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Victoria Rose Niblett

Harlem Renaissance Analysis


April 7, 2014

THE HARLEM RENAISSANCE


Harlem Renaissance voices such as Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston
would pave the way for later civil rights leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to
make the dream of equality a reality.

Following the First World War, a decade of decadence stretched before


America. She was healthier than ever, but her heart had begun to beat to the
rhythms of Harlem and change was in the air she breathed. This New York City
district had ascended as an emblematic capital for cultural innovation that would
radically change the identity of America forever because this particular golden
age was generated by dark-skinned emissaries. Though first known as the New
Negro Movement in reference to Alain Lockes 1925 anthology, this period is
now more fittingly known as the Harlem Renaissance. (Rowan) According to
Merriam-Webster, a renaissance is a movement of vigorous artistic and
intellectual activity and the 1920s provided an idyllic environment for Negro
cultural exploration to flourish. (Merriam-Webster) With this came a newfound
determination to attain civil rights among African Americans, but it would not be
achieved without many unnerving obstacles. To be acknowledged as equals,
Negroes needed to construct a culture that would be exclusively recognized as
their own. By doing this, African Americans would create a cohesive ethnic
identity that enhances self-perception as well as their perception in the United
States and other nations. It is also necessary for African Americans to establish
their culture as a legitimate expression of a race as opposed to a trendy
spectacle. Negro Spirituals were more than just religious tunes to the American
black, and to gain equality this point was vital to enforce. This distinct and valid
African American culture also had to find a stable place in society, integrating the
race as one of equal stature to whites in America and ultimately the world.
Harlem Renaissance voices such as Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston
would pave the way for later civil rights leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to
make the dream of equality a reality.
Beginning in 1876, Jim Crow Laws sanctioned racial segregation with a
separate but equal manifesto. Ethnic equality was virtually impossible at that
point because African Americans did not yet possess the strong wings prominent
white American had for centuries before and feebly stumbled out of the nest. This
emphasized their unavoidable social inequality that stemmed from lack of a

united racial identity and secure place in American society. Only when African
Americans discovered a universal cultural identity did they gain acceptance from
other Americans and international peoples, and ultimately obtain civil rights. How
to achieve these rights was widely disputed. Booker T. Washington was among
the last generation born into slavery and upon emancipation became a notorious
voice for the past slaves and their posterity. In his Atlanta Compromise, he
advocated gradual integration which entailed giving up activist, political, and
higher educational ambitions to establish community and sacrifice on the yolk of
progress. In contrast, W. E. B. DuBois and his followers criticized this ideology
under the accusations that it promoted a double consciousness in black
Americans. This instilled a lack of self-esteem as a result of confliction between
self-perception and social perception. DuBois understood that assimilating to the
negative perception of the racist white civilization around them would only
devalue their own place in society and diminish the validity of their own ethnic
distinction.
Separation, but not the form Jim Crow insisted upon, was essential to
African Americans eventually gaining equality. In the Harlem Renaissance, many
African Americans began to take the negative situation of the separate status of
public facilities and separated themselves positively from the white, European
culture to design a culture of their own. The resulting pages, music notes, dance
steps, and canvases were the first whispers of possible equality. Langston
Hughes, writer and capturer of the essence of the Harlem Renaissance, was
among those proud separatists. In his hugely famous essay The Negro Artist
and The Racial Mountain, Hughes writes of his encounter with a young fellow
African American that admits to him he wants to be a poet not a Negro poet.
Hughes is despaired by this comment because this young black never caught a
glimmer of the beauty of his own heritage. His upbringing in white oppression
had diminished the appeal in adopting racial individuality.

As Hughes conveys, a mountain of challenges towered before the Negro


artist because not only was he too insecure or ignorant to write about his true
legacy, but he was also opposed by the abrasive disapproval of his own people
and inducements of the Caucasians around him. O, be respectable, write about
nice people, show how good we are, say the African American audiences. Be
stereotyped, dont go too far, dont shatter our illusions about you, dont amuse
us too seriously. We will pay you, is the chorus of the whites. In spite of this and
the modernist poets before him insisting upon the separation of high art from
popular culture, Langston Hughes writes truly racial poems that spawn from his
life of jazz music, cabarets, and the iconic rhythms of black Harlem. As a result of
being exceptionally media savvy, Langston Hughes work and ideas reached
masses of people. He particularly sparked the interest of the youth that
possessed great power to change the situations of blacks for all of posterity.
Langston Hughes was not afraid or ashamed of expressing his dark-skinned
self and believed that injecting the separate Negro identity in art could help
boost the confidence of the entire race. Creating art of Negro people would allow
the race to build a temple for tomorrow, strong as they know how and stand on
top of the mountain, free within themselves. (Hughes, 1926)
While Langston Hughes took his inspiration from jazz music, Zora Neale
Hurston, a female African American writer of the Harlem Renaissance movement
took her inspiration from the black community. Hurston had very similar ideas to
Langston Hughes but understood that confident African American artistic
expression and assertion of racial individuality was not the final missing piece in
gaining civil rights. In her 1928 essay, How it Feels to Be Colored Me she wrote
of her childhood experiences in Eatonville, Florida and ultimately how living there
and eventually relocating affected her self-perception. Eatonville, Florida was one
of the first all black towns to be included into the United States. Growing up free
of white societal oppression allowed Hurston to develop with unwavering
confidence in the beauty and significance of her race, culture, and gender.

Hurston writes of the only way she knew whites were different than her at
the time by passing on travels through her Floridian haven and never living there.
Hurston would act as the ambassador of her little town and talk with the white
folks, walking with them on a piece of their journey, writing they liked to hear me
speak pieces and sing and wanted to see me dance the parse-me-la, and gave
me generously of their small silver for doing these things, which seemed strange
to me for I wanted to do them so much that I needed bribing to stop.
Hurston began to understand on a small scale that African American
culture rising few to celebrity in American society did not prove the humanity of
the race and deservedness for equality. This instituted African American progress
and blossoming culture as a show instead of an authentic expression of humans.
Her culture was exploited as just another Vaudeville show or motion
picture to the rest of the world. Good music they have here, a white companion
of Hurston remarks at the popular Harlem nightclub, The New World Cabaret.
She is taken aback because she realizes that this white man has only heard what
she has felt. The jazz music characteristic of her culture has affected her soul,
and he just sits there drumming his fingers. Hurston describes this moment to her
audience to reveal that while there are aspects of white culture she will not
understand or be able to experience with the connected conviction a white
person would, there are also aspects of African American culture white people
cannot begin to fathom the significance it holds to a Negro. Just because it is not
understood does not mean its illegitimate.
By writing, I have no separate feeling about being an American and
colored Hurston begins to clarify that while it is important not to abandon what
makes blacks different from whites and keep from assimilating into white culture,
it should not be forgotten that above all both races are American and human.
This connection is enough for all races to be celebrated rightfully and be granted
equal civil rights in the United States. This illustrates that while aspects of a

culture may not be translated flawlessly across races, being a human makes it
valid. Zora Neale Hurston concludes her essay by saying she feels like a brown
bag of miscellany propped against a wall. Against a wall in company with other
bags, white, red and yellow. Pour out the contents, and there is discovered a
jumble of small things priceless and worthless In your hand is the brown bag.
On the ground before you is the jumble it held so much like the jumble of bags,
could they be refilled without altering the content of any greatly. A bit of colored
glass more or less would not matter. Perhaps that is how the Great Stuffer of
Bags filled them in the first place who knows? (Hurston, 1928)
White, black, red, or yellow, each is human and possesses essentially the
same human character. This authenticates the African American culture in the
human race, but Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. took on the challenge to desegregate
this culture with his 1963 speech, I Have A Dream. With unshakeable
confidence and a mixed legacy of Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. DuBois,
Dr. King reached a remarkable audience by standing in front of the Lincoln
Memorial but also by flashing on the television screens in countless American
homes. The large scope of Kings speech was something to note because a
movement of such scale was impossible to ignore. With the inspiration of his
Harlem Renaissance predecessors, Dr. King crafted an argument for blacks to
have an equal place in American society.
Modernist poets had long used repetition to emphasize their ideas and
Harlem Renaissance writers took the repetition to enforce a song-like quality to
their work, but Martin Luther King Jr. took this repetition further. With repeated
phrases like now is the time, let freedom ring, and I have a dream, he
empowered the African American race and gained the support of many whites to
give life to the civil rights movement. His association with the church through
allusions to scripture and his pastoral delivery granted King with credibility. With
the trust of the people, Dr. King would be able to gain devotion to the efforts he
believed would end the civil rights movement with equality for his race. He

encouraged non-violent protests that provoked violent behavior from Americans


in opposition. In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty
of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking
from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on
the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to
degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic
heights of meeting physical force with soul force.
Dr. King also examined the necessity for social reform by insisting that the
economic significance of black Americans and the effects of their economic
protest would be damaging to American business. We refuse to believe that the
bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds
in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we've come to cash this
check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the
security of justice. Dr. King was hoping to reveal that possessing such a
noteworthy place in the American economy meant that blacks possessed a
meaningful place in American society. (King Jr., 1963)
Discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin was
prohibited with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the dream of equality was now a
legal reality. (History.com, 2010) Langston Hughes and other voices of the
Harlem Renaissance laid the foundation by distinguishing a rich Negro culture to
create confidence in the ethnic identity of African Americans all across the globe.
Artists like Zora Neale Hurston worked to legitimize the beauty of black culture by
insisting that above all, it is a manifestation of the greater humanity. Activists like
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. drew inspiration from the Harlem Renaissance to boldly
claim a place for African Americans in American society. After accomplishments
on all levels, now fully capable wings unfurled and African Americans were able
to soar.
History.com. (2010). Civil rights act. Retrieved from
http://www.history.com/topics/black-history/civil-rights-act
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Hughes, L. (1926). The negro artist and the racial mountain. In N. Baym & R. S.
Levine (Eds.), The norton anthology of american literature (8th ed., p. 806
809). New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.
Hurston, Z. N. (1928). How it feels to be colored me. In N. Baym & R. S. Levine
(Eds.), The norton anthology of american literature (8th ed., p. 940-943).
New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.
Jim Crow law. (2014). In Encyclopaedia Britannica. Retrieved from
http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/303897/Jim-Crow-law
King Jr., M. L. (1963). I have a dream. In N. Baym & R. S. Levine (Eds.), The
norton anthology of american literature (8th ed., p. 1395-1398). New York,
NY: W. W. Norton & Company.
Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.merriamwebster.com/dictionary/renaissance
Rowan, B. Great days in harlem | the birth of the harlem renaissance. Retrieved
from Rowan, Beth. "Great Days in Harlem | The Birth of the Harlem
Renaissance." Infoplease. Infoplease, n.d. Web.