The African American Intellectual of the 1920s: Some Sociological Implications of the Harlem Renaissance

By Perry, Robert L.; Peters, Melvin T. | Ethnic Studies Review, October 31, 1996 | Go to article overview

The African American Intellectual of the 1920s: Some Sociological Implications of the Harlem Renaissance


Perry, Robert L., Peters, Melvin T., Ethnic Studies Review


This paper deals with some of the sociological implications of a major cultural high-water point in the African American experience, the New Negro/Harlem Renaissance. The paper concentrates on the cultural transformations brought about through the intellectual activity of political activists, a multi-genre group of artists, cultural brokers, and businesspersons. The driving-wheel thrust of this era was the reclamation and the invigoration of the traditions of the culture with an emphasis on both the, African and the American aspects, which significantly impacted American and international culture then and throughout the 20th century. This study examines the pre-1920s background, the forms of Black activism during the Renaissance, the modern content of the writers' work, and the enthusiasm of whites for the African American art forms of the era. This essay utilizes research from a multi-disciplinary body of sources, which includes sociology, cultural history, creative literature and literary criticism, autobiography, biography, and journalism.

There were many forces at play from the beginning of the 20th century through the World War, the 1920s, and into the early 1930s that assisted in the emergence of the Harlem Renaissance School of Artists and which encouraged and sustained the growth and vitality of their works, providing wider acceptance for African American cultural subjects than previously possible. Crucial factors in the development of the New Negro era were the vicious racism that ended America's first experiment with living on a democratic basis with African Americans and resulted in the Great Migration (which brought millions of people and their cultural tastes and artistic skills into urban centers of the North), the wide variety of black political activists who sought to organize and direct the newly urbanized masses and the cultural renaissance, the modern content of the writing of the era, and the European and Euro-American enthusiasm for Black artistry. Due to America's tragic legacy of mono-cultural education and cultural hegemony, the actual import of the New Negro Renaissance was officially and prematurely buried. It took the rediscovery of the Harlem Renaissance by scholars, beginning in the 1960s and working through the 1990s, to clarify the depth of the lasting, universal values that were part and parcel of the movement. Much of this rediscovery indicates just how thoroughly the African American 1920s anticipated the African American 1960s. This paper begins to describe some of the contextual influences upon that seminal moment in African American history and culture.

During the 1920s the phenomenal and controversial activities of a young generation of African-Americans served to capture the imagination of a wide range of the American population. Expressions of this "Harlem Renaissance," "Negro Renaissance," or "New Negro" were cultural in character. Blacks of the era not only created rich modes of literary and musical cultural expression but also struggled to control that expression's image as well as its business affairs. As an intellectual and artistic movement, the Renaissance was firmly rooted in political activism and contained a wide variety of political overtones. Not the least of those who were politically active were the members of the W.E.B Du Bois led National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the millions of members of Marcus Garvey's United Negro Improvement Association in African and throughout the African Diaspora. Garvey's expansive, black history-rooted activism colored the spirit of the age. His magazine, Negro World, as well as the NAACP's The Crisis focused on all aspects of the political and cultural climate of the 1920s, and both sought to guide the direction of the flourishing cultural production. It was Garvey's unparalleled ability to appeal to and raise funds from the masses of blacks world-wide from his Harlem base that made the UNIA a lightening rod for the actions and reactions of all the other groups interested in black uplift: the integrationists, the socialists, and the communists. …

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