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Harlem Renaissance Essay

I. Introduction

The Atlantic slave trade caused the large movement of Africans across different parts of the world largely in the Americas, Europe, and Asia. This African Diaspora brought about eleven million of black people in the New World (P. Larson. “Reconsidering Trauma, Identity, and the African Diaspora: Enslavement and Historical Memory in Nineteenth-Century Highland Madagascar”). The descendants of those that were brought in the Americas, chiefly those in the United States working as slaves in the south, later experienced another diaspora: moving from the south to the north to escape the hardships brought about by intense racial discrimination.

A large portion had settled in the city of Harlem, New York City which opened up a surge of excellent creative works done by blacks and became in vogue for some time. This period came to be known as the Harlem Renaissance, also variously known as the New Negro Movement, or the New Negro Renaissance. This was a period of outstanding creativity expressed in visual arts, writings, and music during this large movement of black population, wherein the African-American Diaspora has moved into larger cities. It changed the character of black American artworks, from conventional imitations of white artists to sophisticated explorations and expressions of black life and culture that revealed and stimulated a new confidence and racial pride.

The movement centered in the vast black ghetto of Harlem, in New York City, thus the name of the movement. Harlem became the place of gathering for aspiring black artists, writers, and musicians, sharing their experiences and providing mutual encouragement for one another.

The term Harlem “Renaissance” is a misnomer. If measured by quantity alone, it was more a birth than a “rebirth”, for never before had so many black Americans produced so much literary, artistic, and scholarly material at the same time. If measured by quality, however, it was actually a continuum, the quickening of a lively stream fed earlier by the important works of poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, novelist and short story writer Charles W. Chestnutt, poet and novelist Hames Weldon Johnson and the essays of Du Bois.

The Harlem Renaissance created a significant breakthrough, wherein it marked the first time wherein literary and artistic works done by African Americans gained in national attention and interest. Doors of opportunities were opened for such works to be publicized and presented to the general public, which before were not possible. Although its main achievement is found primarily in literature, it also bore the great African-American works in politics and other creative mediums such as visual art, music, and theater that explored different aspects of black American life (R. Twombly. “Harlem Renaissance”).

II. Background and Discussion

During the early part of the 1900s, Black Nationalism and racial consciousness began to emerge particularly during the 1920’s. One key factor that helped this development was the surfacing of the black middle class, which in turn were brought about by the increasing number of educated blacks who had found employment opportunities and a certain degree of economic advancement after the American Civil War (“Harlem Renaissance”).

During World War I, thousands of black people left the depressed rural South for jobs in northern defense plants. Known as the Great Migration, more African Americans established themselves in cities such as Harlem, in New York City. They were socially conscious, and became a center of political and cultural development of the black Americans. This population created racial tensions over housings and employment that resulted in increased black militancy about rights, including vigorous agitation by the national Association for the Advancement of colored People (NAACP) and other civil rights organizations. Foremost for this black movement’s agenda, which was expressed in various mediums, is to clamor for racial equality. Championing the cause were black intellectuals W.E.

B. Du Bois and Alain Locke.

White responses to these developments were both negative and positive. The Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups reached their peak of northern popularity during the 1920’s. At the same time unprecedented white interest in racial maters created a large audience for black authors who began to settle in the district of New York City known as Harlem. Like other black ghettoes, Harlem was a new, untapped source of themes and materials, which partially accounts for its popularity among artists and intellectuals, but unlike other ghettoes it was a newly constructed, fashionable, residential section. Functioning as a kind of black mecca, Harlem’s excellent housing, its prestige, excitement, and cosmopolitan flavor, attracted a black middle class from which sprang its artistic and literary set.

A. General Characteristics

Not all works during this movement is militant in nature. However, participants and contributors in the Renaissance were intensely race-conscious, proud of their heritage of being black, and much in love with their community. Most of them, some more subtly than others, criticized racial exploitation. Partly as a tribute to their achievements and partly as a reflection of their racial self-awareness, the Renaissance members were collectively called “New Negroes”, also indicating that they had replaced the (largely white created) literary image of the comic, pathetic plantation Negro with the proud, busy, independent black man of the northern city.

The “New Negroes” were generally integrationists, optimistically interpreting their own individual successes as harbingers of improvement in race relations. Acceptance from Harpers, Harcourt, Brace, Viking, Boni & Livewright, Knopf, and other front-line publishers began coming through quick succession, boosting more optimism among African-American contributors of the Harlem Renaissance.

Rather than depicting a new movement of style, the art during the Harlem Renaissance is united by their common aspiration of depicting and expressing in artistic form the African-American psyche and life. Common characteristics can be found among such works such as the birth of racial pride among black Americans.

This called for tracing its roots and origin by taking attention and interest to the life of blacks primarily in Africa and South America. Also, such strong social and racial consciousness brought a strong desire for equality in the American society, both socially and politically. But one of the most common and significant characteristic of the Harlem Renaissance was the abundant production of a variety of creative expressions. Diversity was the main distinctive quality, brought about by an experimental spirit of the movement such as in music which ranged from blues, jazz, to orchestra music.

B. Primary Artist of the Harlem Renaissance:  Aaron Douglas (1898-1979)

The celebrated artist of the Harlem Renaissance was Aaron Douglas, who chose to depict the New Negro Movement through African images which bore “primitive” techniques: paintings in geometric shapes, flat, and rugged edges. In his works, Douglas wanted the viewers to know and recognize the African-American identity. As such, Aaron Douglas is often referred to as the “Father of African American Art”.

Born in Topeka, Kansas, Douglas was able to finish his B.A degree. Moving to Harlem in 1925, Aaron immediately set to work, creating illustrations for prominent magazines of the Harlem Renaissance. Douglas was influenced in his modernist style under the tutelage of German artist Winold Reiss, a style which marked most of his celebrated works and incorporating both African and Egyptian strokes of illustration and design. It was Reis who encouraged Douglas to take African design into his works which became his trademark (“The Harlem Renaissance: Aaron Douglas”).

Such manner of African “primitive” style caught the attention of the main proponents of the Harlem Renaissance, namely W.E.B. Dubois and Alain Locke who found Douglas’ works as an appropriate embodiment of the African-American heritage. They were encouraging young artists to depict their African legacy through their artworks. Even though at a time when DuBois stilled considered Henry Tanner more important, Douglas has fairly established a reputation as the leading visual artist of his time.

Harlem Renaissance painters are united by the desire to promote and portray the life and condition of blacks, particularly African-Americans. However, at this point the similarity ends. Harlem Renaissance artworks are as varied in style as the artists themselves. Although like Douglas, most painters of this period received formal trainings and as such, their style and strokes are no different from other non-black artists. What only separate the artists of the Harlem Renaissance from others are their themes and subjects.

III. Conclusion

A. Ending and Significance

As a conclusion, one of the strengths of the Harlem Renaissance was also a serious weakness. Because they were dependent on white patrons and viewers for popularity, black artists were not fully free to explore the mechanisms that perpetrated racial injustice, nor could they propose solutions unacceptable to whites. Furthermore, when the Great Depression dominated American life during the 1930’s, the whites, who had been the bulk of the Renaissance audience, concentrated on economics and politics, oblivious to black American suffering. American arts and letters took up new themes, and although the best artists continued to work, they ultimately lost popularity. The Great Depression drove many black artists to scatter; and were mostly forced to leave New York or to take other jobs to tide them over the hard times. Creativity was drowned by necessity.

Nevertheless, despite its many weaknesses and disadvantages, the Harlem Renaissance was a milestone in black American culture and the basis for later achievements.

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