14 Feb 2020

Harlem Renaissance: Black History Month, the Love of Christ Compels Me

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Africa, Black History, Bobby's World, Contemporary Ethics, Culture, Love, Music, Politics, Race Relations, Reading, Slavery, Unity
“The Bible” of the
Harlem Renaissance

I first became aware of the Harlem Renaissance in the late 1990s. It has fascinated me since.

The Harlem Renaissance was an extraordinary explosion, an awakening, of artistic output in music, dance, literature, and drama. It is generally dated from return of the Harlem Hellfighters from World War I to the early 1930s when it died the death of the Great Depression.

A confluence of many factors led to this bold assertion of creativity and pride. The Great Migrations that began during World War I (half a million blacks moved from the South to New York, Chicago and other northern urban areas to escape the Klan and find jobs). The taking, and the return, of two hundred thousand black soldiers into the military and off to France “to make the world safe for democracy” cultivated an air of self-confidence. This self-confidence led to a rejection of acceptance of white defined black identity as “aunties,” “uncles,” and “mammies.” They rejected “Sambo” and “Uncle Tom,” as Alain Locke wrote in the volume he edited, The New Negro. When Locke penned those words the Renaissance was already in full swing.

In a sense the Renaissance, the “Coming of Age,” was a collective announcement to white America that blacks are one hundred percent human, with the same aspirations and hunger for meaning as any Anglo-Saxon. Or to quote Locke, it was to demand “the revaluation by white and black alike of the Negro in terms of his artistic endowments and cultural contributions, past and prospective.”

James Weldon Johnson put it, “nothing will do more to change the mental attitude and raise his status than a demonstration of intellectual parity … than by his production of literature and art.”

The Harlem Renaissance says as clearly as can be stated, “We are not slaves. We are not brutes. We are not ignorant. We are not inferior.”

This explosion is all the more remarkable because of the massive surge of racism following World War I. The Red Summer of 1919, massive race riots, Hollywood’s caricature of African Americans (as in Birth of a Nation in 1915), the surge in lynching. The Renaissance attacked stereotypes in myriads of ways while affirming, “we” are equal to “you.”

There is no way to do justice to the Harlem Renaissance in this post. So I am going to divide up categories with names we ought to know (names are representative and hardly exhaustive). Many of my readers will already know them.

Lewis’s is a great introduction
to the writings of the

Publications: The Crises began in 1910 as the publication of the NAACP. The Messenger (1917-1938) was widely read. Opportunity began in 1923 and was a leading organ of the Renaissance. And Survey Graphic which in many ways initially brought the greatness of the Renaissance before the public.

Intellectual leaders. W.E.B. DuBois and Alaine Locke both men hugely influential.

Music: The Jazz age. Harlem Stride. Duke Ellington. Lucky Roberts. Fats Waller. Louis Armstrong.

Dancers: Billy (Bojangles) Robinson. Josephine Baker – one of the most famous dancers in history, she would live in Paris for a long time and during World War II functioned as a spy for the US.

Artists: Aaron Douglas. Lois Mailou Jones

Writers: Langston Hughes. Zora Neale Huston. Claude McKay. James Weldon Johnson. Jean Toomer. Countee Cullen.

Claude McKay wrote one of the first poems of the Renaissance in response to the Red Summer of 1919. It captures well the defiant spirit of what Locke identified as the “New Negro.”

If we must die, let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursed lot.
If we must die, let it not be like hogs
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monster we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us, though dead!

Oh kinsman! We must meet the common foe;
Though far outnumbered, let us still be brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one deathblow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but – fighting back!

In the face of incredible cultural resistance the Harlem Renaissance proclaimed we are not mere victims rather we are creators and victors in spite of the racist culture.

Wonderful history of the energy,
diversity, and even jealousies
of the Renaissance

The New Negro

The Harlem Renaissance had been in full swing for several years when Alain Locke gathered together the diverse strands of the movement and published what has been called “the Bible” of the movement. That Bible is called, The New Negro which Locke published in 1925.

The volume is divided into two large sections: The Negro Renaissance and The Negro in the New World. In the Renaissance section, Locke highlights the the “Youth” of the day through their fiction, poetry, drama, music and a section on how black America was rediscovering its own past as opposed to the past white America said they had. In Part Two, Locke collected essays by black scholars on Negro Pioneers, their life in America, centers of cultural life at Harlem, Howard University, Tuskegee, and Durham, NC. Then the volume explores how African Americans fit into Americanism and a unique look at “the task of Negro Womanhood.”

Locke’s New Negro is both selective in its representation of the Renaissance and something of a definition of the time. For an “exegesis” of the book see George Hutchinson’s The Harlem Renaissance in Black and White, pp. 389-433.

Major scholarly work on
the Harlem Renaissance. Includes
a splendid exegesis of
“The New Negro.”

Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes was a young poet at the time of the Renaissance. Hughes typifies the race consciousness that embraced many at this time. After generations and generations of being told they were animals, ugly, not human, there was a counter thrust in the Harlem Renaissance. Black and black culture is worth celebrating.

Hughes expressed his point of view in a powerful essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain.” At some point every American ought to read this essay. Hughes about black artists who have either consciously or subconsciously bought into the prevailing views of white America that black is bad. These artists subconsciously want to be white. On one level this is a searing indictment of racism. On another it is the sad testimony of the psychological abuse of racism upon the victims. Hughes castigates black intellectuals for perpetuating this same view. Thus it is “a very high mountain indeed for the would be racial artist to climb in order to discover himself and his people.” He continues,

So I am ashamed for the black poet who says, ‘I want to be a poet, not a Negro poet,’ as though his own racial world were not as interesting as any other world … An artist must be free to choose what he does, certainly, but he must also never be afraid to do what he might choose …

“We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too.

You can read many of Hughes’s poems and essays in The Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader. The full text of the Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain can be read in the linked title.


This brief introduction to the Harlem Renaissance has not even begun to do it justice. My goal is very limited, introduce people who look like me to a very important part of our mutual heritage. Our lives in America are deeper and richer because of the Renaissance even though many of us have been unaware.

The Harlem Renaissance is an absolutely fascinating period of American history. The “roaring twenties” is a period wracked with contradictions that have forever run through America. It is one of the lowest times in race relations. But it was also a time of thriving creativity on the part of many African Americans

Read Alain Locke’s anthology called The New Negro. Or David Levering Lewis’ The Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader. There are also a number of good YouTube videos that introduce the Renaissance. I especially recommend the documentary Against the Odds: The Artists of the Harlem Renaissance.

How Much Do You Know about the Harlem Renaissance? Now is a golden opportunity to learn.


Leave a Reply