by William R. Nash
The term ‘‘Harlem Renaissance’’ refers to the efﬂorescence of African-American cultural production that occurred in New York City in the 1920s and early 1930s. One sometimes sees Harlem Renaissance used interchangeably with ‘‘New Negro Renaissance,’’ a term that includes all African Americans, regardless of their location, who participated in this cultural revolution. Followers of the New Negro dicta, which emphasized blacks’ inclusion in and empowerment by American society, were undeniably spread throughout the nation, and most major cities had pockets of the African-American elite that W. E. B. Du Bois dubbed the ‘‘Talented Tenth.’’ Nevertheless, New York City was, arguably, the most crucial site of this movement’s development and Harlem was its nexus. The early years of the Harlem Renaissance coincided with the heyday of the Great Migration, the mass movement of African Americans from southern rural homes into major northern cities during and immediately following World War I. Blacks left the South in record numbers to escape oppression and to take advantage of urban economic opportunities. In places like Detroit and Chicago, this meant jobs in automobile manufacturing, steel, and meatpacking. In Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s (1995), Ann Douglas argues that in New York City, which lacked heavy industry, the main capital that migrants could accrue was cultural. This era did see a marked increase in output by AfricanAmerican writers, visual artists, and musicians in New York City; this sparked interest in black culture, especially among upper-middle-class white New Yorkers, who came uptown to ‘‘experience’’ black life. Their cultural tourism led to signiﬁcant relationships between black artists and whites like Carl Van Vechten, who sought to promote their work. It also sustained nightclubs like the Cotton Club, a whites-only club where blacks were the staff and the entertainment. The Cotton Club, where the ﬂoorshows often portrayed blacks as primitives, expanded opportunities for individual artists who performed there. In some senses, it also limited the black community through its emphasis on blacks’ exoticism and otherness. The nightclub’s example demonstrates the complexity of assessing this crucial moment in the evolution of AfricanAmerican culture, as it suggests the intricate relationships between aesthetics and racial politics that have long plagued black Americans. As Harlem Renaissance artists articulated individual and collective visions of black identity, they were beset by conﬂicting demands that they use their art either to distance themselves from or bind themselves to white American culture. THE DEBATE OVER ‘‘NEGRO ART’’
Perhaps the most famous examples of these conﬂicts came in a pair of essays that appeared in consecutive issues of The Nation in 1926: George Schuyler’s ‘‘Negro-Art Hokum’’ and Langston Hughes’s ‘‘The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain.’’ In the ﬁrst, Schuyler argues that aside ‘‘from his color, which ranges from very dark brown to pink, your American Negro is just plain American.’’ For artists, this assertion assumes a uniformity of work based on commonality of inﬂuence; in Schuyler’s view, black artists cannot vary substantially from their white peers. As a result, claims to some sort of uniquely racial creative perspective are specious at best. As Jeffrey B. Leak notes in Rac(e)ing to the Right: Selected Essays of George S. Schuyler (2001), this position presages the commentary of Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray, and like them, Schuyler leaves himself open to accusations of assimilationism, charges that led many students of the period to overlook him and his adherents in their study of the period. In contrast, Hughes argues the uniqueness of AfricanAmerican culture and a corresponding need for blacks to cultivate a sense of racial pride. He describes ‘‘the mountain standing in the way of any true Negro art in...
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