Birth of a New Identity: Harlem Renaissance Arts and Literature

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The greatest outburst of arts, music, poetry, literature in order to resist the inequality (racism) from which Black people suffered, led to a movement in the 1920s (which lasted up to the 1940s) called the Harlem Renaissance. This movement is also called the “New Negro Movement” from which the African-Americans got their identity. If we look back a little before the 1920s, the African-Americans used to live in the countryside of the South part of America. In the south the Black people were dehumanized and treated like livestock. They toiled day in and day out like animals. The third world class people, the African-Americans, escaped slavery by migrating to the northern part of America.

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Besides slavery, there were lots of other push and pull factors which forced them to migrate. One of the push factors was the rise of the Klu Klux Klan, the KKK. They wanted racial exclusion by excluding the Blacks. Their organization was known as a social organization but in reality, they terrorized the Blacks. They used to overtake the Black people and kill them brutally. Another push factor for “the Great Migration” was severe drought and flood. The political oppression like “Jim Crow Laws” and “Sundown Town” also served to be a push factor that drew them out to the south. According to these laws, there was a racial separation between the Whites and the Blacks. For example – in the restroom there were two sections where one was reserved for the Whites and the other for the colored people.

Additionally, there was an invasion of Boll weevil (a kind of insect) by which their cultivated crops were affected badly. Christian in his article “An African-Centered Perspective on White Supremacy,” says that “[e]ven African Americans who find themselves in a middle class status are not immune to the realities of white supremacy and racism. Studies continue to show that there is correlation between being of African descent and middle class and suffering racialized discrimination (Feagin & Sikes, 1994)” (183). The pull factor that drew them to the north was the industrialization of the North, to earn political rights, their singularity and solidarity, their hope to get a good life. There were almost 6 million black people who migrated to the North.

This historical mass migration is known as “The Great Migration.” They started their movement in a place named Harlem. It was the gathering of African-American’s cultural renovation to create a new identity. At that time leadership had grown and through their literature advocacy (prose, poetry, Jazz music, arts, fashion different styles of dance) they attracted the general Black people, pulling the trigger for the people to take active part in this movement by which they would get social and political justice, equality and so on. Harlem used to be called the “Black Mecca.” Here, “mecca” signifies a great gathering of people where everyone has the same mentality. Harlem Renaissance is not only a rebellion to get equality. It also brought out the new identity of the African-Americans in the recognition of world history.

The Harlem renaissance is considered as a regeneration of African-American culture, which was fruitful in terms of poetry, art, music. Specifically, poetry of Harlem Renaissance had flourished in a very extensive way. Some of the prominent Harlem poets are – Langston Hughes, Louise Armstrong, Countee Cullen, Jean Toomer, Anne Spencer and so on. Their writing styles of poetry created revolutionary changes among the Negro culture. It brought new philosophical ideas which helped African American people to live better by broadening their mindsets.The foundation for creating a new identity for the black population hinged on three things. One was the awareness of personal values. Another was their newly found confidence. The third element was the search for respect and appreciation from others. Literature contains the painful history of slavery, fear, anxiety, dark history that the Negro suffered along with the hope for freedom, unity, personality of the Negro, lifestyle and many more things.

Not only America but also their culture got a new identity in the world. It also destroyed the strict language rules in literature and established a modern, easier, writing style of poetry. The new identity of new Negro has essentially three main distinctions: music, language, fashion sense. African-American literature is itself a matter of creating a new identity for the African Americans. The significant identity markers that accentuated the birth of a new identity of African Americans through arts and literature are – Jazz music, simple language and revolutionary fashion trend.The contribution of Jazz poetry is one of the most significant identity markers, which ran “The New Negro” movement successfully. A new literary genre developed which combines poetry and musicality together, called Jazz poetry. This is a form of poetry with the form being similar to Jazz notes. Jazz poems have a variety of forms, sounds, and rhythm just like jazz songs. In this modern era, it is known as hip hop music.

Langston Hughes was a well-known Harlem leader to take up his pen against slavery. He is also known as a blues musician. He wrote his poems and gave a rhythm to it, which appeared as music notes.Hughes’ “Trumpet Player” was an inspiring poem for the African-Americans by which they got energy to get their own identity even though the tough time they went through. Hughes introduces the identity of the speaker in the very first line – “[t]he Negro,” who is a trumpet player. While playing his trumpet he imagines his dark past where he has gone through racial segregation, and it is like a “dark moon of weariness” which still startles him.

“The Negro” alludes to escape from the “slave ships” where he and his people went through a lot of trouble to escape slavery by migrating to the north. Though they are very “vibrant” which figuratively shows their energetic, potentially rich race, the clothes they wear are not their own property; these are “patent-leathered”. They are “tamed down” and so that there is no scope to hone their talents; they are being subjugated. The music he sings is like “honey” that is very precious and is “mixed with liquid fire distilled from old desire” – meaning the previous ambition the Blacks had is still there. At the time of playing the trumpet he feels “longing for the moon, where the moonlight’s but a spotlight.” Here, “moon” refers to their free life which is very vast for them but is also very distant. Their desire is enormous but what they got after migrating to the north is negligible in comparison. Music lodge into their heart and when they play music, they get relief from their burden. Hughes metaphorically says “It’s hypodermic needle to his soul but softly as the tune comes from his throat trouble mellows to a golden note”. Louise Armstrong was a trumpeter and a figurehead of Harlem Renaissance. He also established Jazz poetry.

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