Slave Culture and the Harlem Renaissance:
Finding a Home in Modernism
For years scholars have noted the importance in history of the African- Americans from the time of the Atlantic slave trade, even up to current culture and entertainment. As prominent as the slave trade is taught within the schools and the education systems, there has been little noted in the history classes about the art and literature of that time period for African-Americans. However, in spite of the little we know of the arts that defined the people and the culture as far as the antebellum slave history goes, one primary source that offers outsiders a glimpse into any culture is the music. As far as the history of African-Americans and their cultural music goes, slaves were known for their “call and response” songs. These songs were part of the culture as religious and spiritual songs, songs to help the slaves get through their work load when tired, and even at times a form of banter and of course, for entertainment. In instances of chopping wood or husking corn, planting or plowing fields, these songs often had rhythm that went along with the labor tasks of the slaves. Some slaves that worked in more solo situations, such as a kitchen in their master’s home, would sing songs that had a more defined sense of individuality and personal lyrics. According to Margaret Niehaus-Sauter, “individual work songs often contained more dramatic and personal lyrics. Thus, very often, slaves sang while working, to provide either a good beat for their work or encouragement during the exhausting labor.”
There is no doubt that slaves had their personal motivation for the use of music in their culture, but it is important to identify the artistic quality in this aspect of their culture as well. It was from such roots that many believe the early poets, writers, artists and musicians of the Harlem Renaissance arose from. The deep passion of the African-American soul, along with the struggles and experiences that that came along with the Atlantic Slave trade proved as in important Segway into the arts of the Harlem Renaissance. The Harlem Renaissance gave validation for the African-American artists in their work as never before, and was a door of opportunity for many. Although it is difficult to find much poetry that was written and published by slaves prior to that time, many certainly began coming out of the woodworks post-civil war as the African-American slaves began gaining their freedom and moving up toward the North. In Harlem, these men and woman began to flourish as artists. As art in the Harlem Renaissance began to be more prominent, many of these black men and women soon found a home within the Modernist movements and genres. Looking at the roots of the music, the spirituals and call and response songs, many Modernist characteristics were evident even then. The labor songs found the individual rhythm of the Modernists in the beat of the labor as the slaves would go about their work. The lyrics of these songs also carried a universality about them that appealed to the “common” man, or at least the common black man of their times, along with capturing a felt experience of the psychology of these slaves. That being said, it’s not too difficult to see how the poetry that began being published during the Renaissance also carried many of the characteristics of Modernism. Among the earlier black poets that helped spur the arts from the slave culture into the Harlem Renaissance and into the Modern realms were Phyllis Wheatly and Paul Lawrence Dunbar who’s verse in many ways echoes the traditional Romantic styles as far as rhyme schemes goes and the format or structure of the poems. Yet when it came down to the content, the poems embodied the early African- American experience in such a way that only one who was a member of the slave lifestyle could. As Alain Locke put it: “Such a writer, to succeed in a big sense, would have to forget that there are white...
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