Great Migration and the Harlem Renaissance
This migration, also known as the Great Migration, ultimately reshaped “black America.” While not confined to Harlem, there was a strong concentration of intellectuals and leaders that settled there. The forefronts for the Harlem Renaissance were Zora Neale Hurston, Jean Toomer, and Langston Hughes who produced novels, poetry, short stories and memoirs. But also painters like Jacob Lawrence, Charles Alston, and Romare Bearden; and musicians and composers such as Duke Ellington were essential. The Harlem Renaissance, a movement for all different classes, became a many of firsts for African Americans. Starting around the 1910s to the 1930s, this Golden Age allowed the African American identity to emerge. (History.com)
This was a time where African Americans were able to break of the stereotype that were set by the white people, and focus on their heiratege. Characterized by intense debate, the movement was a foundation for future black literature and an inspiration. African Americans used their suffrage and their ancestors’ stories as an inspiration for their art. The concept of pluralism surfaced, such that cultural differences should be together “side by side in harmony.” The Renaissance holds a strong patriotic value, since African Americans yearn for freedom and democracy. (Hutchinson)
Harlem Renaissance in Literature
“America” by Claude Mckay, amplifies the duality of hate and love towards America. The narrator’s love for the country is overshadowed by the hate that consumes within it. The first person point of view signifies that what the narrator is feeling is also what many African Americans at that time felt, and becomes a symbol for African Americans. Mckay begins the poem with personification of America. She feeds him, but it’s a “bread of bitterness.” The narrator values America, however, he is drowning within her. Even with the pain she gives him, Mckay stresses the narrator’s love for her. While America has “giving me strength” to fight against hate, but he still acknowledges that she the pedestal for it. Mckay is referencing the Jim Crow laws, a legalization of discrimination and segregation in the South, but that same America as allowed African Americans to organize the Civil Rights Movement, which wasn’t fully developed until the 1950s (Gedal). The narrator has to “stay within her walls” and when he’s peacefully protesting. But the fact he is has the opportunity to protest is shown as a token of appreciation and he wouldn’t think of saying “a word of jeer.” The narrator speaks of the future which he describes as dark. The capitalization of the word “Times” is used to signify that the time is passing and if America won’t acknowledge African Americans she will “sinking in the sand.” The concept of pluralism is conveyed in the poem, as the narrator wishes to peaceful live “within her walls.” Claude Mckay’s “America” represent the feeling of what many African Americans felt back then (Hutchinson). African Americans were still discriminated, but this movement gave them hope to be accepted in mainstream America.
The movement was not limited to storytelling in a traditional sense. Many famous artists emerged at this time conveying their ancestors and their own experiences. Black artists had begun developing styles related to black aesthetic traditions of Africa or to folk art, unlike pre-WWI who rarely connected themselves with their African culture. (Hutchinson)
The Family by Charles Alston
The Family by Charles Alston depicts an African American family. Although, the painting was created after the period, it still has the important elements of the Renaissance. The woman is sitting on the chair as her children and husband are both facing her. In the painting, the woman is seen in a position of strength. As if the woman was the “head” of the family. The women’s legs are visible underneath her dress as if you can almost feel the strength she has. The woman in the picture represents women’s role in their family. She is the focus of the painting and draws the most attention. Alston painted the woman half of the picture to illustrate the important role she has. But, moreover, the painting represents women during the Harlem Renaissance as more women became key leaders in the movement (Lewis).
The short story, Sweat by Zora Neale Hurston, conveys that after a period of suffering, peace will follow. The protagonist, Delia Jones, spends her day washing white people’s clothes in order to support her and her husband. However, her husband constantly emotionally abuses her and enjoys himself while doing so. The only time Delia Jones is finally free is when her husband, Sykes, is killed. To depict this idea, Hurston uses symbolism and imagery.
Through symbolism, Huston compares Sykes to the snakes. Delia Jones is “skeered Ah is of snakes” just like she is scared of Skyes. Sykes gets a sort of thriller when he knows Delia is suffering. After the second time when he brings the snakes, she has an epiphany that it’s Sykes who is the real problem, not the snake. The snake and Sykes are two main things Delia suffers from and yet the snake is the reason she is able to free herself. Delia runs away from the snake like she is going to run away from Sykes. Although Sykes is the one who dies from the snake, there was a point in the story where Delia felt she was about to die. The theme that a person will finally get their freedom after suffering, is used here because the snake was something that Delia struggled with but ended up being her redemption.
With the use of Imagery, Huston depics the extent of Sykes abuse as he constantly belittles Delia about her job. Delia Jones washes white people’s clothes and to Sykes, it seems disgraceful. “He stepped roughly upon the whitest pile of things, kicking them helter-skelter as he crossed the room.” Sykes makes Delia’s job harder, even though she is the one supporting them. Imagery to allow the reader to actually see the pain the Delia suffers on a daily basis.
With the use of symbolism and imagery the theme of suffering and struggles is portrayed. The symbolism between the snake and Sykes relates two things that Delia fears the most and just like she ran away from the snake, something she hated and was scared of for so long, she left Sykes. Finally, with imagery, we can envision the abuse Delia struggled on a constant basis. Zora Neale Hurston uses elements from the Harlem Renaissance, or, moreover, the story of the African Americans until the Harlem Renaissance. Their story is a story of suffering and after that came a period of hope, the Harlem Renaissance (humanitiestexas.org). African Americans have endured such pain that no one can seem to understand but them. Through Sweat, the readers can have an abstract glimpse of their suffering.
Effects of the Harlem Renaissance
The Harlem Renaissance brought hope to African Americans after World War I. With their migration to the North, they were concentrated in Harlem to bring about this movement. The poem “America,” by Claude Mckay, focuses on the duality that many African Americans felt and the concept of pluralism, living in harmony. The painting, Family, by Charles Alston shows the strength of the Woman in the family, and representative of the Women in that time. Finally, Sweat, by Zora Neale Hurston, illustrates the suffering African American underwent and the peace that followed it.