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The Harlem Renaissance and Its Major Writers

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Manhattan was once considered the mainstay of wealth and fortune due to the largely rich white population that resided there. The growing population in the area was a suggestion for developers to build more residential living spaces which lead to the erection of more empty buildings and not enough tenants. Over time, more and more black families were beginning to migrate to the east coast to escape the trenchant Jim Crow laws that were oppressive and escape the violence that was being inflicted upon by mobs in the pursuit of lynching and criminalizing black males. During this time, the economic growth was fueled by major factories in these areas which attracted black families that were in the pursuit of seeking a better life for themselves and their kids. Harlem became the most popular area of residence for these people because there were already a few black families that lived there. As more and more black families began to move into this area, white people became appalled at the idea of living next to a person of color. By the 1920s, almost 300,000 African Americans had migrated from the South into Manhattan. This massive migration and meteoric growth of the black population of Manhattan lead to the proliferation of the Black Pride Movement, in Harlem to be specific.

This movement acknowledged and commemorated black poets, writers, and achievements. It exposed the false narratives that white people initiated about black people and aimed to reconstruct the reputation and dignity that had been stripped by white people for centuries. In fact, the father of the Harlem Renaissance Movement was Alain LeRoy Locke ,who was not only the first black man to become a Cecil Rhodes Scholar, but was also the writer of the book that essentially laid the foundation of the Harlem Renaissance known as ‘The New Negro’, which spoke against the injustices and the brutality that blacks were forced to face for centuries. This book also served as an advocation for socio-economic independence, political participation, and the restoration of self-identity and self-esteem of black people.

The Harlem Renaissance Movement was not only the acknowledgment, recognition, and the insertion of gifted poets, directors, and writers into American History; but it was a period of time were a black person could feel a sense of comfort and pride in their own skin because they were finally getting credit for their contributions to society. The Harlem Renaissance laid the footprint for a generation of civil rights leaders that would advocate against the preservation of the status quo and reform the justice system by advocating for liberties and equal protection under the law. The writing by the authors during the renaissance was substantial and powerful beyond measure because black authors were detailing their experiences and the horrific treatment that they were being subject to for centuries. Their writings explicitly stated the gifts that black people had given to American society.

One of the defining terms for the Harlem Rensaicae was “double consciousness”; a term that was put forward by WEB Dubois, a migrant from the South. This term was the reason that black people were facing identity issues in America. They saw themselves through two different lenses; the first was through the lens of racism and the belief that black people were inferior to whites and the other was through the lens of a struggling black person in America at the time. In order to revamp their identities, plays with black actors and directors were now beginning to be performed and black literature was now being read all over. Poems such as the ‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers’ became read worldwide because of its heartfelt message of equality. The country was transitioning into the era of jazz and accepting that singers like Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong were the best players. The literary significance of the Harlem Renaissance was so monumental and vigorous that it reconstructed the image of black people, exposed the truth, and recognized their contributions to society.

Langston Hughes – one of the most important writers of the Harlem Renaissance.“We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too” (Hughes, 1924). This excerpt from his essay ‘The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain’ defines what the Harlem Renaissance was all about. Langston Hughes was not the first published black author; nor the first one that talked about race. However, what differentiated Hughes from the rest of the writers was his inability to care about the opinions of white folks. For centuries, the recognition of black identity automatically corresponded with inferiority and the supremacy of the white man and the idea that the black man would be despairing and helpless without the help, control, and the guidance of the white man. Langston Hughes, the father of the black pride movement less said the hell with white people because they do not reserve the right to judge them based upon their dark complexion. His poems and essays were being read by people all over and were inspiring other African American people to stand up for themselves and be proud of their complexion rather than being ashamed due to their constraints by white society. He advocated against the idea of a double consciousness because, after all the trauma that these people were subject to, they should not and will not see themselves as anything else.

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The quote I included from that essay was an insult to every white person in the 1920s because essentially white people believed that they were entitled to judging white people and that black people would withhold their opinions and perspectives. Langston Hughes was not just going against white people; he was going against the preservation of the status quo. Even though history does not acknowledge his achievements in an official manner, he was one of the first writers that would inspire black people to rise and take pride in their complexion.

Perhaps Hughes most famous poem is the one he published at the age of 17 while he was crossing the Mississippi River known as the ‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers’. In this poem, Hughes confabulates about four great rivers; the Euphrates, Cong, Nile, and the Mississippi River. He writes about how the muddy Mississippi River has been considered so valuable that it is considered to be gold. The same Mississippi river that appears to be gold was the same river that disgusted President Lincoln when he saw the horrific trade of other humans for profit. He inserts the idea that all these mighty rivers are all connected and are responsible for the erection of civilization. If these same waters created the civilizations that our ancestors lived in, are we not all from the same origins? This idea that we all come from the same origins was appealing to white people who for the most part genuinely began to believe that black people were not human. His inclusion of a great man such as Lincoln is important because it depicts that if a powerful white man can see the disgusting nature of slavery; why can’t you? These writings were challenging the social norms because although the Emancipation Proclamation set slaves free fifty years prior to this poem, discrimination was just as profound against blacks. Hughes initiated the Renaissance movement because he believed in celebrating and recognizing the black man’s victories and achievements without having to worry about what others thought of him. He embedded this idea of reconstruction in the movement because he aimed to revamp the image of a black person at a time when they were categorized by “blackface” or “animal”.

Another important and significant writer of the Harlem Renaissance is Zora Hurston. After extensively probing through the various pieces by Zora Hurston, the most profound and heartfelt piece is ‘How it Feels to Be Colored Me’. She begins her piece by deliberating about her upbringing in Eatonville, Florida. As a child, she never knew of any white people because they did not live in areas where large populations of black folks resided. When white people would ride through her town, the only difference that she noticed between her and white people was that they did not live in Eatonville like her. However, life changed very fast for little Zora because she went from a town that was populated predominantly by black folks that knew her by her first name to a large city for prep school, where she was now part of a small minority. The inclusion of the quote, “I was not Zora of Orange County anymore, I was now a little colored girl” was not only unfeigned, but it was also agonizing because, at such a young age (13), she was forced to acknowledge and recognize that her race was considered to be much inferior to white folks. Taking into consideration that Zora attends this preparatory school only a few decades after the Reconstruction, there is always someone to remind her that she is a descendant of slaves. They try hard to strip her dignity away on the merits of race. In the piece, she refers to herself as a “dark rock surged upon” because she feels isolated in a world away from her home in Eatonville and in a place that is predominantly white. When she goes to jazz clubs, the music speaks to her in ways that may be considered strange to white people. Hurston is growing up a time when racism was not only oppressive, but it was barbaric and ferocious. Even though she is a black woman in college, she cannot escape the fact that she is a descendant of slaves. Hurston portrays racism as something that is developed over time because as a kid, she never noticed color. She would even wave to the white people that would come through the town. Over time, she began to recognize the importance of race in urban America after there were constant reminders of being a person of color. The reason that this specific piece is so important is that it represents the trauma that black people have been subject to because no matter their achievements, they are constantly reminded that they are descendants of slaves.

Her work articulates her life experiences, her courage to continue and determination to carry on. Instead of trying to be ashamed of her black identity, she embraces it. The effect that her work had on African American literature was substantial because she inspired a generation of writers that were beginning to tell their life experiences and expose the harsh reality about racism. Black people would no longer sit back and let white people write their history and imagine to feel their pain. More importantly, she was a black woman writing her narrative at a time when being a woman was hard, but being a black woman was increasingly onerous.

Langston Hughes and Zora Hurston were part of the larger cultural movement centered in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood and in their works they images portraits of Black life in America.

Works Cited

  1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fDzVtXbtEow&t=422s
  2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ir0URpI9nKQ&t=4s
  3. https://poets.org/poem/negro-speaks-rivers
  4. https://www.modernamericanpoetry.org/dashboard
  5. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/langston-hughes

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The Harlem Renaissance and Its Major Writers. (2022, September 01). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 6, 2023, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/the-harlem-renaissance-and-its-major-writers/
“The Harlem Renaissance and Its Major Writers.” Edubirdie, 01 Sept. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/the-harlem-renaissance-and-its-major-writers/
The Harlem Renaissance and Its Major Writers. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/the-harlem-renaissance-and-its-major-writers/> [Accessed 6 Feb. 2023].
The Harlem Renaissance and Its Major Writers [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Sept 01 [cited 2023 Feb 6]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/the-harlem-renaissance-and-its-major-writers/
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