Harlem Renaissance Speaks: The History

Just prior to the he decade of the 1920s, African Americans, fifty years after the official end of African American enslavement, blacks in America began the  to come of age. This coming of age was expressed in the works of the Harlem Renaissance. Black intellectuals and artist came together in the black capital of Black America, Harlem, to signal the emergence of a “New Negro”. The New Negro told the world of the new self-concept of the race, proclaiming that African Americans were a people deserving of respect, not a ward of society, not a creature to be helped, pitied or explained away. The New Negro could no longer be dismissed by contempt or terror. Instead, black people were insisting on their rights and would, as W.A. Domingo intimated-return violence blow by blow. This to be sure was the dawning of a people coming into being, jetting the docile and personality, the “minstrel man” who wore the mask which white people demanded.

The Harlem Renaissance was suggestive and brought about through the confluence of five major factors: 1) Urbanization of American Society, 2) the impact of World War I on African people,  3) shift of the center of black politics and possibility from Tuskegee to New York, and 4) the emergence of the Marcus Garvey Movement.

One of the most striking thing about the “New” as oppose to the “Old Negro was his and her urban and character and setting. As the World War I spurred new employment opportunities for blacks, African American began to migrate to industrial cites. The migration of blacks from the South as well as Africa and the Caribbean to New York, coupled with New York being the center of American publishing, and the emerging Cultural Revolution, made Harlem the ideal and logical urban city for the flowering of black cultural production.

In addition to the urbanization of black life, World War I was all-important in the emergence of a Pan African consciousness among African people. As writer and author Nathan Irvin Huggins points out, World War I “dislodged blacks throughout the world-blacks from various imperial systems were called to serve the war effort.” Africans were thus pulled out of their local context and introduced to a worldview and became conscious of one another. And as Huggins insightfully notes, “They found in each other the promise and the dream of worldwide black unity. And they built out of those dreams organizations through which Pan Africanism might become a countervailing force against the apparently crumbling Western European colonial empires. Pairs, London and New York became the stages from which this new black consciousness was amplified.”

Thirdly, with the urbanization of black life, the political center for African Americans politics shifted from Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Machine to New York, where the dominance and influence of W.E.B. DuBois evident in his push for a black intelligentsia, i.e., Talented Tenth. Dubois argued that the black race, “like all other races is going to be saved by its exceptional men.” Hence, DuBois placed great emphasis on education. Through the Crisis Magazine, the organ of the NAACP, he was able to cultivate in New York a group of writers who served as the mid-wife for the Harlem Renaissance Movement.

Fourthly, the Marcus Garvey Movement was able to galvanize ordinary black men and women and help them to see their collective potential. Garvey’s emphasis on Africa as the source of cultural regeneration reinforced the African-Centric focus of the Harlem Renaissance. His mass movement also provided audience for the art music and  literature, which came out of the Harlem Renaissance. The Universal Negro Improvement Association, Garvey’s organization, bolstered the assertive tone of the New Negro and radicalized the consciousness of the Harlem Renaissance artist and writers.

All of this is what gave rise to a crucial point and cultural flowering in African American history and the history of America. Harlem Renaissance Speaks tell story of the emergence of a people whose struggle and cultural production changed the character and structure of American society, moving it closer to being a more perfect union.

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