The Harlem Renaissance

Or the New Negro Movement

The dawn of the 1920’s ushered in an African American artistic and cultural movement, the likes of which have never and will likely never be seen again. Beginning as a series of literary discussions in Greenwich Village and Harlem, the "New Negro Movement" (later dubbed the Harlem Renaissance by Alain Locke) came to exalt the unique culture of African Americans and redefine African American expression. The movement spread throughout all areas of the arts and humanities, gaining a wider audience as it went along. Soon it became more than just an artistic movement, it was at the same time a social ideal. The authors and artists of the era simultaneously struggled with and embraced their African heritage and American birth and lifestyle. The arts became a means of rebellion against the racism running rampant through the south, as well as a way for African Americans to finally prove they had their foot in the door of American (especially elitist) culture.

The Beginning After years of unfair treatment and humiliation, black people from the South started a migration northwards. Large metropolitan cities such as Washington D.C., Chicago, and New York City became hubs of creativity and interaction for African Americans. This migration changed the Black image from rural to urban, from peasant to sophisticate, and introduced them to international ideas that they would most likely have had no contact with in the South. Locke described this movement in The New Negro as "something like a spiritual emancipation." Now they were in a land where "whites only" signs were few and far between and speaking one’s mind was not only allowed, but also encouraged by peers. It was the time and place for freedom, freedom of speech, music, ideas, and life. So what started it all? The causes of this renaissance were financial and educational. Blacks participated in the postwar prosperity, although to a much lesser extent than did whites, and the young generation of literate and literary blacks made the best of it. Fueling this movement was the wish of blacks to prove to their former oppressors that not only had they flourished, but had turned their hardships into art. Add to this a whole new white audience frequenting Harlem nightclubs, and black culture began to receive serious critical attention from white intellectuals.

Leaders of the Movement If this movement could be said to have any definite leaders, they would be Alain Locke, and W. E. B. Dubois. They were joined by such greats as Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson, Zora Neale Hurston, and Countee Cullen.

Alain Locke, often called the "midwife and mentor" to the movement, was a sociologist, critic, and author. Though his most influential work, The New Negro wasn’t published until halfway through the movement (1925), it is still seen by many as the work that most precisely defined the causes and effects of the Renaissance. He expressed optimism that blacks were shedding the "formula" of conformity and were finally feeling free to be themselves in society. He believed that "the life of the Negro community is bound to enter a new dynamic phase, the buoyancy from within compensating for whatever pressure there may be" from without. Locke also observed that blacks themselves had work to do on the race issue, having unnecessarily excused themselves for the ways whites had treated them. "The fiction is that the life of the races is separate and increasingly so," he wrote. "The fact is that they have touched too closely at the unfavorable and too lightly at the favorable levels."(The New Negro) Increased contact between races at all levels of society would provide something of a safeguard against rising racial tensions. Locke believed that blacks needed to assert themselves in all aspects of society in order to gain equality. Further, Locke believed that in social effort the cooperative basis must supplant long-distance philanthropy. Intellectual exchange between all races must also be fostered, according to Locke.

W.E.B. Dubois, perhaps one of the more radical proponents of the Renaissance, was cofounder of what is now the NAACP, and editor of the magazine Crisis. He did not share Locke’s beliefs that racial equality should be a goal reached through interaction, instead, Dubois believed that an educated Black elite should lead Blacks to liberation. He further