The Harlem Renaissance: Finding Their Rightful Place in Society
During the 1920’s, America was experiencing a very daunting time. After World War I, many Americans had lost confidence and were afraid of what might become of the nation. Politicians fueled the fear of the Red Scare during a time when the immigration of Europeans and the migration of African-Americans were on the rise. Blacks who were migrating from the south for a better life in the north, still had not received equal rights guaranteed to them by the United States Constitution. To make matters worse, their quest for equality was stymied by white sociologists believing they had scientific proof that certain groups of Europeans (non-Anglo-Saxons) and people of color, especially African-Americans, were inferior to Anglo-saxon whites. As pertaining to African-Americans, it is apparent that their scientific model excluded the fact that African Americans, while being held in slavery, were not given the opportunities, and in fact were forbidden, to obtain an education and economic gain, which led to generational poverty and socioeconomic disparity. Many African Americans are still suffering from these remnants (the aftermath) of slavery to this day, because of its generational effects on black culture.
In an effort to maintain their humanity and dignity, and to fight for their political rights, African-American men and women turned to the arts to express themselves. Speaking out politically and artistically, they created works of art in many mediums and genres, depicting their struggles in everyday life, views on inequality, and showing what it is like to be black in America. Some of their works were very graphic and hard to accept, such as the detailed accounts of lynchings. Billie Holiday’s song, Strange Fruit, is one such work where the lyrics make it quite plain as to what the “strange fruit” is, and her voice and tone allows one to feel the sadness the artist feels as she sings. Other types of issues African-American artists addressed were political disfranchisement, socioeconomic inequality, and the need for positive changes within the black community.
White Americans went to Harlem to be entertained and, in some cases, to exploit the creativity and living situations of African-Americans. For instance, they would pour funds into the creations of black artists, but at the same time, they wanted to dictate over how those creations were done, or they would write novels about the black experience and community. Black artistic endeavors and lifestyles were mainly something exotic and different for whites; a sort of “in thing” or fling during that period. They basically wanted to have fun and exploit blacks the same as when white southerners and politicians did. For whites, going to Harlem meant the ability to escape from the boredom in their lives, and also, the ability to get liquor during prohibition. Blacks on the other hand, were looking to carve out a place for themselves in American society. They wanted to be taken seriously intellectually, and not to be seen as second class citizens. They wanted to be seen as full citizens and to improve upon their lot in life by undermining the racism that was (and still is to some extent) prevalent in American society.
The Harlem Renaissance gave blacks and whites the opportunity to work side by side regardless of their individual motives. They were able to collaborate together to create great works of art in film, print, and on the stage. By working together, both races were able to gain some understanding of each other that no congressional law could have ever imposed. What began in Manhattan was the birth of African-American culture as we know it today. Furthermore, the inclusion of all races of people has worked together to improve upon the entertainment industry and popular culture worldwide. When racial tensions are abated, we all win.
Hine, D. C., Hine, W. C., & Harold, S. (2018).
The African-American Odyssey, Volume 2, Seventh Edition, Pearson Education Inc.
Prokoman 1. (2011).Billie Holiday-Strange Fruit-HD.