Harlem Renaissance And The ‘new Negro’ Critical Thinking
The 1920s and 1930s marked an important period for the cultural history of the American negro. This period was marked by a mass of Negros migration into Harlem. But it was not the migration that produced the name ‘Harlem Renaissance’. It was the creative worked by black people, often for the black people, but also- many times in fact- for the whites community too. It was like Harlem- perhaps because of the high populations of black people there- provoked a new sense of freedom that brought out the innermost feelings and hungers of the black community, and these were expressed through art. The American negro expressed themselves, asserting themselves into American social and political spaces- not by molding themselves to fit, but to by expressing themselves, revealing that they were more than just dark skin and by it making effort to mold America to accommodate them. Hence the ‘New Negro’ movement. Some of the most famous products or even drivers of the new negro movement were Langston Hughes, Georgia Douglas Johnson, Zora Neale Hurston , Countee Cullen and Claude McKay, among others (Stephens 3).
Indeed, it was hard to separate the Harlem Renaissance from the plight of the black community in America. Whether they had consciously sought to or not, the artists in this new space had to address the big elephant in the house, why it was becoming hard for America to accept the black people part and parcel of the American community almost a hundred years after President Lincoln signed the emancipation papers. Each of these writers and their works spoke for the black population, seeking to celebrate their identity but also assert their belonging in America (Stephens 5).
However, Harlem Renaissance does not refer to a homogenous group of people. There was always conflict within the New Negro movement. The movement was supposed to represent a renewed race consciousness and pride. However, many did not agree with what this ‘renewed race consciousness’’ constituted.
It seems, much like the negritude movement - which was partly the product of the Harlem Renaissance-, the new negro movement believed in demonstrating that the black population was a progressive group of people, educated and with the ability to create art (literature) that could compete fairly against the white literature. However, to do this, and for the new negro to assert himself as an equal human being to the white folk, the new negro movement preached for the black man to act a certain way, including how to dress, how to talk and the language to use. In other words, the new negro was expected to shed off the street side that blacks were famous for and act ‘civilized’. Or else there would be nothing new about the negro. And the blacks artists had a bigger obligation on the issue, bearing the responsibility to present this newness of the black community. It is perhaps on this issue that divisions may have grown.
Whether they consciously chose to rebel against the predominant rhetoric of the new negro movement or they just did what they did without any conscious thought to how it breached the new negro ideals, there were some black artists who just did not ‘fit’. As already noted above, Zola Neale Hurston was one of the most famous figures in the movement. However, Zola, like Langston Hughes, did not seem to flow with the notions of what a progressive black art was supposed to look like.
Hurston’s short fiction Spunk was one of the biggest hits of the time. The story became famous almost as soon as it was published. The story is set in a rural, all-black Southern town. This was very much like the place where Hurston herself grew up. It explores the themes that were common in Hurston’s works: the nature of marriage and the conflict between the weak and the strong. The story is mostly told in dialogue form. However, there was no problem with the style. The main war had to do with the language used. The characters speak in the Southern black dialect that carried much figurative language. She writes, “Joe wuz a braver man than Spunk” (Hurtston 1), it is her language. Hurston was heavily criticized for this language use. Although some celebrated her use of the language, admiring her for the use the language that she had heard first-hand and grown up with, many others criticized he for it. A good portion of the new negro members thought her language use was furthering the demeaning black stereotypes to the white population. The new negro movement, as already noted, had set out to bring down the stereotypes that they believed to have put the black population at the bottom of the American food chain all those years. They had set to build new pillars that would propel the blacks into the center of American attention. But now here was Hurston, right at the center of the movement, supposedly representing the new negro, but now betraying it.
But Hurston’s streetwise character did not stop wend in the text. It carried on to the physical, and Hurston was known to not take an insult (or what she took for insult) lightly. She physical confronted her ‘enemies’ and never minced her words about what she thought of people. In other words, while she was among the elite of the Harlem literary circles and dressed like the ‘civilized’ colleagues, she was very much the same girl from Eatonville, Florida. Alluding to that common say, Hurston’s literary skills had taken her away from Eatonville, but it could not save Eatonville from her. She held to it and lived it. And that did not go well for the new negro movement, to have an explicitly uncivilized being among them.
Langston Hughes appears to attack the so-called new negro movement in his essay, When Harlem was in Vogue. He seems to decry the notion of winning the approval of the white people through progressive art. His nostalgia laced with a rebuke of the “large, dark, masculine lady [the] perfect piece of African sculpture” that was Gladys Bentley (Hughes 1), now a star and in Hollywood reveals a lot about Hughes’ perception of the ‘progressive’ art that the new negro movement seemed to like, the art that could win over the white population.
In this nostalgia, Hughes seems to decry the loss of some authenticity, black authenticity- if it may be called, perhaps the same authenticity and being true to oneself that Hurston seems to have been persecuted for.
Hughes and Hurston could not have been the only ones who seemed to rebel against the new negro movement- if only in subtle ways most of the time (such as through the text). Still, now we know the new negro movement did not speak for all blacks as it may have been thought to do.
Hughes, Langston. When the Negro was in Vogue. Web
Hurston, Zora N. Spunk. Opportunity Magazine, 1925. Print.
Stephens, Judith L. The Harlem Renaissance and the New Negro Movement. In Brenda
Murphy (ed.), The Companion to American Women Playwrights. Cambridge University Press, 2006. Web.