Harlem Renaissance Literature Essay

What was the Harlem Renaissance? What effect did it have on American Culture?

During the 1920s and early 1930s the New York City district of Harlem became the centre of a cultural movement that was unique in African American history. Encouraged by a new confidence, Black artists produced a great body of literary work, paintings and sculptures and moreover found expression in music and performing arts. In this essay I want to outline the socioeconomic forces that led to the Harlem Renaissance and describe the period as such along with its development throughout time. Pointing out the common ground of the period’s artists, the motivation for that sudden outburst of black American creativity and the ideas behind the works will then justify the claim that the Harlem Renaissance, although rather short as a cultural epoch, did have a lasting impact on American culture as a whole.

When dealing with the Harlem Renaissance, one may wonder why such a time of cultural blossom developed in Harlem instead of in any part of the United States. But considering the demographic structure of the district, it becomes evident that all conditions were favourable of such a movement. In course of the Great Migration, the black population of the North had increased enormously, especially in industrial cities like Chicago, Detroit or New York. Over one Million former slaves were coming to escape the racial suppression in the South and seek better living conditions in the North. They were hoping to find better jobs, more opportunities for education and, most importantly, a better climate of interracial relationship. The high demand for labour due to the immigration stop in World War I was another factor that encouraged African Americans to set off to urban areas in the North. Not only Blacks from the southern States, but also from the West Indies were attracted by the labour shortage and the opportunities it seemed to promise. So in time, the population of Harlem became more and more diverse. Although the inhabitants have always been largely black, they still varied a great deal in terms of their origin, their level of education and their social class. As more and more educated and socially conscious blacks settled in Harlem, it developed into the political and cultural centre of black America as a whole. With the establishment of the NAACP in 1909 by the black historian W.E.B. Du Bois and other committed personalities, the political awareness within the African American population had increased significantly. The residents of Harlem as well as Blacks all over the state came to realize that it was necessary to become active in order to advance the rights of blacks in America; racial equality would not occur on its own. The diversity of African American society within the American city and the increasing political awareness of Black Americans were certainly a precondition for the development of a movement as strong and diverse as the Harlem Renaissance, but the motivation for a cultural blossom came from elsewhere.

World War I had left African Americans disillusioned concerning racial solidarity in America. While they had supported the United States during wartime, showing solidarity towards a country that has exploited them for centuries, they then had to face the fact that in times of peace the lines between black and white became sharper again. The great number of Blacks in the industrial cities increased racial conflicts, and in 1915 the Ku Klux Klan had emerged again and reached a peak in membership during the 1920s. The immense numbers of immigrants entering the United States, in particular subsequent to World War I, had given the anti – foreign movement a new upturn. Apart from that, the labour conflict still complicated the situation between black and white Americans, as minority groups were always the first ones to blame for social problems of any kind. African Americans expressed their disappointment about the continuing discrimination in mainly two different ways.

The first thing to emerge as a consequence of the political awakening of Black Americans was an increase of black militancy. The Back-to-Africa movement of Marcus Garvey was the most popular way to express the increasing resignation concerning multiracial society, although this approach was chosen primarily by the uneducated part of the African American population. The more sophisticated respond was the development of a new racial pride. Black Americans began, for the first time in their history, to overtly express a pride in their heritage and traditions, and they turned to various ways to exhibit this attitude.

The writing of literature, the composing and performing of music and the production of visual arts was no longer seen simply as an act of creativity; it was a means of “rehabilitating the race in world esteem from that loss of prestige for which the fate and conditions of slavery have been so largely responsible”[1]. This citation, uttered by one of the most prominent figures and forerunner of the Harlem Renaissance, Alain Locke, states the central motivation for the development of such a powerful cultural movement. Black Americans had entered a new state of racial confidence and felt they had to find alternative ways to refute the ancient prejudices that prevailed in America. The educated part of the African American community was convinced that they could oppose the stereotype by proving their intellectual competence; they hoped that an increased cultural output would work against the American notion of white supremacy and show that Blacks were no longer willing to accept their alleged status of an uncivilized people without culture. Many held the opinion that white Americans would not treat them as equals unless and until the former slaves proved themselves to be equal, so the importance of culture experienced a huge increase during the early 1920s. The topics that prevailed during the Harlem Renaissance reflected that feeling of marginality and alienation that African Americans were facing; these themes occurred in literature of that period as well as in arts and music. Still, the Harlem Renaissance was as diverse as a movement as the people that created it.

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[1] Nadell 2004: p. 38

Anuoluwapo Bolarinwa

Professor Rogers

English 12

22nd of May, 2013.

  Harlem Renaissance on African American Literature.

     Harlem Renaissance was an African American cultural movement of the 1920s and early 1930s that was centered in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City. Harlem Renaissance is the name given to the time from the end of World War I and through the middle of the 1930s depression. It was known then as the “New Negro Movement”, named after an anthology, titled The New Negro, of important African Americans works, published by philosopher Alain Locke in 1925.  The renaissance involved a group of writers and highbrows associated with Harlem, the district of Manhattan, during the migration of African Americans from other parts of U.S. This cultural movement marked the first time in American history that the white population took notice of the literature of African Americans. Even though some believe that Harlem renaissance has no influence on Africa America literature and community, Harlem Renaissance became the period in which a group of talented black writers produced an extensive recognizable body of literature in the three outstanding categories of essay, poetry, and art.

       The Harlem Renaissance or the New Negro Movement was inspired by Marcus Garvey, founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), Alan Locke, the author of “New Negro” and W. E. B. Du Bois, editor of The Crisis magazine. This movement expressed the pride in blacks and motivated many African Americans to celebrate their culture through literature and art. Harlem Renaissance helped shape American culture, while adding its own elements to the American’s tradition. It offered new ways of seeing and understanding what it meant to be Black at this crucial time in history. Aberjhani, an American historian, columnist, novelist, poet, and an editor, indicate in his book “Journey through the Power of the Rainbow” that “The best of humanity's recorded history is a creative balance between horrors endured and victories achieved, and so it was during the Harlem Renaissance.”[81] This shows that the movement led to new styles of literature and new philosophical ideas regarding the issues that African Americans faced in the early twentieth century America. This important change in African American mindsets has survived throughout the centuries and persists even to this day.

      The Harlem Renaissance movement impacted the changes that took place in the African American community because of the expansion of communities in the north. The social base of this movement included the Great Migration of African American from South to North due to the industrialization in the city. Harlem Renaissance is among literary and artistic movements due to its connection to civil rights and reform organizations. It surrounded everything from political writings to jazz poetry, and is especially remembered for poets such as Countee Cullen, James Weldon Johnson, and Claude McKay. Langston Hughes was perhaps the best-known Harlem Renaissance poet. The Crisis magazine, an official magazine of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) that was mainly subscribed to by blacks; and Negro World, the newspaper of Marcus Garvey’s helped immensely in publishing the African American writing. Harlem renaissance help give African American visibility and opportunity for publications. These publications published poetry, short stories, and essays sent in by black writers, and it encouraged them to do more, such as write, and make all forms of art, because expression was one way to freedom.

        Harlem was described by Alain Locke (1886-1954) as "not merely the largest Negro community in the world, but the first concentration in history of so many diverse elements of Negro life."[44] The renaissance was related with the New Negro Movement because of the anthology “THE NEW NEGRO” (1925) edited by Locke, whose early essay “The New Negro” is the closest to a statement of ideals that Harlem Renaissance has. Locke promoted African-American artists, writers, and musicians, encouraging them to look to Africa as an inspiration for their works. His essay, The New Negro describes the overall awareness of the potential of black equality, he says “…no longer would blacks allow themselves to adjust themselves or comply with unreasonable white requests.” He is just trying to create a political awareness on self- confidence the blacks have developed. In fact, Houston A. Baker, Jr., in his book “Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance,” indicates that "Locke succeeded in writing our first national book, offering . . . the sounds, songs, images, and signs of a nation." [473] Baker is praising Locke for writing the New Negro book because it marks the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance, and African American use it to boost their self- confidence. The power in Locke’s essay was held in people and made them look through their actions and behaviors, and also view from a different perspective. Locke has a great influence on literature, and he encouraged people to illustrate African and African America subjects in their writing. It is very obvious that Harlem Renaissance gave black people a cultural differentness through literature.

       Literature was a great way people use to show their motivation, pain and feelings. W.E.B. Du Bois is an American sociologist, historian, civil rights activist, author and editor, who wanted equal rights for African American. He help used literature to spread motivation for the black. He was an ardent peace activist and advocate reduction of racism. Du Bois published his collection of 14 essays named, “The Souls of Black Folk”, in 1903, and this essays helps showed the intellect of black race. He was a literary and cultural inspiration that helped activate the Harlem Renaissance and the powerful art about the African American experience. Du Bois used his influential role in Crisis magazine to expose and oppose racism and injustices, such as lynching and segregation. He promoted African American artistic talents in his writing called “A Negro Art Renaissance.” He wanted black artist to realize their ethical assignment by being committed to showing the issue of racial equality in their work; in response to their own experience. His writings are a defining text of the New Negro Movement because of its deep effect on an entire generation that created the center of Harlem Renaissance. This movement produced work that was both initiated in modernity and an engagement with the African American culture. The Harlem Renaissance created African American literature in the United States and influence many authors throughout the twentieth century.

       The Harlem Renaissance was a transformable period in time when poetry changed a nation of African-Americans to an incredible level. Langston Hughes was one of the leading black writers in that time period, and wrote many different types of literature. He wrote, and created a new literary art form called jazz poetry. His poem "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," provides solid unity for the African American history. His poetry covered the issues faced by African-Americans with a combination of music, cheerfulness, and culture. Hughes spoke essay spoke to the concerns of the Harlem Renaissance as it celebrated African American creative innovations such as blues, spirituals, jazz, and literary work that engaged African American life. essay spoke to the concerns of the Harlem Renaissance as it celebrated African American creative innovations such as blues, spirituals, jazz, and literary work that engaged African American life. essay spoke to the concerns of the Harlem Renaissance as it celebrated African American creative innovations such as blues, spirituals, jazz, and literary work that engaged African American life. essay spoke to the concerns of the Harlem Renaissance as it celebrated African American creative innovations such as blues, spirituals, jazz, and literary work that engaged African American life. essay spoke to the concerns of the Harlem Renaissance as it celebrated African American creative innovations such as blues, spirituals, jazz, and literary work that engaged African American life. essay spoke to the concerns of the Harlem Renaissance as it celebrated African American creative innovations such as blues, spirituals, jazz, and literary work that engaged African American life. essay spoke to the concerns of the Harlem Renaissance as it celebrated African American creative innovations such as blues, spirituals, jazz, and literary work that engaged African American life. for most of the writers and artists when he wrote in his essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” (1926) that black artists should be able to express themselves freely as an individual, i.e. an artist work should be looked at not by what color the skin of the artist is, but by the meaning and the quality of the work. He wants the African American artists to realize who they are as an individual artist and person, not just color in the background of life. seeking to portray the Freedom Movement. Another writer African American poet who was a leading figure in Harlem Renaissance is Countee Cullen (1903-1946). He also dealt powerfully with racial themes in poems like "Black Christ," the story of a lynching victim who returns to life to speak of his ordeal. Through his poetry and books, he promoted equality, condemned racism and injustice, and celebrated African American culture and spirituality.

          Although, the "New Negro Movement" has been over since, but the effects of the authors and words written are still generally known today. African American artists engaged culture to work for goals of civil rights and equality. African Americans paintings became absorbed into the mainstream culture. Visual arts made a strong statement during the Harlem Renaissance, creating images based on newly developed consciousness about heritage and culture. The art produced at that time varied greatly in theme and it ranges from the illustration of theatrical urban lifestyles to ordinary rural landscapes; from the daily actions of individuals to the all- surrounding and meaningful themes of slavery and cultural origins in Africa. Aaron Douglas (1898-1979) was the Harlem Renaissance artists whose work best demonstrate the 'New Negro' philosophy. Aaron Douglas is known to be a "father of Afro-American Art". He painted drawings for public buildings and produced illustrations and cover designs for many black publications including The Crisis and Opportunity. Douglas was an important part of the circle of artists and writers we now call Harlem renaissance. He portrays strength in his paintings, strength that he was expressing to Black people with his artwork. He shows the young black artist that they have the possibility of achieving things that were once considered beyond them. Douglas's work is based on the African American lifestyle and it shows the hardships and heritage of the African Americans and its beauty. His work most likely inspired other African American artists to show their work and express themselves. Douglas emerged as an iconic figure of Harlem Renaissance, his famous quote states that

"...Our problem is to conceive, develop, establish an art era. Not white art painting black...let's bare our arms and plunge them deep through laughter, through pain, through sorrow, through hope, through disappointment, into the very depths of the souls of our people and drag forth material crude, rough, neglected. Then let's sing it, dance it, write it, paint it. Let's do the impossible. Let's create something transcendentally material, mystically objective, earthy, and spiritually earthy. Dynamic." - Aaron Douglas.

He is encouraging the African-Americans painters to always express themselves in creative ways. It doesn’t have to include violence, nor being angry at their oppressors, but it can be a creative way to deal with difficulty. Douglas uses his art work as a way to show the power African American had by being themselves and embracing their culture. His work gave us something to learn from by showing his interpretation of African American life. Harlem Renaissance dignified the unique culture of African-Americans and redefined African-American expression. African-Americans were encouraged to celebrate their heritage through literature.

         While it’s very clear that African Americans literature has a foundation which is Harlem Renaissance, many still felt that the Harlem Renaissance did not redefine African- American expression. Nathan Irvin Huggins, an American historian, author and educator, thinks that Harlem Renaissance was a failure as both a cultural movement and even as a literary aspect. Huggins said in his 1971 book titled “Harlem Renaissance” that  “Writers tried to ford a distinctively Negro voice…the more artificial they became finding English or African forms and rhythms that surrogates for the styles of their own America experience.”[191] He also questions the exclusiveness of the movement to the nation's black population and postulate that black and white Americans "have been so long and so intimately a part of one another's experience that, will it or not, they cannot be understood independently." He argues that the creation of Harlem "as a place of exotic culture" was as important to whites as it was to blacks and that African Americans had to be presented in a better light, in a way the majority of whites could not accept. He said "Even the best of the poems of the Harlem Renaissance carried the burden of self-consciousness of oppression and black limitation…”[192]  all he  is trying to say is that Harlem Renaissance itself wasn't so much a celebration of Black culture, but rather a clearance of Whites believe. The basis of all criticism of the Harlem Renaissance is that it contains a certain aspect of deceitfulness because it tried to create a separate image that was based on common beliefs set up by philosophical and artistic leaders from a white society

       Even though Huggins can’t view the importance of renaissance on black literature, George E. Kent, an African-American professor of literature at Wesleyan University, believes that the movement has provided American literature with some very important accomplishments. He specify in the Black World Magazine that "the short story in the hands of Eric Waldron and Langston Hughes became a much more flexible form…, while no Harlem Renaissance author created a truly new form of the novel, these writers did provide stories that occasionally stopped just short of greatness."[13] Kent is basically appreciating the literature of the period. Mike Chasar, a poet and an author, in the article “The Sounds of Black Laughter and the Harlem Renaissance” said that “These poets variously build on, and take part in, a long tradition of African American humor, music, and song; their work thus accords a privileged place for the many and varied sounds of laughter in black America.”[58] Chasar indicated that the literature produced gave black Americans happiness because this period opened the door of opportunity for all other African Americans around the world. The Harlem Renaissance complexities are rich and some of its literature has some great importance. James Weldon Johnson, an American author, politician, poet, and a civil right activist, said in his book “The Messages Of God's Trombones” reviewed by Carroll, Anne that:

“The final measure of the greatness of peoples is the amount and standard

of the literature and the art they have produced. The world does not know

that a people is great until that people produces great literature and art. No

people that has produced great literature and art has ever been looked upon

by the world as distinctly inferior.” [Johnson 9]

All Johnsons is saying is that the literature produced during the Harlem Renaissance gave the African American culture value and recognition.      

         The Harlem Renaissance was a rebirth of African American culture in New York City. Literature from the Harlem Renaissance inspired many modern writers such as Alice Walker, Amiri Baraka, Maya Angelou, and Toni Morrison. It also influenced Martin Luther King's “I Have A Dream” speech because the speech seems to be closely related to Langston Hughes poem “Let America be America Again”. Harlem Renaissance provided a very important advancement in African American Art and Literature. Inspiration from Langston Hughes and Alain Locke are witnessed in modern culture and society. Even though the movement has been over since, the effects of the authors and words written are still generally known today. Aberjhani also said in an interview done by Kinamore Angela on “interview with the authors of the Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance” that he has been influenced more by literary movements such as that of Harlem. Without Harlem Renaissance, the African America literature wouldn’t be successful because the coming together of such a diverse body of artistic talents, great works of arts, and the interconnected collaboration on many face regarding diverse subject matters, together with the ability to demonstrate their gift and talent would not have been. Harlem Renaissance brought new visionary insights and the concept of excelling inner consciousness to the literature of African-Americans.

         In conclusion, the legacy of the Harlem Renaissance has opened doors for today’s African- American writers. The Harlem Renaissance was the internal spring for African-Americans branching out into the world on their own desire. The renaissance opened a new dimension for African-Americans and brought about the realization of “I can do it, and do it with dignity, grace, and style.”  This time period in history was not just a national movement, but an impact creating a revolution of sorts. Harlem saw a never-seen-before work per excellence, in various fields, which gave African-Americans a renewed image and a fresh outlook. Harlem Renaissance has been the breeding ground for creative endeavors by authors, poets, and artists. Harlem, in itself, was an idea of cultural excitement that progressed throughout the twentieth century. Black visual artists experienced an explosion in ideas and energy during Harlem Renaissance. The Harlem Renaissance produced novelists, poets, artists and musicians who are today considered some of the finest that America ever produced, regardless of race.

 

 

 

 

Works Cited

"American Literature." Reference & Research Book News 18.4 (2003): 252-256. Academic Search Complete. Web. 16 May 2013.

Carroll, Anne. "Art, Literature, And The Harlem Renaissance: The Messages Of God's Trombones." College Literature 29.3 (2002): 57. Academic Search Complete. Web. 16 May 2013.

Chasar, Mike. "The Sounds Of Black Laughter And The Harlem Renaissance: Claude Mckay, Sterling Brown, Langston Hughes." American Literature 80.1 (2008): 57-81. Academic Search Complete. Web. 6 May 2013.

Diepeveen, Leonard. "Folktales In The Harlem Renaissance." American Literature 58.1 (1986): 64. Academic Search Complete. Web. 6 May 2013.

“Harlem Renaissance” by Nathan Irvin Huggin Review by: Robert Sklar The Journal of American History , Vol. 59, No. 1 (Jun., 1972), pp. 190-191

Hughes, Langston. "The Negro artist and the racial mountain." The Nation. 122.23 (1926): 692-694.

Kent, George E., “The Fork in the Road: Patterns of the Harlem Renaissance,” in Black Word, Vol. 21, No. 8, June 1972, pp. 13–24, 76–80.

Locke, Alain. The New Negro. Touchstone, 1999.

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