Monday, 6 October 2014

Harlem Renaissance...

Published: February 20 2008 on Helium

The Harlem Renaissance, of the 1920's to 1930's in the U.S., celebrated the fact that Harlem existed. Harlem symbolized a concept: the exciting birth of a black cultural space, inspiring other black artists to join. Harlem was, in reality, a city within a city; spiritually, it was a black world within a white world. It was a cultural and psychological oasis. It was an inspiring space, particularly for writers. The Harlem Renaissance symbolized a concept too. It was like a collective consciousness called Harlem, producing a bank of writing and a community of black writers well beyond Harlem.

After years of bondage as slaves, followed by the uncertain times of Civil War, the real Harlem neighborhood evolved as a place in New York City where black people could come together as a community in their own right and say, "We exist. We are proud to exist. We have an identity now. We can be ourselves, free to live, be educated and speak freely". Literature, art, theatre, dance and music (especially jazz) were a means of expressing that newly shaping identity; "a new era of literary and political awareness began: the celebration of blackness. Authors of the Harlem Renaissance broke with earlier ethnic writers whose work mimicked white standards." Black writings symbolized a pride in blackness, unbeholden to and unconditioned by white traditions.

The Harlem Renaissance was fostered by The Negro Literary Movement which emerged earlier in the 20th century. This was a time when there was a notable outpouring of novels by black women, such as Pauline Hopkins. Poet Paul Laurence Dunbar and essayists W.E.B. Du Bois and Anna Julia Cooper were legends in their own lifetimes. But the Harlem Renaissance went further. It grounded the movement, offering a sanctuary, a place to for all black artists to be in the company of kindred spirits. And most artists were writers.

Laban Carrick Hill, (in "Harlem Stomp! A Cultural History of the Harlem Renaissance") mainly credits the "come to Harlem" phenomena to the impassioned activities of historian and socialist, W. E. B. Du Bois.
"The story of the Harlem Renaissance is also the story of Du Bois's life. He really set the stage and brought out the issues of what African American's should expect from American society. He was instrumental in bringing people to Harlem. He was instrumental in the founding of the N double ACP. He was instrumental in supporting people who came to Harlem, and getting their work and music published. He was at the core of everything that happened in Harlem." Du Bois directed the publicity and research of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) from 1910 to 1934 and was the editor of "Crisis", its monthly magazine.

Du Bois was part of a group of elite, well-educated black professionals, who collectively contributed chapters in a book called "The Negro Problem," published in 1903. They had a common philosophy that blacks would best secure political, social and economic respect through the arts and letters. Chapter 2 was Du Bois' chapter entitled "The Talented Tenth". The title referred to the percentage of black people who left (or could/should leave) a social or literary mark on the world.

A number of women were notable activists, stirring a Harlem creative spirit. Jessie Fauset hosted evening gatherings for black intellectuals in Harlem and arranged for the first publication of poetry by black poet, Langston Hughes. Fauset also led by example. She was literary editor for "Crisis" and wrote novels. Regina Anderson organized events in the Harlem public library, where she was an assistant librarian.

However, it was Alain Locke's, "The New Negro", published in 1925, which drew public attention to an evolving, very active Harlem Renaissance. It was an anthology of rising black writers, (particularly poets), who were centered in New York's Harlem.

These are just a sample of the community "organizers". Harlem was the hub, the heart, the pulse of the broader black writing community. But the real substance of the Harlem writing community was the "members" themselves. You did not have to live in Harlem to be part of the Harlem Renaissance. The Harlem Renaissance, with its crowd of educated black professionals, inspired a whole new community of black writers with exciting, fresh ideas and a sense of viable identity.

Claude McKay was a prominent inspiration for black writers. He was a Jamaican born grandson of a West African slave. He migrated to the States in 1912; but he continued roaming the world, and was not even a U.S. citizen till 1940. Harlem seemed to be more his spiritual home rather than his actual home. Ballads, sonnets, stories, novels, memoirs and political commentary poured from his pen. His "Harlem Shadows" (1922), is often credited with launching the Harlem Renaissance while "Home to Harlem" (1928), a challenging novel, is often valued as the first best-selling novel by a black man. In his poem "America" he tossed out the confronting words, "I love this cultured hell which tests my youth." Did he refer to America or Harlem? Or both?

"No other writer is as closely linked to the invention of 20th century black literatures across the Atlantic world, from Harlem, to the islands of the English-speaking Caribbean, to Francophone Africa and its New World relations," Maxwell wrote in his introduction to "The Complete Poems" of Claude McKay (University of Illinois Press).

The homey vernacular in McKay's writing inspired Harlem Renaissance writers such as James Weldon, Johnson, Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. (In many ways, these three writers represent the diversity of writing presented in the Harlem Renaissance). McKay was "the light" inspiring the break from Victorian, white writing traditions.

James Weldon Johnson's added his contribution to the Harlem Renaissance with three outstanding anthologies: "The Book of American Negro Poetry" (1922), "The Book of American Negro Spirituals" (1925), and "The Second Book of Negro Spirituals" (1926). His work inspired others to be part of collections of black writing. But he did publish his own poetry in 1927 with "God's Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse".

Langston Hughes (1902-1967) "visited" Harlem for a period of time during the Harlem Renaissance, but did not choose to live in Harlem till 1942. He was a very "local" writer. He wrote about what he knew, not what he was told to know. "Through his poetry, novels, plays, essays, and children's books, he promoted equality, condemned racism and injustice, and celebrated African American culture, humor, and spirituality." Interestingly, he found inspiration for the form of his poetry in the free verse of white poet Carl Sandburg (1878-1967).

Zora Neale Hurston (1891?-1960) offered a different angle to the Harlem Renaissance community of black writers. She combined literature and anthropology. Her four novels and two books of folklore are invaluable insights into Afro-American oral traditions. For her, Harlem was a spiritual concept that could be transposed/mirrored in reality elsewhere. Her "elsewhere" was Eatonville, Florida. "At age three her family moved to Eatonville, Fla., the first incorporated black community in America, of which her father would become mayor. In her writings she would glorify Eatonville as a utopia where black Americans could live independent of the prejudices of white society."

The Harlem Renaissance was closed by the sharp economic downturns of the Great Depression. But many believe it closed in 1934 with the death of A'Lelia Walker, often regarded as the energetic patron of the Harlem Renaissance. "A'Lelia Walker used part of her inheritance to fuel her interest in Harlem's cultural life. She renovated her brownstone on 136th Street, filled it with posh furniture, and invited black and white artists, writers, patrons, scholars, bohemians, and Harlem high society to dance, drink, and converse." Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes numbered among her famous guests. One wall of a room, called the Dark Tower Room, was adorned with Langston Hughes' poem "Weary Blues".

But the spirit of the Harlem Renaissance lives on. Aaron Douglas created two murals for the 125th Street library. The murals are a living history, tracing Afro-American life from African roots to Harlem Jazz Age. He wrote his thoughts in art. They are on public view to all who visit there.

And there is now a national community of black artists, who often draw on the "bank of Harlem" for inspiration. Another spurt of black writing, fired with the a need for civil rights, occurred in post World War II era; it reflected the fresh energy of the Harlem Renaissance. Writers such as James Baldwin with "Go Tell it on the Mountain" continued the pride, determination and sense of creative black identity born in the Harlem Renaissance. The Harlem community did not end. It is still alive and growing.

And over the 20th century, Harlem became a distinguished place of pilgrimage for luminaries such as Carl Jung, Max Weber, Malcolm X, Nelson Mandela and even Fidel Castro. Renowned black writer Langston Hughes commented, "Harlem was like a great magnet for the Negro intellectual, pulling him from everywhere. Once in New York, he had to live in Harlem." In short, "Harlem was not so much a place as a state of mind, the cultural metaphor for black America itself." Many believe Harlem is the "heart of darkness" of the U.S.

The Harlem Renaissance continues to spread inspiration to a community of black writers. But it also awakens the inspiration of all creative spirits, black or white. Laban Hill quotes writer Ralph Ellison as saying, "whatever else the true American is, he is also somehow black." In the literary world, black writers spurred on by the Harlem Renaissance, are now vital threads in the fabric of being American.


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