The Harlem Renaissance in the Twenties Produced a Wealth of Black Talent. but What Was Its Legacy and Who Did It Really Benefit?
Stuart, Andrea, New Statesman (1996)
Between the summer of 1918 and the Wall Street Crash in 1929, the Harlem Renaissance did exactly what Aaron Douglas hoped for. In a few short years it created a flowering of black talent that has left an ineradicable cultural legacy.
For some the Renaissance evokes the flourishing of intellectual and artistic output exemplified by writers such as Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, painters such as Aaron Douglas. For others it conjures images of bacchanalia: the long-legged beauties of the Cotton Club and those dark, seedy speak-easies such as the Clam Bake and the Hot Feet, where uptown audiences flocked to be scandalised by the double entendres of singers such as Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey.
In that postwar environment of social and sexual adventure, Harlem could symbolise liberation for black and white alike. In the great migration of African-Americans from the rural south to the cities, the district became a Mecca for streams of black writers, musicians, performers and film-makers, a refuge from the all-pervasive racism of American society.
But those few city blocks were also a playground for affluent whites. Emboldened by bootleg liquor, they turned this little hamlet of New York into their own exotic laboratory, where they could experiment with what was forbidden in their own world, enjoy what they saw as primal and erotic, then leave it behind a few hours later.
The Harlem Renaissance has become so emblematic that it can be hard to separate the myth from the reality. Was this Harlem a place or just a state of mind? Did it really change black cultural life for ever, as some historians claim? Or was it simply a handful of privileged black artists patronised by rich white Afrophiles? And how, if at all, does it connect with the black cultural renaissance of the past two decades: writers such as Toni Morrison and Walter Mosley, dancers like Bill T Jones, musicians such as Wynton Marsalis, or film-makers like Spike Lee?
Certainly today's artists are keen to claim a cultural legacy bridging their work to the heroes of Harlem. Think of the young British film-maker Isaac Julien's movie, entitled Looking for Langston, or Spike Lee's homage to the Harlem jazz era in Mo' Better Blues. But it has also been argued that the Renaissance represented nothing more than a bourgeois playpen, retrospectively endowed with cultural legitimacy by academia and the black middle class. Perhaps we lionise Harlem at the expense of more radical periods, for example, the labour movement of the 1930s and 1940s that spawned Richard Wright, author of The Invisible Man and arguably the greatest African-American novelist.
Indeed Langston Hughes, one of the luminaries of the Harlem Renaissance, admitted at the time: "The ordinary Negro hasn't heard of the Negro Renaissance. And if they had it didn't raise their wages any."
In 1925 the black philosopher Alain Locke published his celebrated essay "The New Negro", which proposed "smashing" all the social and racial impediments that hindered black achievement. Images of this New Negro had already appeared in Within Our Gates, the pioneering movie by the black film-maker Oscar Micheaux. Micheaux presented a whole range of black types, from the educated entrepreneur to the well-dressed hustler, all of whom were pitched against white stereotypes such as the liberal philanthropist and the hardened racist. The Crisis, the monthly magazine of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, was also eager to depict the New Negro, with portrait shots of well-dressed blacks in studio poses, or against the urban backdrop of brownstones and stations.
In his essay Locke urged that "Art must discover and reveal the beauty which prejudice and caricature have overlaid."
This was the achievement of the artists of the Renaissance. Look at Malvin Gray Johnson's painting Negro Soldier, and you see a proud young man in his meticulously maintained first world war uniform. …