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THE HARLEM RENAISSANCE DEFINED

What we now call "the Harlem Renaissance" flourished from the early 1920s until the onset of the Depression, and it was then known as "the New Negro Renaissance." African-American writing existed before these years, of course, and many authors who first found their voices during the 1920s produced significant work in the years following. But the New Negro's organized, self-conscious phase lasted less than a decade. The use of the avant-garde buzzword, "new," reflects the catholic embrace of the budding movement. In the 1910s, when one spoke of "the New Woman" or "the New Art," it signified a manifestation that blurred the boundaries between aesthetics, politics, and life style; an archetypal "New Poet" of that period embraced not only vers libre, but cubism, the Industrial Workers of the World, free love, and bohemian dress. In like fashion, "the New Negro" movement embraced more than literature: it included race-building and image-building, jazz poetics, progressive or socialist politics, racial integration, the musical and sexual freedom of Harlem nightlife, and the pursuit of hedonism. ("Renaissance" was used only slightly less than "new" among the avant-garde, a term that expressed a cultural blooming in a young nation.)

 

The Harlem Renaissance was primarily a literary and intellectual movement composed of a generation of black writers born around the turn of the century. Among its best known figures were Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, and Jean Toomer. They were not the first noteworthy black writers in America�for novelists Charles Waddell Chesnutt and James Weldon Johnson and dialect poet Paul Laurence Dunbar preceded them�but these younger writers constituted the first self-conscious black literary constellation in American history. The most effective strategy for race-building depended on art and literature, so a dual mission was thrust upon these writers: they were simultaneously charged with creating art and with bolstering the image of their race. Sterling Brown, a lesser-known Renaissance writer, has identified five themes animating the movement: 1) Africa as a source of race pride, 2) black American heroes, 3) racial political propaganda, 4) the black folk tradition, and 5) candid self-revelation. Evoking these themes, the Renaissance authors produced a body of literature which was not only exemplary in itself but also paved the way for succeeding generations of black writers who invoked the Harlem Renaissance as the roots of their cultural tradition. Indispensable to the movement was a supporting cast of editors, patrons, and hostesses - both black and white - who greased the movement's operation and trained a spotlight on its accomplishments.

Adding to the visibility of the literary phenomenon were jazz musicians, producers of all-black revues, and Uptown bootleggers. While African-American literature�especially poetry�drew a small readership, a much larger army responded to the call of Harlem's night world. In the heat of that moment the New Negro movement and Harlemania sometimes fused�and the Harlem Renaissance is still recalled in the public imagination as a golden era of jazz, poetry, liquor, sex, and clubs. While writers will dominate the story told here, a diverse and powerful group stands behind them. The Harlem Renaissance participants did not promote a consistent aesthetic or write in a recognizably "Renaissance" style. Their work ranged from the most conservatively crafted sonnets to modernist verse to jazz aesthetics to documentary folklore. Their agenda was contradictory and dualistic: their mission was both race propaganda and "pure" art; they incorporated the high culture of literature with the low culture of cabaret and the blues; they forged identities as "writers" and as "Negro writers." Defining their selfhood�psychological, racial, and aesthetic�proved pivotal to the key Harlem Renaissance figures, and their task was made especially complex by the fact that most of their identities were twofold.

In 1903 W. E. B. Du Bois had described the African-American duality: "One ever feels his two-ness; an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled stirrings: two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder."[5] The key Renaissance figures were torn between being black and white (Toomer), Jamaican and American (McKay), Negro and homosexual (Cullen, Wallace Thurman), propagandist and artist (Hughes, Cullen). How these individuals traversed the complex socialpsychological-aesthetic terrain of identity helps shape the story told here. Some of its protagonists lived far from Harlem, and the Renaissance constituted just one pivotal chapter in their lives. But the geographical mecca and the movement provided the spiritual and social foundation on which they built their literary careers.

©2011 Steven Watson.