Mrs. Holcomb's Class Activities

From  “Harlem Renaissance” by John Carroll University

  It has been argued that the Harlem Renaissance, or the New Negro Movement, is the defining moment in African American literature because of an unprecedented outburst of creative activity among black writers. The importance of this movement to African American literary art lies in the efforts of its writers to exalt the heritage of African Americans and to use their unique culture as a means toward re-defining African American literary expression.

While the Harlem Renaissance began as a series of literary discussions in the lower Manhattan (Greenwich Village) and upper Manhattan (Harlem) sections of New York City, it gained national force when Charles Spurgeon Johnson, editor of Opportunity, the official organ of the National Urban League, encouraged aspiring writers to migrate to New York in order to form a critical mass of young black creative artists. The great migration from rural America, from the Caribbean, and from Africa to northern American cities (such as New York, Chicago, and Washington, D.C.) between 1919 and 1926, in fact, allowed the Harlem Renaissance to become a significant cultural phenomenon. Black urban migration, combined with trends in American society as a whole toward experimentation during the 1920s, and the rise of radical black intellectuals — including Alain Locke, Marcus Garvey, founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), and W. E. B. Du Bois, editor of The Crisis magazine — all contributed to the particular styles and unprecedented success of black artists during this period.

Among the poets, fiction writers, and essayists answering Johnson’s call were Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, Helene Johnson, Zora Neale Hurston, Nella Larsen, and Jean Toomer. Through their artistry, the literature of this period helped to facilitate a transformation from the psychology of the “Old Negro” (characterized by an implied inferiority of the post-Reconstruction era when black artists often did not control the means of production or editorial prerogatives) to the “New Negro” (characterized as self-assertive, racially conscious, articulate, and, for the most part, in charge of what they produced). Landmark texts that marked this transformation and encouraged increased exploration of African American experience through literature included The Book of American Negro Poetry (1922), edited by James Weldon Johnson and The New Negro (1925) by Locke. The short-lived literary magazine Fire!! (1926) also had a significant impact on the literary production because it represented the efforts of younger African American writers (such as Hughes and Hurston) to claim their own creativity apart from older artists (such as DuBois and James Weldon Johnson), as well as to establish autonomy from potential white exploiters.

With greater possibilities for artistic self-determination, the writers of the Harlem Renaissance produced a sizable body of work, often exploring such themes as alienation and marginality. Several writers, including Hughes, Hurston, Larsen, and Toomer relied particularly on the rich folk tradition (oral culture, folktales, black dialect, jazz and blues composition) to create unique literary forms. Other writers, such as Cullen, McKay and Helene Johnson wrote within more conventional literary genres as a way to capture what they saw as the growing urbanity and sophistication of African Americans. The literature of the Harlem Renaissance, therefore, reflects the multiple ways that black experience in America was perceived and expressed in the first decades of the twentieth century.


Sources used:

Trudier Harris-Lopez, “Forward” Harlem Renaissance, Volume I. Janet Witalec, project editor. Farmington Hill, MI: Gale, 2003
     Call and Response: The Riverside Anthology of the African American Literary Tradition. Ed. Patricia Liggins Hill. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1998.

Africana Philosophy and Harlem Renaissance

Introduction: Refinding and Redefining Black Personality

What is known today as professional Africana philosophy has its roots in the search of identity undertaken by black writers in the late 1800s and early 1900s and culminated in the emergence of, on the one hand, a civil rights movement, which sought to remedy the evils of social segregation, political disfranchisement, economic exploitation, and cultural discrimination of the balck people of America, Africa and elsewhere, and, on the other hand, a literary movement whose aim was, in the words of the Kenyan philosopher D. A. Masolo, "to rehabilitate the image of the black man wherever he was" through "the expression of black personality" (D. A. Masolo, African Philosophy in Search of Identity. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994, p. 10). The members of this literary movement, which came later to be known as the Harlem Renaissance in America and the Negritude, its francophone siblings in Europe and the colonies sought to refute the unfounded assumptions of the eurocentrism of Levy-Bruhl, Hegel, Kant, and many others who saw in reason a trait unique to the Anglo-Saxon male thinker. In short, the Harlem Renaissance was a universalist movement whose form was poetry and whose content was pluralism. As D. A. Masolo is right to point out, "This value of pluralism was built around an ontology that accepted diversity or otherness without hierarchial judgments of human worth on the basis of racial and cultural characterisitics" (Idem).

In his Race and Study (Freetown, 1895), Edward Wilmot Blyden defined and described the objectives of the black personality movement, which culminated in the Harlem Renaissance.

"For each one of you-for each one of us-there is a special duty to accomplish, a terribly necessary and important job, a job for the race to which we belong ... there is a responsibility that our personality, our belonging to this race, presupposes.... The duty of every individual and every race is to struggle for its own individuality, to maintain it and develop it.... Therefore honour and love your race for yourselves ... if you are for yourselves, for if you abdicate your personality, you will not have left anything to give to the world. Neither will you be happy nor of any use, and you will have nothing to attract and fascinate other people because with the suppression of your individuality you will also lose your distinctive character. You will also realize then that having abdicated your personality you will also have lost the special duty and glory to which you are called. In truth you will be denying the divine idea-god-and sacrificing the divine individuality; this is the worst type of suicide."



Social & Political Conditions ~



Emancipation ~ A common mistake that is made when viewing the Harlem Renaissance is chronological presentism, the belief that the events leading to the Renaissance were chronologically further past than is actually the case.  One must remember that emancipation came only sixty some years before the beginning of the renaissance, which is commonly viewed as the 1920’s.  Many of the people who participated in the events in Harlem had grandparents and even parents who had been slaves.  Slavery was not far from the minds of people in the country.


The Southern Diaspora ~ One of the main events that precipitated the Harlem Renaissance was the displacement and migration of Southern Blacks from the south to the industrialized north.  Many former slaves left the south looking for work and to escape the institutionalized racism that fueled the southern economy.  Since industrial jobs in the North were abundant and well-paying, many blacks relocated there.  As more people moved into cities, segregation led to the creation of predominantly Black neighborhoods with a culture and identity that was unhindered by the restraints of slavery.  Cities like Chicago, Cleveland, Flint, and especially New York, received large numbers of blacks to work in factories. 

          The abundance of jobs and amalgamation of people into neighborhoods catalyzed the development of areas like Harlem. The proximity of people to each other and the development of neighborhoods allowed many blacks to form their own networks, publications, and organizations. This development of organizational strength would allow for the continued development of cultural and political ideas in Harlem and across the country.

The Politics of Oppression ~ Blacks during the Renaissance probably never felt more free than they did in Harlem.  Malcolm X reminisced in his autobiography, “In one night, New York-Harlem- had just about narcotized me.”  However, throughout the country an atmosphere of institutionalized racism and hatred abounded.  Racism was not only confined to the white community.  Many Blacks in Harlem were under the spell of the West Indian caste system, which has three groups, white, yellow and black.  In-group racism was common in Harlem and still persists to this day.  Marcus Garvey alludes to this system in many of his writings.  While Harlem was as close to heaven as possible as far as freedom from daily racism goes, the rest of the country and especially the South was oppressive and violent.  The case of “The Scottsboro Boys” as it came to be called is especially instructive in viewing this reality.


The Scottsboro Nine

March 25, 1931. Paint Rock, Alabama.  Nine black boys are forced off of a train they had been riding on.  The boys were looking for rumored government work.   Tied to each other with plowshare rope, they are escorted off the train and to a jail in Scottsboro.  Later in the evening a lynch mob consisting of several hundred men surround the jail.  The National Guard is called to protect the boys.  No one who participated in the events of that day could foresee the convictions, reversals, and retrials that would become the “Scottsboro Boys” case.  Over the next twenty years the case would make people famous, launch and end careers, open southern juries to blacks, and change the way the country viewed southern justice.
            First, the crime. The boys were accused by Ruby Bates and Victoria Price of forcibly gang raping them.  Six boys supposedly raped Price and the other three Bates.  The events that led up to the accusation are important.  At some point on the train ride a gang of whites got into a stone throwing fight with a larger group of blacks.  The whites were summarily thrown off the train by the blacks.  The white boys then went to a stationmaster and complained that a gang of blacks had assaulted them.  A posse was formed and the train was stopped at the next station.  The train was searched and all black youths on the train were rounded up.  Two men who escorted Price and Bates then met the Posse, the girls accused the blacks of raping them and Price even identified six of the boys.  The police simply assumed that the other three had raped Bates.  The trial would begin twelve days later.
            The First Trial.  Stephen Roddy and Milo Moody represented the boys in the first trial.  Moody was a senile seventy years old attorney who had not tried a case in twenty years.  Roddy was a real estate attorney who was so drunk on the first day of trial he had a hard time negotiating the walkway to the defense table.  The boys were tried in groups of two or three to avoid a reversible error that might set all nine free.  The defense only offered the testimony of the boys as their defense.  Six boys denied the rape, but three boys admitted raping the girls.  They later claimed that they had been threatened and beaten.  The prosecutor closed the first trial with these words, "Guilty or not, let’s get rid of these niggers.”  The guilty verdict was announced in the first trial while the second trial was still underway.  The jurors could hear the cheers from outside.  After four trials all of the boys had been convicted except 12-year-old Roy Wright who was granted a mistrial since eleven of the twelve jurors wanted the death penalty and the prosecution only sought life imprisonment.
            The leading proponent of Blacks in America the NAACP did not react to the trial in the manner that many expected.  Instead of quickly mounting a legal defense fund the NAACP, with its measured bureaucracy, believed that the case was too incendiary.  Rape by a Black man of a White woman was one of the most unthinkable crimes in the South.  Fearing long-term damage to their cause the NAACP failed to act in a timely manner.  Conversely, the American Communist Party and its legal department the International Labor Defense quickly began to lobby to become the boys legal counsel.  Only when it was clear that the communists would be representing the boys did the NAACP act.  The NAACP was able to persuade Clarence Darrow to represent the boys.  However, it was too late.  The boys threw in their lots with Communists who were “(in the South) treated with only slightly more courtesy than a gang of Rapists.”
          The ILD appealed to the Alabama Supreme Court and in 1932 all but one of the convictions was upheld (Eugene Williams’s, age 13, conviction was overturned by the court citing that he should have been tried as a juvenile.)  The cases then went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which overturned their convictions, 7-2, in the groundbreaking case of Powell V. Alabama.  The Court ruled that the defendants had been deprived of their rights under the fourteenth amendment (Due Process).  The boys had not been entitled to competent legal counsel. All of the boys would be granted new trials.
          The ILD selected Samuel Liebowitz to be lead counsel in the new trials.  Liebowitz was a Jewish criminal attorney from NYC who had attained an astonishing record of seventy-seven acquittals and one hung jury in his career.  He had no prior connection to the Communist party, yet by virtue of his religion was as unpopular in the South as the Communists themselves.  In closing arguments one of the prosecutors suggested that “. . .justice in this case is going to be bought and sold with Jew money from New York.”
          In the trials that followed, five of the boys were convicted again and charges against the remaining four were dropped.  Through parole or by escape all of the boys were out of prison in 1950.