d. E. Rogers

The Age of Blackness

In Articles by d. E. Rogers on July 15, 2010 at 7:26 am

The Harlem Renaissance was one of the most momentous artistic movements not only of the 20th century in America, but in the entire history of the world.  The Harlem Renaissance generated an awareness of identity for blacks, while at the same time accomplishing the considerable task of forcing the white majority to admit the magnitude of contributions from an ethnic group that had for the history of the country been too easily considered something less than human. The Harlem Renaissance is probably remembered most today—if it is known at all by a generation who seem to think the contributions of blacks to the cultural landscape of America began with Bill Cosby and rap music—as a detonation of the imagination that exploded from the fertile minds of more than a mere handful of blacks in all media of creative expression.  Less well understood is that the Harlem Renaissance was also a movement about the politicization and consciousness-raising of a disenfranchised segment of the American people. Typical of the manner in which black culture has been juked and ripped off and homogenized and underappreciated, the Harlem Renaissance for a great many people extends no further than some novels, plays and poetry. In fact, the Harlem Renaissance was literally an explosion of talent that covered music, dance and the fine arts as well as literary endeavors.  The creative geniuses that led the Harlem Renaissance to the forefront of the American cultural landscape used artistic expression to engender a major impact on all aspects of society. At the same time, it served to give millions of people their first opportunity to establish an identity that had nothing to do with a history of being owned as property.

To attach a well-defined demarcation line to the Harlem Renaissance by picking just one single artistic effort that spurred it is useful only for igniting debate.  Black authors had been published for decades and some of those novels were even best-sellers; what makes the Harlem Renaissance stand out was that the topic of those literary works were no longer limited to thematic issues engendered by a history of slavery. The true derivation of the Harlem Renaissance cannot and should not be traced back to any individual work, but rather to the assortment of shared interests by those craving to promulgate the spectacular burst of creativity through the founding of literary magazines and the publication of novels. This communal push to cooperate and help one another was vital in turning the Harlem Renaissance from a simple literary event into one that enveloped all the fine arts.  In addition, the movement was equally vital for the way it created a search for a prouder identity for an ethnic group previously defined not by who they were, but who owned them. Although the artists created very important and lasting works in the disciplines of literature, art and music, the Harlem Renaissance rapidly became just as important for the manner in which blacks could acknowledge and embrace a new identity.

The intellectuals contributions to the vitality of the Harlem Renaissance is based on the manner in which these figures defined what positive role models for blacks were.   One of the enormously significant traits of the Harlem Renaissance is the realization that collaboration was considered a better way to assist even the individual works than competition. An instinctive sense that any single artistic enterprise was going to define all others created an effort by everyone involved to produce a cultural tapestry that served not just other artists, but audiences as well. In fact, the movement essentially created the idea of the black intellectual for both Americans and Europeans. The creation of the “New Negro” in Harlem represented the emancipation from the last vestiges of slavery; those of low esteem and even self-doubt and self-revulsion.

Critics, however, question whether the Harlem Renaissance really achieved its aims of forging a new identity for blacks separated from the history of slavery. One of the criticisms is that by trying to create a distinct culture separated from the past abuses and even the contribution of Anglo-European traditions it succeeded only in alienation. A more potent criticism is that the Harlem Renaissance reproduced only the specific identity of the middle class, intellectual elite of an ethnic group trying to impress its background and views on a population still dominated by lower-class and uneducated people. Still another criticism is that the very goal of forging an identity for an entire ethnic group and socially edifying them was grossly ill-conceived because the overwhelming number of blacks are mostly unaware of it or know it only as history at best. The foundation of all criticism of the Harlem Renaissance is that it contains an inescapable element of hypocrisy in that it attempted to create a separate identity that was based mostly on the bourgeois ideology inculcated by its intellectual and artistic leaders from a white society and educational system. What can be extrapolated from the criticism is that it sought to achieve little more than a black representation of the white middle class establishment.

But in the end, the criticism that the Harlem Renaissance received meant nothing to the empowerment that those living during that time period showed in their many artistic endeavors. The legacy that the Renaissance left for blacks can be seen in all walks of life today. Even though, people do not give the Harlem Renaissance its true credit or impact on how it shaped our world, we should all be grateful that the Harlem Renaissance existed. If it had never existed and the voices of black people suffering never heard, then one can only imagine what real change our country would have seen. Who knows but one can always speculate that maybe our world would still look at blacks as being less than human if the world didn’t hear their cries for equality.


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