The ‘‘New Negro’’ and the Harlem Renaissance
In March 1925, Howard University professor, Alain Locke coined the term ‘‘The New Negro’’ for a special issue of Survey Graphic that emphasized and celebrated the diversity of black life in the United States. Of particular interest to Locke were the many examples of black art, literature, and intellectual thought that heralded a new life for black people and communities. Locke thought that this creative expression was an essential component of a progressive community in which black Americans contributed their talents and would then be recognized as contributing to the formation of one nation. Locke envisioned the ‘‘new Negro’’ as representative of greater self-respect and self-reliance. The new Negro was a black American who contributed to his social and cultural community and for Locke the center of this change was in Harlem.
The influx of southern black Americans into the North included many young and talented writers, intellectuals, actors, musicians, and artists. Many of these talented young black men and women moved into the center of black life in Harlem, the area north of 125th Street in Upper Manhattan. Theater, literature, art, and music that depicted black life flourished. White customers became audiences and patrons, allowing for greater support of black talent. The creation of two major periodicals, The Crisis, published by the NAACP and Opportunity, published by the National Urban League, provided a forum for the publication of black art, literature, and intellectual opinions. Many black intellectuals thought that the cultural renaissance that was taking place in Harlem would allow blacks to erase many of the false images that had been perpetuated about black life since the end of the Civil War.
The Harlem Renaissance was the first formal literary movement that focused solely on the work of black writers. The literature of this period was a self-conscious exploration of racism and identity, particularly what it meant to be black and an American. This duality of life as an American and as a black American was a common theme of writers during the Harlem Reassurance, as it is in Hughes’s poem ‘‘I, Too.’’ The speaker evokes the image of two brothers, one white and one black. The dark brother is excluded from the life of the white brother, but the speaker in the poem prophesies that the world is changing and that eventually the dark brother will be equally recognized as an American. Hughes’s effort to create two lives within his poem is one of the defining characteristics of the Harlem Renaissance.
Hughes was a principal writer of this period. His writing helped to illuminate the lives of ordinary black citizens and corrected distorted images of African Americans as stereotypical figures in literature and entertainment. The Harlem Renaissance ended shortly after the stock market crash of 1929, but Hughes’s contributions to the Harlem Renaissance help to illustrate the important impact of black artists in American society.
Injustice, Inequity, and Segregation in the United States
The Harlem Renaissance was a result of a great migration of southern blacks to the northern United States. The reasons for this migration were varied. In some cases, African Americans fled to the North because there were greater economic opportunities. These economic opportunities were a result of changes in immigration laws in 1921 and 1924 that severely limited the number of new immigrants allowed into the United States. New immigrants had been a continuing source of cheap labor. With that resource severely limited, northern factories and businesses looked to the southern states for a source of cheap labor. Northern employers needed labor that was close at hand, and southern blacks needed jobs and a place to live in relative safety. Many of these new black migrants were looking for better jobs, housing, and education. In the early twentieth century the American South was a place that offered few opportunities for African Americans. As Hughes noted in ‘‘I, Too,’’ there were two separate Americas for black and white citizens. While the end of the Civil War promised freedom to slaves, the end of slavery did not bring freedom from discrimination, segregation, or racial violence.
After Civil War Reconstruction ended in 1876, many southern states began to create laws, called Jim Crow laws, that segregated African Americans. Sharecropping practices prevented black farmers from owning their own land, while separate school systems kept black children from receiving an education equal to that received by white children. Blacks and whites lived in separate neighborhoods and ate at separate restaurants; they also used separate public drinking fountains and bathrooms. Violence, including lynching, prevented many African Americans from taking action against Jim Crow laws. The emergence of the second Ku Klux Klan (KKK) in the early 1920s (the first KKK had been formed in 1865 by a group of Confederate army veterans) added to the atmosphere of hatred and fear directed against blacks. There was little justice for African Americans in the South, who rarely protested against this discrimination. Even though many black Americans moved north to escape hostility, the North was not free of racial violence. The same fear of outsiders and the competition for jobs that had led to stricter immigration policies in the early 1920s also led to several race riots in northern cities. The KKK was active in the North as well as in the South. In spite of encountering some of the same problems in the North that they had endured in the South, many southern black Americans found greater freedom and less oppression in the northern cities.
Poetry for Students, Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Poetry, Volume 30, Langston Hughes, Gale Cengage Learning, 2009