Harlem was the Black Metropolis and during the 1920's, the home of the "New Negro".
By Garth Tate
Harlem was the Black Metropolis and during the 1920's, the home of the "New Negro". The "new" Black man and woman exploded on the scene stressing the importance of ethnic identity, heralding a new day when Blacks would have and wield power.
This emerging generation of African Americans became the first to repudiate the accommodationist philosophy of Booker T. Washington, and the "heaven in the here-after" ideologues.
The New Negro period of history, or the Harlem Renaissance, spanned the decade between 1919 and 1929.
The movement was given its name in 1925 when Rhodes Scholar and Howard University professor Alain Locke published an anthology of poems, essays, stories and illustrations with the title.
Contributors to this historic volume included some of the most prominent and renown Black literary and visual arts figures of the period, such as Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Sterling Brown, and Aaron Douglas.
An impressive array of writers, poets and artists contributed to the artistic abundance of the period, and Harlem was home to most of them: Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, Jean Toomer and Bruce Nugent are among them. These artists and writers looked inward and found strength in African American culture.
Jazz and the Blues also sprang from the Black experience and dazzled the high-lifers in Harlem and beyond. Alberta Hunter, Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters, Josephine Baker, Duke Ellington and others molded Black music into a powerful artistic weapon which shattered the mediocrity of American folk music.
Philosophers, scholars, socialites, actors and dancers all contributed to Harlem's throbbing expressions and to the persona of the New Negro. Under any analysis, Harlem was a complex community in a complex and hostile nation.
The most important activity in the community was individual spiritual and economic survival techniques conceived under the pressure of the adverse socio-economic conditions were born with a generous amount of creativity. America had never really come to terms with its schizophrenia regarding Blacks.
As a result, the nation developed a sort of loathing dependence upon its Black citizens for much of the art and music that gave the nation its identity. Negative stereotyping of Blacks, economic oppression and brutality reached a high-point in the years immediately preceding the Harlem Renaissance.
It was the imposition of these conditions on Blacks that compelled them to reassess and redefine themselves outside the scope of Euro-America perceptions.
"All Coons Look Alike to Me." recognize it? That was the title of one of America's favorite songs in the years just prior to 1919. White America had dragged the "coon" or "darkie" image of Blacks from the wreckage of ante-bellum slavery, and they exploited it to maximum advantage.
The coon stereotype, also known as the "Sambo syndrome," characterized Blacks as harmless, asexual, lazy, good-natured, faithful, slow, trifling, stupid, inept and eternally hungry.
New York was a national and international center for arts and, as a result, had an overabundance of typically racist music, visual art, literature, and theater.
Blacks in New York, many of whom still lived in the "Tenderloin" district of mid-Manhattan, were faced with the promotion of popular tunes like "Coon, Coon Coon."
Although the lyrics to some of these songs were even less imaginative than the titles, America loved them. On the stage, fare such as "The Coon at the Door", "The Coon and the Chink", and "The Coon Musketeers" were available for public consumption.
Blacks were segregated in the theaters at this time and there were many White minstrels who performed in "blackface". Here was a situation where White America got its laughs for the exaggerated portrayal of Black people, yet Blacks were not permitted to act in those productions nor to see them.
In Harlem, of course, few people found this Black buffoonery amusing. But it was the events which followed America's entry into World War I that forced Blacks to challenge White assumptions and even become nationalistic in their approach to life in America.
In 1917, President Woodrow Wilson issued a call for all Americans to enter World War I in order to "make the world safe for democracy". Over two hundred thousand Americans went to Europe in support of this cause. Because of the strict segregationist policies of the U.S. Army at the time, many Blacks went to France and joined the French forces.
Among them were the men of the 369th Infantry, nicknamed the Harlem Hellfighters, who served with distinction and heroism. Despite much discussion of whether they should participate in a war abroad when they could not exercise their rights at home, many Blacks went to war out of the conviction (and hope) that when the war ended, justice would prevail.
At the end of the war Black soldiers returned home victorious, but they were ill-prepared for the welcome that awaited them. Black soldiers were set upon and beaten by angry, rampaging White mobs. Race riots erupted across the country as armed Whites invaded Black neighborhoods in New York, Washington, D.C., St. Louis and other cities to beat, kill, burn and loot.
The postwar betrayal of Black soldiers, the continued lynching and beating of Blacks across the country, the economic oppression based on race, and the hostility of the American government represented by President Wilson combined to elicit a response from the Black community. That response took the form of the New Negro.
The New Negro that emerged in 1919 in Harlem, the intellectual and artistic center of the Black world, no longer was going to take abuse or exploitation. The idea that justice would ultimately be the Black man's in the end was no longer enough. Blacks began to make clear that they were prepared to fight to live and to obtain freedom and self-determination at any cost.
Claude McKay, considered the first poet of the New Negro period, spoke to this new defiance and determination in a poem entitled "If We Must Die", published in 1919.
McKay eloquently asserts that Blacks, when faced with vicious aggression or exploitation, will "face the murderous cowardly pack/ Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back."
As an indication of the new mood of Blacks in the U.S., the poem was very disconcerting to conservative Whites. Senator Henry Cabot Lodge had it read into the Congressional Record in 1922 as evidence of "unsettling currents" running through the Black population.
In Harlem, and across the country, Blacks began arming themselves. Publications such as "The Crisis", "Opportunity", "The Messenger" and "Negro World" increased their circulations significantly during this period. These publications became vehicles of information dissemination for Blacks, and they were read in the Blacks communities in the U.S., the Caribbean, Latin America and in Africa. Published in Harlem, these journals helped to define Black Americans in their own language