The Harlem Renaissance: An Analysis of the African American Search for Identity
Today, not only is the Harlem Renaissance recognized as one of the most important movements in African American history but as one of the most important movements in American history. Originating in the early 1920's, the Harlem Renaissance was the result of the mass migration of African Americans as they left the oppressive regions of the south and moved to the promising northern industrial centers. "As the name suggests, the Harem Renaissance found its physical and spiritual center in New York city, but its reach extended to Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington, London, Paris, Africa, and the Caribbean" (Ferguson 1). The Harlem Renaissance was dominated by two ideologies, both driven by racial awareness and pride. The first was represented by figures such as W. E. B. Du Bois and Alain Locke which supported a sort of elitist theory; one in which privileged African Americans could lead their people. The other was promoted by artists such as Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston and was centered on representing the ordinary African American person. Taken as a whole, the movement served as kick start for black identity, as African Americans tried to forget about their past. A lot of works were also inspired by spirituals which brought in a new age of music known as Jazz and Blues. Overall, the mass migration of African Americans to the north started one of the most significant revitalizations of African American literature, music and art.
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One of the most important figures of the time was W. E. B. Du Bois; American civil right activist, sociologist, historian and author. Born in Massachusetts in 1868, he went on to attend Fisk University and later went on to complete his graduate studies at Harvard University, completing "an exhaustive study of the history of the slave trade" (The Circle Association). Du Bois' influence on the Harlem Renaissance comes in part to his racial activism. As one of the founders of the Niagara movement, a group who fought against racial segregation, he founded and edited the Moon and the Horizon. The group came to establish thirty branches and attained some civil-rights victories; however, the group's poor organization and lack of funds led to its disestablishment. Consequently, the Niagara movement served as a precursor to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which sought integration of African Americans, with Du Bois serving "as director of publicity and research, a member of the board of directors, and editor of the Crisis; its monthly magazine," (The NAACP) for many years. In the Crisis, Du Bois advocated his agitation towards white Americans while serving as a source of pride for African Americans. The Crisis, at one point, even came to publish works by renowned writer Langston Hughes because he believed "that works of fine art inspired by the artists' racial heritage and experience would prove the beauty of their race" (University of California, Los Angeles). In the end, all of his work was focused toward gaining equal treatment for black people.
Equally important to the development of the Harlem Renaissance was Alain Leroy Locke. Like Du Bois, Locke also attended Harvard. He studied Philosophy and "[by] the time he finished schooling, he had been elected to Phi Beta Kappa, been named a Rhodes Scholar at Pennsylvania, studied at Oxford University and achieved a [PhD] in philosophy from Harvard University" (University of Virginia). Locke's major contribution to the Renaissance came in part in his work as a writer and anthologist. His most renown and landmark piece was his anthology The New Negro. What was so significant about this anthology was that it "shaped the manner in which black American artists and academics viewed themselves, emphasized both the humanness inherent in black people through reference to the diversity of voices and talents in black America and indeed their essential connection through 'legacy' to the African continent" (University of Virginia). The anthology was a great influence for many people and of all the pieces in it, his essay "The New Negro" captured the very essence of the movement. In the essay, Locke stressed that African Americans leave the notions Americans had of an "Old Negro." Instead, he conceived the idea of a "New Negro" as a means to encourage blacks to rediscover their individuality and escape their pasts; "Locke essentially [debunked] the way Americans remember the Negro past in order to redefine and relocate what leadership is as well as who is eligible to lead" and for many, this is what Harlem came to embody (University of Virginia). Harlem not only offered African Americans a chance to create a new black identity but a diverse one as well.
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Philosophers and socialists like Du Bois and Locke definitely had their start before the Harlem Renaissance but much of their work that led up to the movement contributed a lot to it. Although the Harlem Renaissance was a revitalization of the arts and literature, underneath all that, there were strong civil rights overtones as African Americans tried to break away from all the misconceptions people held about them. It was through these beliefs that people like Du Bois and Locke formulated a movement in which people believed that a talented few would redefine the image of African Americans.
Events of the New Negro Era such as the black migration to the North, the Silent March, and the outburst of jobs created by the industrial movement of World War I all contributed towards making Harlem the striving cultural region that it was. As Harlem began to take notice as a place of opportunity and inspiration, several writers heightened expectations for a rising generation of black poets and novelists of unparalleled size and talent. Writers such as Claude McKay, Langston Hughes, and Zora Neale Hurston were at the forefront of Harlem's literary movement.
Attributed as being the most influential writer of the Harlem Renaissance, Claude McKay's works came to initiate the tone of the movement as well as to inspire later generation of writers. Born in Sunny Ville, Jamaica, he was one of the many black foreigners who found refuge in Harlem. As a child he was an avid reader and at the age of ten was already writing poetry. He attended Tuskegee Institute in Alabama and it was during this time, "that he first encountered the harsh realities of American Racism that would form the basis for many of his subsequent writing" (Witalecb). His writing reflects his belief in the power of traditional African folk cultures and the need for blacks to return to their African roots and their relationship with the natural world. One of his most influential pieces was, "[his] 1919 sonnet 'If We Must Die'" which "was revolutionary in its content and tone, as it urged Blacks in no uncertain terms to actively resist white oppression. If Blacks must die at the hands of racists, the poet urges, they must not go lying down, like hogs about to be slaughtered; they should go down fighting" (Witalecb). McKay's revolutionary like sonnet offered a powerful new message of resistance and pride to the Black masses that echoed continuously throughout the movement. In his next work, Harlem Shadows, an anthology, which, "was praised by many Black intellectuals as the first collection of poetry that truly dealt with racial issues" (Witalecb). This publication was a landmark piece because it showed other Black writers that questions of race could be dealt with in inspiring, serious literature. Another of his major works and his first novel was Home to Harlem. Although it did not fair so well commercially, it was widely acclaimed for its realistic depiction of African American life. Some intellectuals, on the other hand, such as Du Bois, severely criticized it because he thought of it as portraying negative Black society stereotypes. Once again, McKay was more concerned with portraying the casual, everyday African American instead of the high-class "civilized" African American. Without a doubt, his focus on issues of race and equality inspired many of the emerging Harlem writers.
Regarded as one of the most significant writers in American history, Langston Hughes was a prominent figure of the Harlem Renaissance and one of the movement's principal shapers. He was born in 1902 in Joplin, Missouri and his parents separated shortly after his birth. Raised by his grandmother until he was thirteen, he then went to live with his mother in Lincoln, Illinois. In 1921 Hughes enrolled at Columbia University but had to go elsewhere when he could no longer afford to attend Columbia. It was then that Hughes moved to Harlem and became involved in the booming literary scene. During his stay at Columbia, "Hughes published his first poem, 'The Negro Speaks of Rivers,' a lyric that demonstrated his ability to convey elevated meanings in plain language reminiscent of Walt Whitman and Carl Sandburg, poets who celebrated the ordinary events of American life" (Ferguson 14). Unlike Du Bois and Locke, artists like Hughes just wanted to "present the ordinary African American person objectively as an individual simply living in the flesh-and-blood world" (University of California, Los Angeles). He rejected the idea of only characterizing "cultured" African Americans and instead, spoke for artists who chose to pursue their art for its own sake" (University of California, Los Angeles). Several years later, Hughes broke through with his first collection of poetry that cemented him as a major poet of the Harlem Renaissance. In his The Weary Blues, "Hughes used innovative techniques that looked not to white culture for inspiration, but to the rhythms of African American jazz" which showed his, "determination to write about the authentic experience of Black America" (Janet Witalec, 595). The influence of jazz evident and the rhythms of African American music in these poems became a signature trait of Hughes's work and eventually became one of the movement's major characteristics.
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Another major characteristic of the Harlem Renaissance was the allusions to African American folklore. Of the many writers of the time, Zora Neale Hurston was one of the most avid in this area. Again, the question reduced to whether black cultural individuality could provide a basis for pride and artistic creativity. She was born in an all African American town of Eatonville, Florida; however, due to the fact that she was dishonest about her age, no one knows her exact date of birth. Throughout her life, she struggled with poverty despite her hard work and although she "grew up uneducated and poor," she, "was still immersed with black folklore" (Webster). She worked many jobs during her college years until in 1928 she began to work under a woman, Mrs. Mason, who funded Hurston so she could go to the south and collect more folklore. Without a doubt, "Hurston was the first black scholar to research folklore on the level that she did" however, "[much] of her book material revolves around the issues of slavery and the time period following it" (Webster). This drew a lot of controversy over Hurston because in a time where many people were trying to forget their black rural culture and heritage, she celebrated it. Yet through her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, we can see how she stayed true to the ideology of presenting the ordinary African American person by telling the story of a woman named Janie who learns to accept an identity that society has not come to accept. Although many believe she went against the movement's purpose, "[she] just wanted to portray black life in a way unconcerned with white people and unaware of problems attributed to being black" (Webster).
Not only did Harlem serve as a mecca for Black literature, it also served as an area for African American musicians to flourish and sent Blues into mainstream America. Originating in the south during the 1880's and 1890's, Blues "characteristically focused on universal themes of sex and romance;" however, during the Harlem Renaissance, although keeping its original themes, Blues came to celebrate, "troubled existence through artful song, thus giving testament to the possibility of spiritual enhancement and self-determination through suffering" (Ferguson 19). One last characteristic was that a lot of the Blues themes were derived from of old Black Folklore. The ability of African American music to reach the status that it reached came in part to the technological innovations which created a new mass market for the Blues.
When it comes to the Blues, one of its greatest figures was Bessie Smith. She was born into a life of poverty and at the age of nine lost both of her parents; her sister Viola took her in and her other three siblings. To raise some money, Smith sang for spare change on the streets with her brother accompanying on the guitar. Smith eventually got a job with a traveling entertainment show where she met Ma Rainey, an artist accredited with developing the blues sound. Rainey took Smith under her wing and under Ma, "Bessie's voice developed its powerful and soulful qualities" (Bessie Smith). Not only could Smith sing but she was also a talented dancer, actor and comedian. As her reputation as a performer began to grow, she started working in various clubs and eventually got a contract with Columbia Records. Her first two records Down Hearted Blues and Gulf Coast Blues were instant hits with, "nearly two million records in the first ten months alone, and upwards of six million in as many years" (Bessie Smith). She was nonetheless a fighter, and the presence she carried with her mirrored the proud African American that emerged from Harlem.
Along with Blues as one of the major forms of music during the Harlem Renaissance, Jazz also came into the scene with the full force of blues and some. Developing from the Black New Orleans bands, "it combined marching band music, the blues, and ragtimeâ€¦ into a distinctive form that came north with the black migration to Chicago and New York" (Ferguson 19). Unlike other musical forms, Jazz musicians frequently improvised a song as they played it, thus involving listeners emotionally. Jazz eventually rose to such prominence that the 1920's came to be called "The Jazz Age" with major figure Duke Ellington leading the movement.
Of all the jazz musicians and composers of the Harlem Renaissance, no one had a greater impact than Duke Ellington. What made his work so innovative was that, "he wrote his songs for the individual musicians in his orchestra and not for the 'sections'" (Duke Ellington). His method of composing music is what greatly contributed to the improvised style that characterized Jazz; at one point, he formed an orchestra with eight soloists in time where most bands did not even have three soloists (Duke Ellington). Not only was he a great band leader but he was also considered one of the best pianists of his era; studying piano since the age of seven. Ellington's rise to national fame started when he began playing in the renowned Cotton Club. From there, "Ellington and [his] crew began radio broadcasts and became famous throughout the country" (Duke Ellington). Eventually, his talent earned him the privilege of performing at Carnegie Hall.
Just like writers and musicians, artists of the Harlem Renaissance were a major part of the movement. During this period, many artists painted bold images of life which juxtaposed to atmosphere that the Blues and Jazz brought to the streets of Harlem. Art during this period fell in line with the Modernist style that was springing up in France with themes of black pride and culture. Nonetheless, the arts actually played one of the most important roles as to visually defining who the African American people were.