Harlem Renaissance

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Harlem Renaissance


The Harlem Renaissance was the cultural front of the New Negro movement heralded by privileged intellectual leaders during the 1920s. More broadly the Harlem Renaissance was an inspiration for, and a manifestation of, the worldwide Négritude movement which grew out of, and in some quarters superseded, Pan-Africanist thought. Apart from dates, wrangles over the meaning and measure of the Harlem Renaissance have kept scholars busy. There is little doubt that the most visible beneficiaries of this breakthrough episode in U.S. cultural history were writers such as Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Jean Toomer, Nella Larsen, and Countee Cullen. Biographies of these gifted artists suggest the range of backgrounds among those who understood themselves as participating in something unprecedented in American art (Michael, Pp. 45-54).


Thus, Hughes was from the rural Midwest, Hurston from an all-black township in Florida in which African folk-patterns were actively present, and Cullen and Larsen grew up in the urban North, while Jean Toomer was a child of the African American gentry as it existed in the South. It is probably true that few poor Americans, and even fewer immigrants from the Caribbean and West Indies, kept abreast of contemporary belles lettres or visited the galleries in which Harlem Renaissance painters and sculptors displayed their work. The aim, however, especially as the Harlem Renaissance came into being, was to give African American people of all classes art that would inspire those downtrodden by racist laws and attitudes and contribute to the uplift of the race while the creativity of black artists attested to their humanity. Powerful arbiters of Harlem Renaissance art such as Jessie Redmon Fauset, Benjamin Brawley, and William Stanley Braithwaite thought that stylistic innovation was off-putting, too much a case of “art for art's sake.” Middle-class Northerners with an uncomfortable relationship to the black masses and to the South generally, these elite critics nonetheless thought highly of the Jamaican poet Claude McKay. Decades later poet Amiri Baraka would acknowledge Hughes again (Katharine, Pp. 34).

The groundwork for the burst of African American art and financial patronage that was dubbed a “renaissance” has been traced to the skill with which Booker T. Washington solicited wealthy whites' support for the Tuskegee Institute. More commonly the Harlem Renaissance is understood as a development of the mingling of artistic heritages that gifted people brought to Harlem from many parts of the United States and the Caribbean. The result was a reshaping of U.S. art and life that made racial identity, rather than resistance to race-based oppression, central. Beginning at the beginning, early works associated with the Harlem Renaissance, such as James Weldon Johnson's “Lift Every Voice and Sing” (the putative “Negro national anthem”), are heavily indebted to European traditions. All were eager to explore the stylistic experimentations of European modernism as it made possible powerful new statements of African American presence. Just as complex but spiced with a wicked wit, novelists Wallace Thurman and George Schuyler crafted acute satires that recall African folktales' upsets of assumed power and authority ...
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