Harlem Renaissance is ‘a blossoming of African American culture, particularly in the creative arts, and the most influential movement in African American literary history. The followers of this movement attempted to redefine the Negro who until now was looked at only from the White perspective. Through their experiments in the fields of literature, music, theatre, and visual arts, these artists tried to break away from the White racist traditions and embraced the ‘Black’ mores and manners as they were the aspects of African heritage in which they had started to take pride. Though there was not any particular school of thought that dominated this movement, it succeeded to influence the future works of African American writers.
Harlem Renaissance is the name given to the period that started with the end of World War I and ran through the middle of the 1930s Depression. This was the period which took African American literature considerably forward from the writing of life- stories and similar autobiographical pieces and entered into the realm of other literary genres like poetry, fiction, drama, and essay. African American writers of this period have very skillfully handled all these genres of literature and proved themselves to be far superior to their White counterparts.
The Harlem Renaissance movement even went as long as the civil rights movement of the late 1940s and early 1950s. This movement had its solid foundation in the Harlem as it has become the center of all literary, social, political and cultural activities of the Negroes. Harlem Renaissance movement was the culmination of various socio-politico-cultural activities that were taking place in America. These activities included ‘the Great Migration of African Americans from rural to urban spaces and from South to North; dramatically rising levels of literacy; the creation of national organizations dedicated to pressing African American civil rights, “uplifting” the race, and opening socioeconomic opportunities; and developing race pride, including pan-African sensibilities and programs.’
This period was very important in the history of Negroes in America as they had realized the greatness of their art and culture and started to express themselves in whatever form they liked. However, this was also a period of transition for them as they suffered from the agonies of split identity. On the one hand, they were Americans, living in the country for centuries and on the other, they were ‘Negroes’ who were not allowed to be one with the national identity. W.E.B. Du Bois introduced this notion of ‘twoness’, a divided awareness of one’s identity. He writes, “One ever feels his two-ness – an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled stirrings: two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”
The strain of twoness was too much for the sensitive Negroes who tried to express it through their arts. In their attempts to express their sufferings and agonies, these writers explored various techniques. Their works dealt with certain common themes like alienation, marginality, the use of folk material, the use of the blues tradition, and the problems of writing for an elite audience. The selection of such a variety of themes by these writers shows that Harlem Renaissance was not merely a literary movement. It had other issues that were closely related to the Negroes and their arts. These issues included racial consciousness, ‘the back to Africa’ movement, racial integration, the explosion of music, painting, and dramatic revues.
Until now African Americans and their works were treated as substandard and so were looked down upon by the mainstream White writers. However, the Harlem Renaissance gave the Black experience its distinct identity and permanently reserved its place in the history of American literature. With a vogue of migration of Negroes from the rural to the urban areas and from South to the North brought many positive changes in their lives thereby leading to the change of their traditional image as an illiterate, ignorant and hence secondary human being. The Black realtors had acquired a sizable chunk of real estate in the heart of Manhattan which allowed a large number of Blacks to come and get settled there. It created opportunities for the Black intellectuals to have regular fruitful interactions and expand their contacts internationally.
One of the most important features of Harlem Renaissance was that it had deep roots in history and culture, though there were also attempts to move away from the old and create a new. It was strongly believed that art and literature are the agents of change and they will lead to the betterment of America herself. However, this idea was shaken with the sudden arrival of Great Depression. The faith in democratic reform changed into horrors of disbelief. Those who strongly believed that these reforms would bring them positive results were completely disappointed by the way things took the turn. The intellectuals naively believed that culture is at the centre of every human activity and it cannot be affected by the economic and social realities. But these assumptions were turned into frustrations. They were taken aback by the cruel repercussions of the Great Depression.
However, it doesn’t mean that the Harlem Renaissance had lost its significance. On the contrary, this renaissance became a ‘symbol and a point of reference for everyone to recall.’ It was the name ‘Harlem’ that became ‘synonymous with new vitality, Black urbanity, and Black militancy. It became a racial focal point for Blacks the world over; it remained for a time a race capital. It stood for urban pluralism.’ In this connection Alain Locke has rightly remarked that “The peasant, the student, the businessman, the professional man, artist, poet, musician, adventurer and worker, preacher and criminal, exploiter and social outcast, each group has come with its own special motives … but their greatest experience has been the finding of one another.” The living together in the urban area Harlem of a large number of Negroes who had come there from different places and backgrounds with their peculiar experiences allowed the Black artists to understand the real complexities of the lives of the people. This urban setting helped them to share each other’s experiences which led to the birth of much needed race consciousness amongst them.
A close study of this movement shows that the legacy of Harlem Renaissance is ‘limited by the character of the Renaissance.’ There has been “an encouragement to the new appreciation of folk roots and culture. Peasant folk materials and spirituals provided a rich source for racial imagination and it freed the Blacks from the establishment of past condition. Harlem Renaissance was imprisoned by its innocence. The Harlem intellectuals, while proclaiming a new race consciousness, became mimics of Whites, wearing clothes and using manners of sophisticated Whites, earning the epithet “dirty niggers” from the very people they were supposed to be championing.”
Unfortunately the movement of Harlem Renaissance failed to ‘overcome the overwhelming White presence in commerce which defined art and culture.’ The followers of this movement could not realize that there was a need to reject White values; “they had to see Whites, without awe of love or awe of hate, and themselves truly, without myth or fantasy, in order that they could be themselves in life and art.”
But it can be said that Harlem Renaissance undoubtedly ‘created an ethnic provincialism and its biggest gift could be a lesson from its failures.’ It is observed that this movement tried to separate the Blacks from American culture. However, the fact was most of the Blacks were native Americans. It led to the “negative implications as the Blacks, unlike other immigrants, had no immediate past and history and culture to celebrate. But the positive implications of American nativity have never been fully appreciated by them. It seems too simple: the Afro-American’s history and culture is American, more completely so than most others in the country.”
It seems that the 1920s was too early a period for Blacks “to have felt the certainty about native culture that would have freed them from crippling self-doubt. … that is why the art of the Renaissance was so problematic, feckless, not fresh, not real. The lesson it leaves us is that the true Black Renaissance awaits Afro- Americans’ claiming their patria, their nativity.”