“Each group has come with its own separate motives and for its own special ends, but their greatest experience has been the fining of one another.”––philosopher Alain Locke, from The New Negro
The Harlem Renaissance provided the first major cultural and PR campaign, if you will, to counter the negative guerrilla decontextualization that for centuries had convinced one generation of Americans after another that people of African descent were something less than human and therefore belonged in slavery. The various social customs, laws, and vocabularies that gave sanction to American apartheid were repealed, at least in an aesthetic sense, by the authors, poets, painters, sculptors, musicians, labor leaders, educators, philanthropists, migrants and immigrants who gave the movement its living substance.
As Sandra L. West put it in her introduction, Black Phoenix Rising, “there was an emergence of new ideas in political thought; numerous groundbreaking artistic developments in theatre, music, literature, and visual arts; and an inauguration of civil rights organizations, unions, and others associations.”
The Power of Diversity
Aside from providing a platform on which to battle for the equality of African Americans, the Harlem Renaissance may also be viewed as an important experiment in diversity and multiculturalism. Whereas the principle authors of the movement were African Americans, most of them rose to national (and sometimes international) fame with the assistance of white publishers, and some with the help of white patrons such as Charlotte Osgood Mason. The encyclopedia acknowledged this fact with profiles of a number of such figures, including entries on Mason, magazine publisher Max Eastman, and photographer and author Carl Van Vechten.
Recognition of individual sexual identity and emerging gay culture played an important role in the diverse nature of the Harlem Renaissance as well. In the article titled “Sexuality and the Harlem Renaissance,” the author observed the following:
“The writers, artists, and musicians of the Harlem Renaissance in their work and in their lives generally approached sexuality as an aspect of democratic freedom open to exploration and definition on one’s own terms.”
Such an observation matches very well the stated concerns and objectives of the gay marriage equality movement that has gained unprecedented momentum over the past few years. Along the same lines, ongoing debates (if they may be called such) over women’s rights to determine aspects of their own physical well-being were noted in the same article:
“…With American slavery less than 100 years in the past, one important message discerned from the writings of [Zora Neale] Hurston and other black women writers of the era was that their bodies now belonged to themselves rather than anyone else, white or black.”
That America still struggles with the implications of the above statement––even while the passage of laws and court rulings, such as that on the controversial “morning after” birth control pill, demonstrate the truth of it–– provide yet another reason why studies of the Harlem Renaissance continue to inform students’ understanding of issues impacting lives today.
author of The River of Winged Dreams
and co-author of ELEMENTAL The Power of Illuminated Love
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- The Harlem Renaissance and the Year 2020 (Part 1)
- 100th Anniversary of the Harlem Renaissance
- In Celebration of Literary Cultural Migrations and Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance
- Address on 3 Poets of the Harlem Renaissance Delivered on the 72nd Anniversary of the Poetry Society of Georgia
- Jazz Harlem Renaissance Baby Doll
- Harlem Renaissance Dialogues Part 1 Living and Writing Black History
- Harlem Renaissance Dialogues Part 2 Savannah and the Harlem Renaissance
- Great Moments in African-American History 2009 Part 3
- Black History Month Enhanced by International Year for People of African Descent
- Celebrating the International Year for People of African Descent