Black Culture and the Harlem Renaissance

By Cary D. Wintz | Go to book overview

9
Literature and Politics

T he Harlem Renaissance emerged during turbulent political times for the world, for the United States, and for black Americans. World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution had left the world in turmoil and provided stimulus for the anticolonial movements that would take root throughout the third world. In the United States two decades of progressive reform had ended in the often vicious reaction of 1919 -- the red scare, the race riots, and the isolationism -- which led to the political retrenchment of the twenties under generally conservative Republican administrations. Frustrated by a general lack of racial progress under the progressives, stunned by racial violence during and following the war, but armed with new civil rights organizations, blacks confronted the decade with new determination. The twenties would witness the beginning of a long, legal struggle against political disenfranchisement in the South, and a reevaluation of traditional black political alignments in the North. At the same time feminists, flush with victory in their long struggle for suffrage, faced more subtle and less dramatic obstacles to their quest for equality. Finally, 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. While the Harlem Renaissance was not a political movement, its participants were affected by the political world around them and reacted in varying ways to their political environment.

The most obvious way that black writers addressed political issues was through political and protest writings. Claude McKay, for example, expressed his anger toward the race riots of 1919 in his sonnet, "If We Must Die," and urged blacks to meet violence with violence, defying the odds and gaining dignity in their struggle: "Like men we'll face the murderous, cowardly pack, / Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!" James Weldon Johnson, in poems like "Fifty Years," Langston Hughes, especially in his radical poetry of the early 1930s, and Arna Bontemps in "A"

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