It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Harlem Swing: Social Dance and the Harlem Renaissance

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It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Harlem Swing: Social Dance and the Harlem Renaissance

Blacktown crawled with white people, with pimps, prostitutes, bootleggers, with hustlers of all kinds, with colorful characters, and with police and prohibition agents. Negroes danced like they never have anywhere before or since.

Carl Van Vechten, Nigger Heaven


In the decade following the Harlem Renaissance, Howard University professor and literary critic Alain Locke attempted to define what contribution black (or at the time Negro) people had made to American culture.(2) He claims in his article, "The Negro's Contribution To American Culture," that the focal point of this debate centers on the application of racial characteristics to artistic undertakings. "What makes a work of art Negro, its theme or its idiom? What constitutes a `Negro contribution to culture,' its authorship or its cultural base? Is there or should there be any such set of categories in our critical thinking or our creative living?"(3)

Although many used the industries of black artistic expression and literature as a tool to overcome racial degradation, Locke proclaims that the very setting aside and titling of a product as "Negro" is enough to denigrate it, and relegate it to second class standing. This would thus contribute to "a sequel of minority status, and an unfortunate by-product of racial discrimination and prejudice."(4) The author claims that these categories should not exist because there is no difference between the majority and the minority, and that the continuation of classification does not promote the cause of black liberation. In fact, he declares that artistic freedom is stifled because artists are forced to conform to a certain set of criteria that high-lighted the blackness of their endeavor. "Consistently applied it [categorizing] would shut the minority art up in a spiritual ghetto and deny vital and unrestricted creative participation in the general culture."(5)

Locke admits that most African American initiatives, namely in music and dance, are usually in time absorbed by the mainstream population where they lose some their vitality for acceptance by a larger audience. The contributions made in these two realms are also the most distinctively (and thus African) different from typical American (European-influenced) fare. "The Negro cultural music and dance,...[has] in rhythm, the tempo and the emotional overtones [the most distinguishing] of almost any typically Negro version of other cultural art forms."(6) Furthermore, the concept of Negro as it applied to the black of US affiliation was in itself classified according to what part of the country one resided. Additionally, the American black was part of the worldwide African dispersion of peoples who have some traits in common and others that are clearly particular to location. In this distinction, Locke should have realized that he was not supporting his point of the African Americans continuum of American culture contributions, but that certain traits would have been influenced by their African affiliation whether recognized by the artist or not. It would be these slight variations such as the "creative vitality and versatility, this contagious dominance seems in so many cases to be a characteristic trait of the Negro cultural product,"(7) that precisely make the work African, or African American in this case, and is its most pronounced point of distinction which characterizes it as being separate, or different, from that of the European American.

Despite his own analysis which supports the contrary, he still contends that in other areas, like literature and visual art, that black expression is generally influenced by trends in the larger American culture. He points to a time, before 1890, when black expression was generally an imitation of white, and that any particular racial element was wholeheartedly discouraged. …


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