The Harlem Renaissance emerged during turbulent times for the world, the United States, and black Americans. World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 had left the world in disorder and stimulated anticolonial movements throughout the third world. In America, twenty years of progressive reform ended with the red scare, race riots, and isolationism throughout 1919 and led to conservative administrations through the twenties.
While blacks were stunned by racial violence near the end of the decade and were frustrated by the lack of racial progress that progressivism had made, they were now armed with new civil rights organizations and confronted the approaching decade with new hope and determination. Education and employment opportunities had led to the development of a small black middle class. Few blacks thought that their future lay in the economically depressed rural South and hundreds of thousands migrated to seek prosperity and opportunity in the North.
As these more educated and socially conscious blacks settled into New Yorks neighborhood of Harlem, it developed into the cultural and political center of black America. The 1910s also marked the rising of a political agenda advocating racial equality throughout the black community, especially in the growing black middle class. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), founded to fight for the rights of blacks, and black sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois pushed the agenda.
Black nationalist Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Associations efforts also reflected the agenda and helped to inspire racial pride among working class blacks in the 1920s. This decade would bear witness to the long struggle against political disenfranchisement in the South and a change from traditional black political alignments in the North. Feminists too, having achieved victory in their campaign for suffrage, still faced more subtle obstacles on their road to equality.
In addition, the ghettoization of American cities, the persistence of poverty in the midst of prosperity, and the disproportionate involvement of blacks in both of these processes challenged perceptions about the effectiveness of the American system. 1 In 1926, professor Alain Locke observed, The younger generation is vibrant with a new psychology. which was shown by a shift from social disillusionment to race pride. Locke noted that this new psychology rejected the old stereotypes of black aunties, uncles, and mammies and substituted instead self-respect, self-dependence, and racial unity.
Emerging from social and intellectual upheaval, the Harlem Renaissance marked a change in the attitude of blacks in the United States. While the Harlem Renaissance was not a political movement, its participants were affected by the political world around them and responded in varying ways to their political environment. Perhaps the most direct way that black writers addressed political issues was through political and protest writings.
Claude McKays 1919 sonnet If We Must Die expressed his anger toward the race riots of 1919 and urged blacks to respond with violence when confronted with force, working against the odds and gaining dignity through their struggles. He writes, Like men well face the murderous pack, / Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back! 3 Similarly, Langston Hughes made protest a significant element in his works, especially in his somewhat radical poetry of the early 1930s. Because I am the white mans son, his own / Bearing his bastard birth-mark on my face, / I will dispute his title to the throne, / Forever fight him for my rightful place. rote Hughes in his poem Mulatto.
Throughout his poetry, he directly and indirectly referred to vigorous hatred for the white man, of his peoples dreams deferred too long. He used literature to protest the inequality faced by blacks nationwide. James Weldon Johnson too made early efforts to focus the talents of young writers on protest poetry and some of his literature directly addresses political issues through protest. In his poem Fifty Years, for example, he wrote, Then should we speak but servile words, Or shall we hang our heads in shame? Stand back of new-come foreign hordes,
And fear our heritage to claim? No! stand erect and without fear, And for our foes let this suffice– Weve bought a rightful sonship here, And we have more than paid the price. 5 Fortunately for the breadth and quality of black writing during this period, the Harlem Renaissance was not by any means limited to protest poetry. However, the theme of protest is almost universal in that virtually every writer in the movement produced several protest pieces. Thus, one clear response to the political environment at the time of the Harlem Renaissance was direct protest.
A number of individuals associated with the Harlem Renaissance believed that black literature could be used as a key weapon in the fight for civil rights. James Weldon Johnson, for instance, said, I can conceive of nothing that will go further to raise the status of the Negro in America than the work done by great Aframerican [sic] creative artists. in lectures he presented at Howard University. Black literature, in his mind, became the means to a political end. Art would be the most effective solution to the race problem in America.
Interestingly enough, he later said that he was convinced that Ethel Warren singing Summertime did more to change the attitudes of a prejudiced person than any political essay, further emphasizing his belief in the effectiveness of art in combating racism. 6 W. E. B. Du Bois, another black writer and intellectual of the time, was affected by the political environment in much the same way. Above all aesthetics he held the propaganda value of art. In addition, his perception of the situation led him to believe that deflecting black literature away from ghetto realism was justified.
He felt that the race could benefit more by focusing on the achievements of the black middle class than on the more unseemly side of the black experience. This led to his praise of the novels of female black writer Jessie Fauset, which told of the more educated class of blacks, and his sharp criticism of novels such as Nigger Heaven and their exploration of Harlems seamy underbelly. Even if the concept of protest poetry was not a dominant literary form during the Harlem Renaissance, that certainly does not indicate that most black writers were blind to their political environment.
Rather, this simply indicates that black writers chose to address political concerns through more subtle means. Most pervasive throughout the Renaissance were the themes of race consciousness and racial pride. Countee Cullens poetry, seemingly lyrical in nature, demonstrated this quality. He demonstrated his perception of the racial situation in America while not turning to direct protest. His bitter sonnet From a Dark Tower, expressed that. Not everlastingly while others sleep / Shall we beguile their limbs with mellow flute, / Not always bend to some more subtle brute / We were not made eternally to weep.
He extolled African American creative energies balked and discounted because of race discrimination. 8 Marcus Garveys writings during the Renaissance as well reflected the common theme of racial pride, an attitude which he carried into his directorship of the UNIA. In one of his essays, Garvey wrote, We who make up the Universal Negro Improvement Association have decided that we will go forward, upward and onward toward the great goal of human liberty.
We have determined among ourselves that all barriers placed in the way of our progress must be removed, must be cleared away for we desire to see the light of a brighter day Men of other races and nations have become alarmed at this attitude of the Negro to do things for himself and by himself. 9 Bold expression of the pride and dignity of African-American was a nearly universal theme in black literature of the period, as black writers refused to have the Negro labeled as a beggar at the gates of the nation waiting to be thrown the crumbs of civilization. 10
A major link between the Harlem Renaissance and politics can be found by looking at how major black rights organizations reacted to political issues of the 1920s and early 1930s. Crisis, the periodical of the NAACP, edited by Du Bois, and Opportunity, the journal of the National Urban League (NUL), edited by Charles S. Johnson. Both publications spoke out on political issues of the time that affected black Americans. Opportunity chronicled the long struggle against black disenfranchisement in the South, discussing at length events such as the legal struggle against the white primary in Texas.
The NUL also gave much support to blacks trying to seek national political office. Near the end of the 1920s, Crisis described a five-pronged political agenda that it would pursue. These included the continuation of the struggle against residential segregation in Southern cities and against the white primary in Texas, combating school segregation in the North and the segregation of government workers in the nations capital, improving the image of blacks by countering false reports of black violence and rioting, eliminating legal barriers against interracial marriage, and taking the struggle for civil rights into the South itself.
Thus, the periodical took a firm stand against the injustices faced by blacks in the United States and helped to set the stage for the Civil Rights Movement in the middle of the 20th century. The major difference between the two periodicals was that while Opportunity tended to focus more on the alignment of black Americans within the traditional two party system while Crisis often told black voters to look not inside the two major parties, but rather to third parties for candidates which would best advance the African American political agenda.
Du Bois, for instance wrote in one issue of Crisis in 1924, I shall vote for LaFollette. 12 as an indication of his support for the Progressive candidate for President over the two major parties. The latter provided a forum for Socialist and Communist candidates, as well as for Republicans and Democrats. Certainly, however, neither publication can truly be considered radical in that the issues they pursued were well in the American political mainstream. Far more radical than either were the flirtations of several Harlem Renaissance writers with revolutionary communism.