Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

Bonhoeffer's Harlem Renaissance

Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

Bonhoeffer's Harlem Renaissance

Article excerpt

During his 1930-31 fellowship at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer joined his African American classmate Albert Fisher as a regular attendee at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem.

WHEN BONHOEFFER entered Harlem with Fisher, he met a counternarrative to the white racist fiction of black subhumanity. The New Negro movement radically redefined the public and private characterization of black people. A seminal moment in African American history had arrived, and all of Bonhoeffer's descriptions of his involvement in African American life during his Sloane Fellowship year occurred during this critical movement. He turned 25 that February. Bonhoeffer was experiencing that critical moment in African American history while he was still young and impressionable.

The New Negro, a book containing a collection of essays, was edited by one of the leading intellectual architects of the movement, Alain Locke. The New Negro, as Locke and his authors appropriated the term, described the embrace of a contradictory, assertive black selfimage in Harlem to deflect the negative, dehumanizing historical depictions of black people. The New Negro made demands, not concessions: "demands for a new social order, demands that blacks fight back against terror and violence, demands that blacks reconsider new notions of beauty, demands that Africa be freed from the bonds of imperialism." Bonhoeffer knew the movement by the descriptor New Negro, but James Weldon Johnson preferred to describe the movement as the Harlem Renaissance ... as a rebirth of black people rather than something completely new. ...

Bonhoeffer entered Harlem and connected with new friends and ministry partners. He shared their disdain for the injustices leveled against their people, and he could empathize with their demands for dignity, as Germany hoped for a rebirth of their own dignity after the international humiliation associated with World War I. …

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