Reading the Harlem Renaissance into Public Policy: Lessons from the Past to the Present

Article excerpt

Harlem. 1917. Music bursting from the seams, the wondrous sounds of Cab Calloway's "scat" singing, and the majestic melody of Duke Ellington and his Cotton Club orchestra. The cool crisp air is almost perfectly aligned to the tunes of the jazz that captivates the night air.

Lights, camera, action--The "Queen of Happiness," Florence Mills takes center stage at the Alhambra Theater on Seventh Avenue for her performance in the musical Blackbirds while Anita Bush's, The Lafayette Players, the first African American acting company, prepares its 300 performers for the stage.

At a small outdoor cafe, straddled alongside broad sidewalks and newly constructed homes, amidst the sounds of voices and the echoes of the city, sit four brightly colored chairs, each in its own lavish raiment. Here we see Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Claude McKay sharing a literary moment, a moment that would eventually develop into a profound cultural and artistic expression, a decade of prominent and expressive publications by African Americans, the Harlem Renaissance.

The Harlem Renaissance is a product of African American culture and history, as Gates and McKay describe it as "the irresistible impulse of blacks to create boldly expressive art of a high quality as a primary response to their social conditions, as an affirmation of their dignity and humanity in the face of poverty and racism." (1) This period represents the beauty, strength, and intelligence of an oppressed people. (2) The term "renaissance" is used by historians to characterize some moment when a culture, once dormant, has been reawakened. It is during this time that the world saw a plethora of publications by African American authors, including Countee Cullen's Color, whose work became the first African American book of prose to be published by a major American publishing house, as well as Jean Toomer's Cane, which is a book of fiction published by DoubleDay. These works follow the poetic and artistic approaches of Claude McKay, a Jamaican-born immigrant to the United States, who is believed to be the first major poet of the Harlem Renaissance. The ability of Claude McKay to become one of the most prominent figures of the Harlem Renaissance speaks to the systematic conditions of racism and discrimination that linked black people all over the world. French-speaking blacks were uniting themselves with the Negritude movement while the British West Indies saw an explosion of literary achievements, especially through the literary work of Derek Walcott.

Yet, there was something about Harlem, New York, that made the renaissance become one of the most acclaimed literary and artistic movements in the history of the United States. Harlem, per se, and its strategic location as the home of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association, W.E.B. Du Bois' Crisis and other prominent literary, cultural, and political magazines and newspapers, and jazz legends such as Bessie Smith, Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington, was a haven for black folks, or as the title of the March 1925 issue of Survey Graphic proclaimed, "Harlem: Mecca of the New Negro." The subtitle was designated by Alain Locke, whose later work, The New Negro, is said to be the text that actually launched the Harlem Renaissance. Although later criticized for some of his decisive editorial judgments as editor of The New Negro, Locke's work helped to propel the idea that a cultural awakening, a new spirit, was emerging among African Americans in Harlem. Locke viewed the Harlem Renaissance as a "belief in the efficacy of collective effort in race co-operation." (3)

The goal of this collective effort was to use art as a vehicle for knowledge, understanding, and change. In his pivotal work, The New Negro: Voices of the Harlem Renaissance, Locke makes the distinction between the "Old Negro" and the "New Negro. …