The 'New Negro' Legacy of Will Marion Cook

By Griffin, Marva | Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, January 31, 1999 | Go to article overview

The 'New Negro' Legacy of Will Marion Cook


Griffin, Marva, Afro-Americans in New York Life and History


The `New Negro' Legacy of Will Marion Cook

African Americans in the Nineteen Twenties created art, literature, and music in a climate of aesthetic expression which has come to be known as the Harlem Renaissance. Many social and cultural factors helped to foster the environment for this phenomenon. Blacks were changing from rural to city life, and migrating from the South to the North. The Urban League, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and their respective journals, Opportunity and Crisis, boldly articulated their opposition to acts of racial discrimination, while at the same time they encouraged superior artistic creations from the Black Talented Tenth. There was an increased interest in black history which led to the formulation of black historical societies and journals. Positive identification with Africa as the ancestral homeland intensified as Marcus Garvey and his "Back-to-Africa" movement gained momentum. Likewise, Africans began to bond with others of African descent from around the world, creating a climate for Pan-African platforms to address mutual concerns. Moreover, in a society merely two generations from slavery, African Americans were coming of age, exerting positive self-images and revealing themselves more realistically as the New Negroes.

There is no exact year or decade that forms a line of divide distinguishing the Old from the New Negro. Characteristics which seemed to mature in the 1920s actually can be found earlier. For example, during W. E. B. DuBois's undergraduate years at Fisk University from 1885 to 1888, he wrote an article entitled "The New Negro" and submitted it to the Century Magazine for publication. Their response was: "We shall be glad to print `The New Negro' if we may take our time and we are afraid we shall have to take a great deal."(2) They did, and it hasn't been published yet!

"The New Negro" phrase did appear, however, on June 28, 1895 in an article in The Cleveland Gazette which described a class of colored people who had advanced since the Civil War, "with education, refinement and money."(3) This group had been successful in their efforts to secure a New York Civil Rights Law. They aspired to dismantle the Uncle Tom and Mammy-like images, in lieu of ones that were self-assured, racially proud, and demanding of full citizenship. The Old Negro of the southern plantation had begun to move to the northern urban centers, and was being transformed into the New Negro during the process.

Harlem, for example, represented not merely the largest black community in the world, but the first historical concentration of so many diverse elements of people of color. It attracted the African, the West Indian, and the African American. It brought together black Americans from the North with those from the South; those from the city with those from the town and village; it brought together the peasant, the student, and the business man, with the artist, the poet, and the musician.

One such musician who ventured to New York in the 1890s was Will Marion Cook. During the summer of 1898, he and Paul Laurence Dunbar signaled the golden age of black musicals on Broadway with their production of Clorindy, the Origin of the Cakewalk. At the turn of the century, Cook was considered to be "the most original genius" of his contemporaries.(4) Respected for his pioneering achievements in popular songwriting, black musical comedies, and syncopated orchestral music, he dramatically transformed these genres during his musical career.(5)

His life and music exemplified a prototype of the "New Negro," a generation before Alain Locke's edited anthology appeared on that subject in 1925. Cook's black middle-class background, his international exposure, and his musical education in the European and African-American idioms, well prepared him for the role of elevating the Negro's life and music from the old to the new. The means he used included identification with Africa through imagination and Africanisms; a utilization of more realistic and positive images of blacks in song lyrics; and an exertion of a persona of aggression, assertiveness and agitation for the sake of racial equality. …

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