Essay on Harlem Renaissance and The New Negro

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The ‘Black Capital’ of the twentieth century, Harlem served as a cultural nexus of black America. It was a refuge for African Americans fleeing from oppression in the South and a new home for those seeking new opportunities. Harlem was a haven, a place of self-discovery, cultural knowledge, and political activism for African Americans, especially during the first half of the twentieth century. It fostered an artistic new age of literature, painting, music, and cinema. The neighborhood was home to African Americans of immense talent - writers such as Langston Hughes, W. E. B Du Bois, Alain Locke, and Zora Neale Hurston, musicians such as Duke Ellington, Josephine Baker, Louis Armstrong, and Bessie Smith, as well as painters such as Jacob Lawrence, Aaron Douglass, and Romare Bearden. Harlem has been envisioned as a metonym for black America by many artists and authors, who have depicted the area as one of the great epochs of contemporary black existence, giving it the same chronological weight as 'Africa,' 'slavery,' and 'liberation' in black historical awareness. '[Harlem] is or promises to be a race capital,' Alain Locke remarked. 'Europe seething in a dozen centers with emergent nationalities, Palestine full of a renascent Judaism these are no more alive with the spirit of a racial awakening than Harlem; culturally and spiritually it focuses a people.' Harlem would serve as both 'scene and symbol' in the depiction of 'our contemporary race development,' according to Locke. For Alain Locke, the image of Harlem, like the image of the 'New Negro', with which it was closely associated, was an important tool to be used in 'rehabilitating the race in world esteem from that loss of prestige for which the fate and conditions of slavery have so largely been responsible.' This essay will explore the importance of Harlem as a symbol for African Americans in the twentieth century, examining how it transformed into more than a city - into a state of mind without geographical boundaries.

The Harlem neighborhood was created in nineteenth-century Manhattan as an affluent suburb for the white upper and middle classes, but with the massive inflow of European immigrants, the previously exclusive district was abandoned by many white Americans, who relocated further north. Harlem attracted migrants from all over the country, luring both individuals from the South looking for the labor and an educated class of African Americans, a growing ‘Negro middle class’, who turned the neighborhood into a cultural center. There was an emergence of pan-African sensibilities and programs, and national organizations dedicated to pressing African American civil rights at the time. The migration of black peasants from fields to cities was not a new phenomenon, however. Since liberation, when the lure of urban opportunity, along with wartime disruption and discontent, lured many black families away from their rural vocations and origins, such demographic shifts have occurred. During the second decade of the twentieth century, notably during the war years of 1916-1918, the Great Migration large migration of people from the South seeking economic opportunity and a freer, more dignified existence in the North-took place. In 1910, little over a quarter of the black population lived in cities; by 1920, it had risen to one-third, and by the end of the decade, it had risen to more than two-fifths. At the same time, 88 percent of northern blacks chose to live in cities. In the half-century following the Civil War, America's urban population grew sevenfold. The United States soon surpassed every other country in the globe in terms of major cities. For the first time, the 1920 U.S. census indicated that a majority of Americans resided in cities.

Many African Americans were driven North by the lack of economic opportunities and severe segregationist legislation (Jim Crow) and many took advantage of the need for industrial workers that grew during the First World War. Furthermore, a factory salary in the urban North was often three times more than what African Americans in the rural South could expect to earn laboring on the land. During the Great Migration, African Americans began to carve out a new position for themselves in society, facing violent racial discrimination as well as economic, political, and social barriers to forge a black urban culture that would have far-reaching ramifications in the decades ahead. Harlem, therefore, symbolized the move from rural to urban space which was characterized by economic, social, and political progress. Though undoubtedly complicated by discrimination, which was apparent in many different aspects of life, it symbolized, most importantly, progress and potential. Almost from its inception, black Harlem`s pre-eminence as a site of African American and black diasporic life and consciousness had been asserted. Many of the newcomers were able to find work in factories, slaughterhouses, and foundries, however, working conditions were often dangerous. Female migrants found it more difficult to obtain employment, which, unsurprisingly, resulted in fierce rivalry for domestic labor roles. There was rivalry for living space in increasingly congested areas, in addition to competition for jobs. Although segregation was not legal in the North (as it was in the South), racism and prejudice were commonplace. Some residential districts adopted rules requiring white property owners to promise not to sell to black people after the United States Supreme Court declared racially based housing legislation unlawful in 1917; these remained valid until the Court knocked them down later during the twentieth century in 1948. Additionally, rising rents in segregated areas, plus a resurgence of KKK activity after 1915, also served to worsen black and white relations across Harlem. For some, the roaring twenties were 'roaring,' but as James Weldon Johnson pointed out, the great majority of black residents of a city like Harlem were too busy trying to scrape by. The Great Migration also marked the start of a new period of political action involving African Americans and this activism directly aided the civil rights struggle.

Harlem had become the world's most famous African American community by the 1920s and its high population of black men and women created a vibrant and dynamic environment. A city symbolic of black life, it was a stimulus for many creative forms and its position in North America meant that the ‘New Negroes’ had more possibilities for publishing than they would not have had otherwise. The phrase 'New Negro' had been talked about by a diverse cast of literary scholars and revolutionaries ranging from Booker T. Washington to socialists such as Frank Crosswaith and Phillip Randolph. It was seen as an important strategy for changing the public perception of 'blackness' and redefining black consciousness, life, and culture. The New Negro was to be viewed as a character who was already contemporary, already American, and therefore ready to fully integrate into national life. Alain Locke commended this generation of black authors as 'thoroughly modern' in his introduction of the literary works in the Survey Graphic edition, which included poetry by Cullen, Angelina Grimké, McKay, and Hughes.

Black intellectuals from Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and other locations (where they had their own intellectual circles, theatres, and reading clubs) met or settled in Harlem. As a result, it provided an especially fruitful environment for cultural innovation. This interest in African American history coincided with efforts (especially by the black writers of the time) to create an American culture separate from that of Europe, one marked by ethnic heterogeneity and a democratic ethos. Langston Hughes, a literary giant whose poetry highlighted the difficulties and joys of early twentieth-century African Americans, was one of Harlem's most renowned inhabitants at the time. He and other young authors and artists would go on to lead the Harlem Renaissance, giving the African American experience a voice through literature and art. Many poets, as well as other Harlem Renaissance members, were homosexual or bisexual, including Alain Locke, Dunbar Nelson, Richard Bruce Nugent, and potentially, Langston Hughes. Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith's blues songs both included references to lesbian sexuality. During the early twentieth century, the renaissance arguably had a role in the construction of homosexuality in American society, when sexual identities were defined and policed in novel ways. Drag balls were occasionally disparagingly reported in black publications. Harlem nightlife had a reputation as a haven for whites seeking illicit and sexual experiences, it also allowed for covert liaisons through which long-term same-sex relationships evolved both within and across races. Gay males had established a presence in Harlem and, by the 1920s, the city's earliest lesbian communities had emerged in Harlem and the Village. Each gay enclave had a distinct class and ethnic character, cultural style, and public reputation, according to George Chauncey's book Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940. However, except for Nugent, homosexual sexuality among famous authors and painters was kept under wraps and mainly hidden. Nonetheless, some critics claim that the Renaissance was as homosexual as it was black. Harlem symbolized the emergence of black (and homosexual) sexuality for many African Americans.

Amid worsening socioeconomic conditions in Harlem and political hardships in what was a very conservative and racist era the Ku Klux Klan's membership and political influence in the Midwest and South peaked during the 1920s some Black leaders hoped that artistic achievement would help revolutionize race relations while also enhancing Blacks' understanding of themselves as a people. Interest in African music, visuals, and history grew as a result of the collection of books, journals, and ideas. The 135th Street Library, as represented in Lawrence's novel The Library, became Harlem's cultural center. It served as a resource for artists and philosophers, as well as a gathering place, a location for plays and musical performances, and a platform for intellectual debates and discussions. People in a cosmopolitan neighborhood enjoyed forms of art - jazz, dance, theatre, photography, and traditional forms of art (i.e., painting and sculpting). Aaron Douglas, the renaissance's defining artist, developed his style of geometrical figural representation to depict and illustrate the 'Negro' subject matter. His stylized, silhouette-like renderings of recognizably black figures, infused with spiritual longing and racial pride, were synonymous with the Harlem Renaissance in general. Despite Douglas' significance, however, most black artists of the 1920s did not spend much time in Harlem.

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The Roaring Twenties and the Jazz Age coincided with the Harlem Renaissance. These movements had a significant influence on both the African American community and America's cultural industries on an individual and collective basis. African Americans made significant contributions to the film, music, and theatrical industries. Overall, Harlem Renaissance black theatre demonstrated a rising trend of dramatic form, with folk drama proving to be an effective medium for contemplation on the significance and meaning of the black American experience, which frequently included a critique of white institutions. Simultaneously, black performers were given unprecedented (albeit still restricted) opportunities to play in front of all-white, mixed, and all-black audiences. By the mid-1930s, a Negro Actors Guild had formed and black actors from Harlem had achieved a significant foothold in American theatre.

While the renaissance did not achieve the socio-political transformation that the revolutionaries had likely hoped for, it is clear that it was a defining moment in black cultural history: it worked to build Black writers authors, and artists' authority over portrayals of black culture, and experience.

From the late 1960s onwards, a surge of scholarships focusing on interwar black arts, culture, and politics, much of it focused on Harlem's activists and intellectuals, met the demand for black studies programs on American campuses and aided the incorporation of African American subject matter into increasingly mainstream academic disciplines. Hundreds of journal articles and book-length studies with the title 'Harlem Renaissance' appeared in the 1990s, giving Harlem a place in American education that far outstripped that of any other urban area, if not almost all American cities, signifying the symbolic importance and significance of Harlem and the renaissance for African Americans.

Academics have described a linear shift in Harlem's iconography, in which the district was revered as an exceptional locus of black cultural production and empowerment at the height of the Renaissance, before the Great Depression and the 1935 Harlem riot recast the district as a symbol of tarnished hope and urban decay. Harlem was traumatized by the Great Depression, which ripped apart its social and economic structure. The area had the greatest unemployment rate in one of the nation's most jobless cities, as well as widespread poverty, filthy living conditions, and, according to the city's health department, the worst occurrence of every illness ever documented in Manhattan. The riots that occurred in 1935 and 1943 were both sparked by and exacerbated by these situations. Harlem's 'ghetto' discourse originated in the 1920s, but it became the global metaphor for the Negro 'ghetto' in the decades following WWII. As several scholars have noted, only in the post-World War II era did reference to African American urban areas as ‘ghettos’ become widespread. During the 1940s, authors such as James Baldwin began to use the term 'ghetto,' but it wasn't until the 1960s when hundreds of U.S. cities were engulfed by black uprisings, that the phrase became intrinsically linked with black concentrated neighborhoods. This trend was aided by film and photography as well, as a visual culture had elevated Harlem as a symbol of black urban life, especially throughout the interwar period. Critics began to consider the 'loss' of black Harlem in the late twentieth century; it was considered detrimental not just to the neighborhood`s blackness, but also to the survival of the symbolic ‘mecca’ of black America.

The language of Harlem's unique character was recomposed around an alternate mythology of 'was ness,' in which Harlem was seen as unique due to its historical profile. By the 1960s, black authors were referring to the area as 'the past capital of People in the United States,' as poet Amiri Baraka stated. For many, Harlem's reputation was founded less on its current grandeur or empirical distinction from other black metropolitan areas than on its contemporary special symbolic importance, which was based on its history and historical importance. Harlem's existence as a 'setting and symbol' of black existence was heightened by the fact that it had plunged into stagnation and degradation similar to other 'ghettos.' Harlem, however, remained elevated due to the notion that it was a unique historical black community. The presence of nationally significant cultural institutions, such as The Studio Museum in Harlem and, above all, the Schomburg Centre, an 'irreplaceable historic repository of the black experience,' provided proof for such assertions. Harlem's role as the black 'Mecca' remained, albeit in various forms, as a symbol of black America. The area, as Langston Hughes famously noted, was a dream deferred,' and not a forgotten failure.

'Harlem' is a symbol that is a geographical identifier and a representation of black urban contemporary society. This was evident as members of the Kamoinge Workshop, a black photographic collective, presented images of urban New York, New Jersey, Virginia, Mississippi, and Bermuda in 1966 under the title 'A Photographic Report on Harlem,' explaining that Harlem 'exists as a state of mind, whether it exists in Watts in California, the south side of Chicago, Alabama, or New York.' Harlem provided a chance for individuals of African heritage to know themselves beyond the restricted confines of the village, town, county, region, and nation like nowhere else on the planet. It promoted and fostered a more worldwide awareness of the black experience, as well as opportunities to engage in it and help influence its future. Harlem offered the setting for the emergence of a new 'Afropolitanism'. Although the reputation of 'Harlem' had arguably become tarnished in the later part of the twentieth century, it was still a highly marketable name with 'an extremely high recognition factor no matter where one is on the world,' according to one group of urban developers from 1978. They regarded Harlem's spectacular history as a successful symbol and representation of blackness as a solution to minimize the negative connotations the area had acquired throughout the post-war era of urban riots, hyper-segregation, and general unrest. Harlem's past and present are still intimately entwined to this day.

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