In the first part of the 20th Century, African Americans enjoyed a resurgence of ethnic pride and the demand for their due rights as human beings. This surge of African-American culture follows the Civil Rights movement of the 1950 and 1960’s and the rise of Black power with regard to its size and importance in American history. Langston Hughes in Literature and within the largest context of The Harlem Renaissance, Jack Johnson in sports, Louie Armstrong in music and Marcus Garvey in black nationalism, all had influence and spoke to the larger movement of black pride. The New Negro Movement said that it was not only acceptable but a source of pride to be black.
In a 1925 essay entitled ‘The New Negro’, Howard University Professor Alain Locke described this transformation as not relying on older time-worn models but, rather, embracing a new sprit. “Central to Locke’s prescription was the mandate that the ‘New Negro’ had to ‘smash’ the entire racial, social and psychological impediments that had long obstructed black achievement.” (Fenderson, 1969. p.34) And for many, this was achieved through the arts. Much of Europe recognized the elements of genius within African American culture. Dvorak proclaimed that the “Negro Spirituals” were the first unique form of American music and when the composer Maurice Ravel came to America, he demanded to be brought to Harlem to experience jazz music firsthand. Famous composers, Oscars, Hammerstein and Gershwin were all directly influence through the arts of the Harlem Renaissance and as a result, old standing stereotypes and barriers of prejudice were slowly broken down by a white audience that fell in love with the byproduct of the Harlem Renaissance. And this was the motivation behind the new idea of the New Negro. Gone would be the stereotypes of the oversexed and undereducated characterizes that was portrayed as the norm in the newspapers art white art of that day.
Most of the participants and contributions in this African American literary movement are referred to as The Harlem Renaissance. The participants were “descendants from a generation whose parents or grandparents had witnessed the injustices of slavery and the gains and losses that would come with Reconstruction after the American Civil War as the nation moved forward into the gradual entrenchment of Jim Crow in the Southern states and in its non-codified forms in many other parts of the country.”(Moses, 1973. 67) Many of these people were part of the Great Migration out of the South and other racially stratified communities who sought relief from the worst of prejudices against them for a better standard of living in the North and Midwest regions of the United States. Others were Africans and people of African descent from the Caribbean who had come to the United States hoping for a better life. Uniting most of them was their convergence in Harlem.
This ideology is much different and in stark contrast to what Marcus Garvey was preaching. The possibility of integration into the white majority was seen as impossible by Garvey. Garvey imagined a utopian society in Liberia and wished to make no attempt to assimilate into American culture to a point of acceptance in the white community or to contribute to society in a positive manner. With the rise in ethnic pride within the Harlem Renaissance came a renewed sense of loyalty to their neighborhoods within America and specifically Harlem and the other big cities across America as well a renewed sense of stubbornness in the sense that they were not going to let prejudice scare them away from anything. America was their country. They had not only helped build Wall Street as slaves in the 1700’s but also figuratively as well with the unpaid labor of over two hundred years. A true convert to The Harlem Renaissance could not fathom leaving America for Africa and was in direct conflict with Garvey’s idea of colonization.
“During Garvey’s travels, he had become convinced that uniting Blacks was the only way to improve their condition, and so he formed the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) and African Communities League (ACL)” (Vincent, 1973. p143). Also, Garvey first came to New York City penniless and began to talk on street corners in Harlem right in the middle of the Harlem Renaissance in both time and place. “As the groups’ first president-general, his goal was to “unite all people of African ancestry of the world to one great body to establish a country and absolute government of their own” (Vincent, 1973. p. 147) Garvey has been credited with creating the biggest movement of people of African descent. At its zenith, the UNIA claimed over a million members. Convinced that Blacks should have a permanent homeland in Africa, Garvey sought to develop Liberia.
The Harlem Renaissance, from 1919-1940, saw an emergence of black culture that was able to cross over barriers and inspire famous composers like Hammerstein, Gershwin and Ravel and give the nation and the world great literature as well as an entirely American invention: jazz music! All three came along at the right time and had their largest sphere of influence in New York. Harlem became a distinct neighborhood within New York City and as a result, the population of African Americans that rose exponentially as they came up from the South and Jim Crowe in search of opportunity. The African-American population had remained minimal since the New York City Draft Riots of 1863, but they came back in droves and left an indelible mark on the culture and were not about to leave all those accomplishments behind and go back to Africa. They had made America their home and had contributed to its greatness.
Fenderson, L. (1969) Man Shades of Black. New York: Rampart Press.
Harris, T. (1985). Afro-American Poets in Harlem Renaissance. New York: New York University Press.
Moses, W. (1987). Classic Black Nationalism. New York: New York University Press
Vincent, T. (1973). Voices of a Black Nation: Politics in the Harlem Renaissance. New York: William Morrison & Co.
Johnson, L. (1978.) Exodus: Religion Race & Nationalism in Early 20th Century Black America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.