The Harlem Renaissance was limited to Harlem for two reasons: first, the south remained an exceedingly difficult and dangerous place to live, where freedoms were limited and trampled by whites seeking to preserve their place in society; and second, the north, although promising utter equality, remained starkly segregated and economically grueling for African Americans. As a result, most blacks in New York City were quartered off into the worst sections of town; however, they remained free enough to explore themselves intellectually, spiritually, and creatively.
The Harlem Renaissance was an important happening in the United States because it reflected the fundamental aspects of a culture that had been deliberately silenced since the first slave ship had arrived in Jamestown. The stream of black Americans crossing into the north from the southern states that had began since the Declaration of Independence exploded into a raging flood of migration between the years of 1920 and 1925. In this brief period alone more than two million black people moved from the south to the north.
There was a strong feeling of progress and the hope that life in the north would be sweeter. (Hardy, 17). The north offered something that the south could not”in addition to the tradition of free blacks”black Americans could easily find and secure jobs working in factories and manufacturing plants. This allowed many rural African Americans to escape their ties to southern lands, and inhabit an urban area where their culture could be celebrated”at least locally”and their wages, slightly more substantial. This provided a unique environment to any cultural movement until that time.
Specifically, this was because African American players in the Harlem Renaissance no-longer sought to ingratiate themselves into mainstream white American culture, but instead, to stake their own unique claim upon the traditions of this nation. They openly separated themselves, because they were separated. Rather than downplay their differences, they were celebrated. Sterling Brown [a Renaissance writer], has identified five themes animating the movement: (1) Africa as a source of pride, (2) black American heroes, (3) racial political propaganda, (4) the black folk tradition, and (5) candid self-revelation.
(Beckman, 7). Taken together, all these themes are consequences of black Americas re-affirmation of itself. Famous editor of the NAACP magazine The Crisis, W. E. B. Du Bois attributed the movement to what he called the talented tenth. This was the elite one-tenth of the percent of the black community in Harlem that excelled in self expression and reflection. The duel-edged foundation of the northern black community”freedom and repression”seeded a reaction in this portion of the population, The Talented Tenth of Harlem reacted by seeking to create the image of the New Negro. (Beckman, 8).
Importantly, the leaders of the Renaissance recognized that the traditional pathways to social change were blocked by white America”they lacked wealth and political power. Consequently, the image of the New Negro needed to be expressed through the arts and literature. The movement itself took the form of three major phases. The first phase began in about 1920 and stretched into 1923; it drew strongly from white literary and artistic influences that had been sensitive to the black cause. The second phase, from about 1924 to 1926, began when more blacks began to express their creativity and philosophy themselves.
(Beckman, 9). The third and final phase was dominated by what Zora Neale Hurston would later call the Niggerati, who were extremely prolific black writers and artists who stressed the importance of art for the sake of art. Partially, the last phase can be thought of as a negative reaction to the reliance of the second phase upon propaganda. Essentially, the Harlem Renaissance cannot be understood as an event, but a process”a vast progression of thought and expression from the black community. The creation of the New Negro, therefore, was a subject of constant debate.
What aspects of black culture should be celebrated was the subject of great argument during the Harlem Renaissance. (Haskins, 14). This question is what spurred the progression of the movement into and out of each of its stages. But overall, The art and literature of the Harlem Renaissance focus on proving the humanity and equality of African Americans. (Hardy, 18). Despite the debates within the Renaissance, the elemental myths they aimed to dispel remained the same. The idea that blacks were naturally inferior to whites needed to be explicitly proven wrong for the framework of inequality and racism to be demolished.
The Harlem Renaissance was truly the launch pad for the equal rights movements and American artistic movements that were to follow. Not only were the notions of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X formed by the members of the Renaissance, but jazz and the blues came out of it as well. Its influence cannot only be felt in the intellectual conceptions of America, but in realms of art and entertainment as well. For this reason it is rather difficult to pinpoint when the movement ended. The convenient ending is to place it at the stock market crash of 1929.
However, although it could be argued that the works to emerge out of the black community were fundamentally different after this time, it would be impossible to claim that everything since the Harlem Renaissance has not, in some way, drawn from or been a reaction to its core notions.
Bibliography: 1. Beckman, Wendy Hart. (2002). Artists and Writers of the Harlem Renaissance. Berkeley Heights: Enslow Publishers. 2. Hardy, P. Stephen and Sheila Jackson Hardy. (2000). Extraordinary People of the Harlem Renaissance. New York: Grolier Publishing. 3. Haskins, Jim. (1996). The Harlem Renaissance. Brookfield: Millbrook Press.