Harlem Renaissance


“A heightened concern with artistic form and a concern for representing the social world are not at odds with one another. Indeed, new social forms require new forms of representation.”

Poets and writers associated with the Harlem Renaissance manage to both represent and contradict this statement, depending on the point at which we analyze them As a relatively new social caste they saw opportunities in modern forms of artistic expression like jazz or the blues, but they did not necessarily employ them in the creative process – after all they lead a stand-alone existence on the periphery of American society. What set them apart from this modernizing and inventive process was the lack of a medium accessible to both whites and blacks. In fact, it seems to me that the Harlemites’ obsession with compulsory representation arose from the fact that their work was read mainly by literate and educated whites who could spend for pleasure, not necessity. Indeed, the poet Langston Hughes was bestowed the title ‘Bard of Harlem’ not by radical literary journals but through endlessly syndicated articles in the New York Times that treated his work as that of a gifted protégé risen from the dumb gutter like a latter day, black Horatio Alger. Lets get down to brass tax here - education and wisdom in blacks was then seen as a condition or even affliction by the supra-culture that bore them.

Civil war left the States in a dark age. Rich, metropolitan whites were untouched while working class men - especially from the South – were left with a bad taste in their mouths. They felt like junior partners in a great American experiment which was constantly publicizing the common white man’s complicity in their own devolution. The hard life on farms traditionally staffed by slaves was exacerbated by what was now clear and unavoidable racial tension. Black workers became a burden, not an advantage, and many southern communities began to opt for a predominantly white workforce that would eradicate racial tension through exclusion. Crucially, it was not enlightenment to the black presence but migration of said population which was to charge the artifice of what is called the Harlem Renaissance. What had been duty to rural blacks suddenly became a recognized form of self-deprivation. Much of the black population, which was already dislocated by the war, began to seek employment in cities that must have seemed havens of individuality and relative meritocracy after the dumb communal work they had done in the provinces. In the bigoted south, parsons began to feel threatened by their bitter and by now resentful workforce, and organizations like the Ku Klutz Klan sprang up in order to enforce a colonial stalemate through terror - but their desperate and fantastic tactics were then no more than fear bourn by recognition.

Blacks had found a point of reference in the new constitution. They recognized the historical and cultural value of their existence as Americans and began to see themselves not as two-bit extras but as players and individuals at the same table as their masters. However, there could be no equality without cohesive artistic achievement on the part of this newly-recognized underdog.

At the beginning of the last century, after the unifying comradeship of the Great War, black intellectuals, musicians and performers gathered in America’s multicultural cities and began to lay the foundations of the modern African-American culture. If the measure of civilization lies in its ability to create art, it is easy to understand why blacks had little success in being accepted as equals before this plunge into urban life. Slaves could do nothing more than verse their children through primitive aural tradition, but metropolitan blacks that tasted the freedom and anononimity offered by ghettos that helped concentrated their traditions and gridlock their identity. Without a doubt, this form of urban segregation was a prime factor in the creation of a self-conscious, comparative culture that attracted previously unmotivated black intellectuals. Cities like New Orleans, Detroit, Chicago and New York owe much of their renown to the consolidation of intent that was stirring amongst black artists. And so the Harlem Renaissance began under two conditions: total segregation from the urban white community and unparalleled proximity to a piecemeal but pliable cultural heritage.

Black writers of