What was the Harlem Renaissance? What artists belonged to the movement, and what great works were created? Achieve an overview of the HR (Harlem Renaissance), its persons, its themes.
To what extent was the HR a rebirth of Black culture and affirmation of personal dignity on Black terms, and to what extent a passing fad or an exploitation of Blacks for White American self-interest or pleasure?
What major lines of political and social thought influenced people of the HR?
What were the conflicting pressures on Black artists? In what different ways did thinkers and audiences during the HR affect Black artists’ choices of subject and style?
What does studying all this about the HR contribute to your understanding of
Video #1 - "From These
A. Rough Outline:
Black soldiers returning from WWI ("the war to make the world safe for democracy") —
What did they find at home?
Racism in the Jim Crow South was different from racism in the North — how?
"The Roaring Twenties": a time when Americans “lived beyond their means"
James Van der Zee - photographer
The Cotton Club.
"Shuffle Along" - the first musical, starting the whole tradition of
Claude McKay: "If we must die ..." we will not die "like dogs."
Langston Hughes: "Manifesto" (on poster, front wall of
Alain Locke - "The New Negro" movement
Countee Cullen: "What is
Aaron Douglas's murals & paintings
How African Americans tried to change White prejudices:
(1) Affirmation - gestures to Whites communicating the dignity and worth of Black people:
The silent parade to show Whites that Blacks can “behave.”
Black expression in the arts, using “uplifting” images of the race.
Promotion of Black pride, Black power, Black protest.
Which of these two approaches do you think is better, and why?
B: For further thinking and discussion:
What are the causes and sources of racism?
What are the best responses to the race problem in
— What public policies?
— What moral principles?
— What individual and group behaviors?
What feelings, thoughts, and experiences have you had regarding race in
Video #2 - "Against the Odds"
Discusses a recent exhibit of Harlem Renaissance art at the Newark Art Museum — art forgotten for decades but recently recovered from attics and storage. Many of the artists were supported in their day by the William E. Harmon Foundation.
The problem: Like all artists everywhere, Black artists in the
early 20thC were interested in all kinds of styles, subjects, themes, and traditions
(European, African, Black folkways, middle class life, etc.). However,
White Americans expected certain popular images that fit stereotypes:
--Black people as pitiful victims, or as jolly folks happy with an unimproved lot in life.
--Black people as dangerous to democracy, safety, and the virtue of white women.
--Black people as intellectually inferior, as "proven" in "scientific" studies.
--Whites as superior (cf. "Birth of a Nation," 1915, racist interpretation of the KKK & Reconstruction).
Events leading up to the
1900-1919: Lynchings and the terrible life of sharecropping in the South led to the first Great Migration northward. Racism put Blacks at disadvantage to European immigrants; Blacks worked in war factories; Black soldiers returned from WWI.
1919: Whites instigated race riots in
Blacks formed National Urban League; NAACP (founded by W.E.B. Dubois).
1920s: "The New Negro" - movement championed by Alain Locke to produce & support Black art that would improve the image of the race by emphasizing black virtues and talents. Black people who otherwise might have become teachers, lawyers, etc., were drawn into being artists. The Harlem Renaissance thus became "a subtle kind of propaganda" movement.
The Harlem Renaissance:
Aaron Douglas's murals
"Negro culture became 'all the rage.'"
Literati - New York Public Library
Paul Robeson, Shakespearean actor
Night life - clubs, jazz, dance halls
Whites came to be patrons of Black arts (Zora Neale Hurston jokingly called the patrons "Negrotarians"):
White pressures on Black artists:
Whites used "benevolent censorship" to revitalize the "dead," overly commercialized American art scene with infusions of energy from Black artists. Wm. E. Harmon, philanthropist, wanted to assist financial self-sufficiency among Black people. Harmon believed them to be inferior but capable of improvement to a degree.
Clement Price, historian: Americans were racist, yet willing to help Black people take small steps. Harmon said,"We'll help you sell your work to improve your income," but didn't value the work as art. Blacks realized this racism though Whites didn't. Whites liked “Black characters” such as artist Palmer Hayden (headline: "The Janitor-Painter!")
Powerful Black people also put pressure on Black artists:
W.E.B. DuBois said Black art should present Black people as ideal, refined, genteel, moral models for all to follow. Alain Locke said it should express a special quality of Blackness, rooted in African images and themes. ‘Picasso, Matisse show influences of Africa—why not we, who come from
Summary of New Stereotypes and Pressures for the Black artist:
—Paint African heritage, African themes and images, not traditional European styles!
—Paint Black people as joyful, colorful, country folks! (updated minstrel & mammy stereotypes).
—Paint Black people as urbane, sophisticated, & aspiring, or as prim&proper middle-class!
Laura Wheeler Waring’s
serene, delicate portraits were dismissed by Black critics
Alan Frelon argued, "The American Negro has no more knowledge of
James Lesesne Wells: "Judge me not as 'a Negro artist' but as an artist."
Alan Crites' fear - in focusing on group movements we'll lose sight of the individual.
Lois Mailou Jones started with broad interests in technique and subject, but noted that Harmon Foundation influence tended to direct an artist's focus toward Black subjects.
Aaron Douglas deplored the "vacuum cleaner approach to art," seeing the uncritical, mass applause of any art made by a Black person as destructive to artistic growth & achievement.
Langston Hughes & Zora Neale Hurston: a middle way? (What do you think?)
1929 - Stock Market crash.
1935 - Race riot. "The death of a dream."
But even before the Civil Rights era, despite all this meddling with Black arts, amazing achievements!
Artists mentioned: Aaron Douglas, Palmer Hayden, Hale Woodruff, Roland Barthe´, Sargent Johnson, Malvin Gray Johnson, William[?] Scott, Laura Wheeler Waring, Alan Frelon, Alan Crites, James Lesesne Wells, Lois Mailou Jones, Archibald Motley, Langston Hughes, ZN Hurston, Augusta Savage, _____ Prophet, William Henry Johnson.
© Judith Lightfoot, 1999