders defying racist attitudes to include the best and the brightest African-American stars of music and song in their productions.

African-Americans used art to prove their humanity and demand for equality. The Harlem Renaissance led to more opportunities for blacks to be published by mainstream houses. Many authors began to publish novels, magazines and newspapers during this time. The new fiction attracted a great amount of attention from the nation at large. Among authors who became nationally known were Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes.

The Harlem Renaissance helped lay the foundation for the post-World War II phase of the Civil Rights Movement. Moreover, many black artists who rose to creative maturity afterward were inspired by this literary movement.

But, the early Harlem Renaissance was more than a literary or artistic movement, as it possessed a certain sociological development – particularly through a new racial consciousness – through ethnic pride, as seen in the Back-to-Africa movement led by Marcus Garvey. At the same time, a different expression of ethnic pride, promoted by W. E. B. Du Bois, introduced the notion of the “talented tenth”: those African-Americans who were fortunate enough to inherit money or property or earn a college degree during the transition from Reconstruction to the Jim Crow period of the early twentieth century.

These “talented tenth” were considered the finest examples of the worth of black Americans as a response to the rampant racism of the period. (No particular leadership was assigned to the talented tenth, but they were to be emulated.) In both literature and popular discussion, complex ideas such as Du Bois’s concept of “twoness” (dualism) were introduced – see The Souls of Black Folk (1903). Du Bois explored a divided awareness of one’s identity that was a unique critique of the social ramifications of racial consciousness. This exploration was later revived during the Black Pride movement of the early 1970s

The Harlem Renaissance was successful in that it brought the Black experience clearly within the narrative of American cultural history. Not only through an explosion of culture but, on a sociological level, the legacy of the Harlem Renaissance redefined how America, and the world, viewed African–Americans.

The migration of southern Blacks to the north changed the image of the African–American from rural, undereducated peasants to one of urban, cosmopolitan sophistication. This new identity led to a greater social consciousness, and African–Americans became players on the world stage, expanding intellectual and social contacts internationally.

The progress – both symbolic and real – during this period became a point of reference from which the African-American community gained a spirit of self that provided a growing sense of both Black urbanity for the mature and Black assertiveness for the younger generation, as well as a foundation for the community to build upon for the Civil Rights struggles in the 1950s and 1960s.

The Harlem Renaissance appealed to a mixed audience. The literature appealed to the African-American middle class and to whites. Magazines such as The Crisis, a monthly journal of the NAACP, and Opportunity, an official publication of the National Urban League, employed Harlem Renaissance writers on their editorial staffs; published poetry and short stories by black writers; and promoted African-American literature through articles, reviews, and annual literary prizes.

As important as these literary outlets were, however, the Renaissance relied heavily on white publishing houses and white-owned magazines. A major accomplishment of the Renaissance was to open the door to mainstream white periodicals and publishing houses, the relationship between the Renaissance writers and white publishers and audiences created some controversy, although this form of “peer review” provided a road into established academic circles.

African-American musicians and other performers also played to mixed audiences. Harlem’s cabarets and clubs attracted both Harlem residents and white New Yorkers, especially wealthy Manhattanites, seeking out Harlem “naughty” nightlife. Harlem’s famous Cotton Club, where Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway performed, carried this to an extreme, by providing black entertainment for exclusively white audiences. Ultimately, the more successful black musicians and entertainers who appealed to a mainstream audience moved their performances downtown.

Certain aspects of the Harlem Renaissance were accepted without debate, and without scrutiny. One of these was the future of the “New Negro”. Artists and intellectuals of the Harlem Renaissance echoed American progressivism in its faith in democratic reform through central government involvement, in its belief in art and literature as agents of change, and in its almost uncritical belief in itself and its future. Unfortunately, this “pie-in-the-sky” philosophy would soon run, headlong, into the real world – in the form of the Great Depression.

Next: Brown v. Board of Ed


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