ical EnvironmentThe Harlem Renaissance emerged during turbulent times for the world, the United States, and black Americans. World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 had left the world in disorder and stimulated anticolonial movements throughout the third world. In America, twenty years of progressive reform ended with the red scare, race riots, and isolationism throughout 1919 and led to conservative administrations through the twenties. While blacks were stunned by racial violence near the end of the decade and were frustrated by the lack of racial progress that progressivism had made, they were now armed with new civil rights organizations and confronted the approaching decade with new hope and determination. Education and employment opportunities had led to the development of a small black middle class. Few blacks thought that their future lay in the economically depressed rural South and hundreds of thousands migrated to seek prosperity and opportunity in the North. As these more educated and socially conscious blacks settled into New Yorks neighborhood of Harlem, it developed into the cultural and political center of black America.
The 1910s also marked the rising of a political agenda advocating racial equality throughout the black community, especially in the growing black middle class. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), founded to fight for the rights of blacks, and black sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois pushed the agenda. Black nationalist Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Associations efforts also reflected the agenda and helped to inspire racial pride among working class blacks in the 1920s. This decade would bear witness to the long struggle against political disenfranchisement in the South and a change from traditional black political alignments in the North. Feminists too, having achieved victory in their campaign for suffrage, still faced more subtle obstacles on their road to equality. In addition, the ghettoization of American cities, the persistence of poverty in the midst of prosperity, and the disproportionate involvement of blacks in both of these processes challenged perceptions about the effectiveness of the American system.1 In 1926, professor Alain Locke observed, The younger generation is vibrant with a new psychology. which was shown by a shift from social disillusionment to race pride. Locke noted that this new psychology rejected the old stereotypes of black aunties, uncles, and mammies and substituted instead self-respect, self-dependence, and racial unity.2 Emerging from social and intellectual upheaval, the Harlem Renaissance marked a change in the attitude of blacks in the United States. While the Harlem Renaissance was not a political movement, its participants were affected by the political world around them and responded in varying ways to their political environment.
Perhaps the most direct way that black writers addressed political issues was through political and protest writings. Claude McKays 1919 sonnet If We Must Die expressed his anger toward the race riots of 1919 and urged blacks to respond with violence when confronted with force, working against the odds and gaining dignity through their struggles. He writes, Like men well face the murderous pack, / Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!3 Similarly, Langston Hughes made protest a significant element in his works, especially in his somewhat radical poetry of the early 1930s. Because I am the white mans son, his own / Bearing his bastard birth-mark on my face, / I will dispute his title to the throne, / Forever fight him for my rightful place.4 wrote Hughes in his poem Mulatto. Throughout his poetry, he directly and indirectly referred to vigorous hatred for the white man, of his peoples dreams deferred too long. He used literature to protest the inequality faced by blacks nationwide. James Weldon Johnson too made early efforts to focus the talents of young writers on protest poetry and some of his literature directly addresses political issues through protest. In his poem Fifty Years, for example, he wrote,Then should we speak but servile words,Or shall we hang our heads in shame?Stand back of new-come foreign hordes,And fear our heritage to claim?No! stand erect and without fear,And for our foes let this suffice–Weve bought a rightful sonship here,And we have more than paid the price.5Fortunately for the breadth and quality of black writing during this period, the Harlem Renaissance was not by any means limited to protest poetry. However, the theme of protest is almost universal in that virtually every writer in the movement produced several protest pieces. Thus, one clear response to the political environment at the time of the Harlem Renaissance was direct protest.
A number of individuals associated with the Harlem Renaissance believed that black literature could be used as a key weapon in the fight for civil rights. James Weldon Johnson, for instance, said, I can conceive of nothing that will go further to raise the status of the Negro in America than the work done by great Aframerican sic creative artists. in lectures he presented at Howard University. Black literature, in his mind, became the means to a political end. Art would be the most effective solution to the race problem in America. Interestingly enough, he later said that he was convinced that Ethel Warren singing Summertime did more to change the attitudes of a prejudiced person than any political essay, further emphasizing his belief in the effectiveness of art in combating racism.6 W. E. B. Du Bois, another black writer and intellectual of the time, was affected by the political environment in much the same way. Above all aesthetics he held the propaganda value of art. In addition, his perception of the situation led him to believe that deflecting black literature away from ghetto realism was justified. He felt that the race could benefit more by focusing on the achievements of the black middle class than on the more unseemly side of the black experience. This led to his praise of the novels of female black writer Jessie Fauset, which told of the more educated class of blacks, and his sharp criticism of novels such as Nigger Heaven and their exploration of Harlems seamy underbelly.
Even if the concept of protest poetry was not a dominant literary form during the Harlem Renaissance, that certainly does not indicate that most black writers were blind to their political environment. Rather, this simply indicates that black writers chose to address political concerns through more subtle means. Most pervasive throughout the Renaissance were the themes of race consciousness and racial pride. Countee Cullens poetry, seemingly lyrical in nature, demonstrated this quality. He demonstrated his perception of the racial situation in America while not turning to direct protest. His bitter sonnet From a Dark Tower, expressed that. Not everlastingly while others sleep / Shall we beguile their limbs with mellow flute, / Not always bend to some more subtle brute / We were not made eternally to weep.7 He extolled African American creative energies balked and discounted because of race discrimination.8 Marcus Garveys writings during the Renaissance as well reflected the common theme of racial pride, an attitude which he carried into his directorship of the UNIA. In one of his essays, Garvey wrote, We who make up the Universal Negro Improvement Association have decided that we will go forward, upward and onward toward the great goal of human liberty. We have determined among ourselves that all barriers placed in the way of our progress must be removed, must be cleared away for we desire to see the light of a brighter day Men of other races and nations have become alarmed at this attitude of the Negro to do things for himself and by himself.9Bold expression of the pride and dignity of African-American was a nearly universal theme in black literature of the period, as black writers refused to have the Negro labeled as a beggar at the gates of the nation waiting to be thrown the crumbs of civilization.10A major link between the Harlem Renaissance and politics can be found by looking at how major black rights organizations reacted to political issues of the 1920s and early 1930s. Crisis, the periodical of the NAACP, edited by Du Bois, and Opportunity, the journal of the National Urban League (NUL), edited by Charles S. Johnson. Both publications spoke out on political issues of the time that affected black Americans. Opportunity chronicled the long struggle against black disenfranchisement in the South, discussing at length events such as the legal struggle against the white primary in Texas. The NUL also gave much support to blacks trying to seek national political office. Near the end of the 1920s, Crisis described a five-pronged political agenda that it would pursue. These included the continuation of the struggle against residential segregation in Southern cities and against the white primary in Texas, combating school segregation in the North and the segregation of government workers in the nations capital, improving the image of blacks by countering false reports of black violence and rioting, eliminating legal barriers against interracial marriage, and taking the struggle for civil rights into the South itself.11 Thus, the periodical took a firm stand against the injustices faced by blacks in the United States and helped to set the stage for the Civil Rights Movement in the middle of the 20th century. The major difference between the two periodicals was that while Opportunity tended to focus more on the alignment of black Americans within the traditional two party system while Crisis often told black voters to look not inside the two major parties, but rather to third parties for candidates which would best advance the African American political agenda. Du Bois, for instance wrote in one issue of Crisis in 1924, I shall vote for LaFollette.12 as an indication of his support for the Progressive candidate for President over the two major parties. The latter provided a forum for Socialist and Communist candidates, as well as for Republicans and Democrats. Certainly, however, neither publication can truly be considered radical in that the issues they pursued were well in the American political mainstream. Far more radical than either were the flirtations of several Harlem Renaissance writers with revolutionary communism.
The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 drew cheers from many black Americans who were thrilled to see a revolutionary organization pledged to racial and ethnic equality and proletariat brotherhood rise up and seize control. Seeing an opportunity to build a strong foundation on black Americans, the Communist Party of the United States pledged itself to encourage social interaction and intermarriage as a movement policy.13 The organization proclaimed that African Americans had the right to self-determination in the South. Although the movement never really took hold or was able to sustain itself in America, two black writers were angered by racial problems in the United States and enticed by the organizations pledge to uphold equality. Claude McKay, while spending time as a member of the International Socialist Club, became increasingly intrigued by the ideas of Marxism. He talked with many radicals of New York and London and found Mark to be more of a scholar than a revolutionary. In Travail, an essay that appeared in Workers Dreadnought in January of 1920, an English communist newsletter, McKay claimed that international communism represented the grandest purpose, noblest path of life. In April of the same year, at the height of his commitment to communism, McKay submitted Song of the New Soldier and Worker to the publication, a poem which declared,O pull the thing to pieces! O, wreck it all and smashWith the power and the will that only hate can give;Even though our broken bodies may be caught in the crash Even so that unborn children may live. 14McKay worked in New York as an associate editor on The Liberator, a leftist journal. His works consistently reflect commitment to the black proletariat, although the vast majority cannot be considered Marxist. After visiting the Soviet Union, however, and discovering how Soviet Communism treated art and artists, he separated himself from the movement and, in his later years, became an outspoken critic of communism. Just as McKays revolutionary enthusiasm was withdrawn in later years, his counterparts communist fervor eventually changed to disillusionment.
Langston Hughes, like Claude McKay, was never an official member of the Communist Party. Hughes, however, continued to support communism and defend the USSR through the 1940s. Hughes too focused much of his effort into describing the life and experience of the black masses. He believed that social and racial problems were closely related to class conflicts, and that racial prejudice was only a manifestation of capitalism. In the early 1930s, a radical tone was pervasive in many of his works, especially in his volume of poetry entitled A New Song. One of the poems in the collection, for example, called for workers to rally in revolution with the wordsBetter that my blood makes one with the bloodOf all the struggling workers of the world Until the Red Armies of the International ProletariatTheir faces, black, white, olive, yellow, brown,Unite to raise the blood-red flag thatNever will come down! 15While visiting the Soviet Union, Hughes acknowledged the problems the nation faced in letters written back to the United States, but also claimed that he had not seen any traces of segregation or racial prejudice. He then, for a time, began to share the view that literature needed to be viewed in terms of its potential political gain. He wrote that, Writers who have the power to use words in terms of belief and action are responsible to that power.16 Hughes began to insist that writers have to demonstrate an awareness of the social and political realities with which they have to live and to take full advantage of the power and effect that their literature may have. Like McKay, he ultimately rejected Communism because of the absence of literary freedom that he observed. He proceeded to express publicly his disillusionment with communism and loyalty to the United States. Still, as with McKay, one must recognize that the political ideology of communism significantly impacted his works and ideas for a time.
Communism was not the only political issue that affected Harlem Renaissance writers. Feminism too exerted a real, though commonly subtle influence on several female participants in the Renaissance. Women had a harder time finding patronage, support, and publishers for their literary works. As a result, those who survived the process and were able to publish literature often introduced themes dealing with the role of women in black America and the limits confronting females in the 1920s and 1930s. Not only did these women have to deal with racial prejudices, but also with the sexual prejudices of men. Jessie Fauset, for instance, portrayed women who were decisive and who had control over their own lives as ideal role models. In her 1929 novel Plum Bun, Fauset used a character, Paulette, who supported a new approach to life for women. At one point, the woman says, There is a great deal of the man about me. Ive learned that a woman is a fool who lets her femininity stand in the way of what she wants.17 Fauset was not a feminist, but rather, felt obligated to acknowledge the fact that society of the time was restricting women. Nella Larsen, another Renaissance writer, used hopeless, powerless females to express her point that one who embraces passive femininity becomes essentially dead. In her novel Quicksand, for instance, the main character, Helga, Larsen chronicled the womans search for happiness and fulfillment. Instead of achieving these, however, Helga found herself ensnared in a relationship and a religion that forced her to manifest her feminine characteristics. Thus, the woman lost control of her life and ended up in mental quagmire. The third principal female writer of the Harlem Renaissance, Zora Neale Hurston, also addressed feminism in her work. In her most important piece, the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston wrote of strong women who overcame the obstacles that were placed in their path by life. She too acknowledged the situation that black women faced in that period through one of her characters. The grandmother of the main character observed, De white man throw down the load and tell de nigger man tuh pick it up. He pick it up because he have to, but he dont tote it. He had it to the womenfolks. De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so far as Ah can see sic.18 The novel focused mainly on the relationship of the main character, Janie, with each of her three husbands. The strength and endurance that the woman presented demanded respect. She ultimately defied the conventions of the community, asserted herself, and did not allow herself to be treated as an object. Through the character, Hurston criticized the idea that women were not to be considered equal partners and relationships. All three female writers addressed the situation of black females in the United States through different portrayals. Their words may have been subtle, but their message that women were unfairly restricted by society is perfectly clear. Harlem Renaissance writers could simply not ignore their political environment. Through his literature, however, each was able to recognize the situation at hand and often to react to it, although the precise degree of and means by which the writers connected to their political world varied. However, by looking at just a small sampling of the literature of the Harlem Renaissance, one must conclude that the politics of the time could not help but have an effect on the Renaissance literature. The racial situation in America and the turbulence that characterized the period of the Harlem Renaissance influenced the participants in the movement and affected the works that were produced. This may not have been a political movement, but as is the case with many literary movements, the effect of political environment on writings is undeniably present.
Endnotes1 Wintz, Cary D, Black Culture and the Harlem Renaissance, (Houston, Rice University Press, 1988), 191.
2 Locke, Alain, Foreword, in The New Negro, ed., Alain Locke (NY: Atheneum, 1969), xvii.
3 McKay, Claude, If We Must Die, in The Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader, ed, David Levering Lewis (NY: Viking Penguin, 1994), 290.
4 Hughes, Langston, Mulatto, in The Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader, ed, David Levering Lewis (NY: Viking Penguin, 1994), 263.
5 Johnson, James Weldon, Fifty Years, in The Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader, ed, David Levering Lewis (NY: Viking Penguin, 1994), 288.
6 Wintz, Cary D, Black Culture and the Harlem Renaissance, 262.
7 McKay, Claude, From a Dark Tower, in ibid., 191.
8 ibid., 289.
9 Garvey, Marcus, The Future as I See It, in ibid., 21.
10 Wintz, Cary D, Black Culture and the Harlem Renaissance, 24.
11 ibid., 193.
12 Du Bois, W. E. B., How Shall We Vote, in Crisis, October 1924, 247.
13 Wintz, Cary D, Black Culture and the Harlem Renaissance, 194.
14 McKay, Claude, Song of the New Soldier and Worker, in ibid., 198.
15 Hughes, Langston, A New Song, in ibid., 203.
16 ibid., 204.
17 Fauset, Jessie Redmon, Plum Bun: A Novel Without a Moral, (New York, Frederick A. Stokes, 1965), 101.
18 Hurston, Zora Neale, Their Eyes Were Watching God, (Greenwich, CT: Fawcett Publications, 1969), 16.
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