The 1920’s were a tumultuous time for America. Between the end of the First World War leaving Americans uncertain of the future of the Nation and the rise of McCarthyism, America was experiencing doubt and fear on a level that was – at the time – unprecedented. Amidst all of this, African Americans were still facing discrimination on a large scale. Many of them, understandably migrated North in what we now know as the Great Migration. The general idea was that since the North had fought to abolish slavery – at least in part – and had anti-segregation laws, that they would have a far better shot at a decent life than they would have otherwise had in the south. Much to the disappointment of many migrating African Americans, their lot in life did not improve. Discrimination was just as prominent in the North as it was in the South and the so-called Anti-Segregation laws were little more than words on a piece of paper, they were not actively enforced. This systemic oppression coupled with the advent of Social Darwinism ensured that the deck was heavily stacked against African Americans by convincing the majority of whites that certain races were inferior by design, and African Americans fell into that particular category, according to Social Darwinism.
Despite all this, the African American spirit remained strong, and many talented and intelligent members of African American society turned to the Arts to make their presence felt in America. Often, artists used such mediums to express their frustration and disenfranchisement and to show what it meant to be black in America. Weaving political and social issues in song was not an uncommon occurrence during the Harlem Renaissance. One such instance was by acclaimed singer Billie Holiday, and her song “Strange Fruit”, which is a thinly veiled – if it is veiled at all – song about the lynching of African Americans, a testament to the unfair and downright horrible treatment African Americans had to endure. The song’s solemn tune accompanied by Holiday’s forlorn vocals paint an image of a group enduring unspeakable pain. It is one of many works of art that gives insight into the plight of African Americans.
In many ways, The Harlem Renaissance served as the genesis for African American culture with so many talented individuals creating music, art and literature that still holds up today, however the creation of this rich culture had its fair share of troubles. Many white people flocked to Harlem for entertainment, looking to view the art and listen to the music that the area was quickly becoming a hotbed for. In many instances, however it was the case that wealthy white people “generously” donated their funds to help black artists continue to be able to produce their works, while at the same time attempting to control them and their work. Between this blocking of creativity and their creations being viewed as a curiosity, a passing interest by white society made the attempts of African Americans to elevate themselves to greater heights all the more difficult.
It should be noted, however that more open-minded individuals saw the artists of the Harlem Renaissance for what they were: extremely talented artists. Their obvious talent drew many other musicians to seek them out and work alongside them creating a bridge between two disparate groups and foster a greater understanding of each culture, creating wonderful works as a result. Though it was clear that a long road lay ahead of the American people in terms of race relations, the collaborations during the Harlem Renaissance proved that when people come together, and put their differences aside, truly amazing things can be accomplished.
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The African-American Odyssey, Volume 2, Seventh Edition, Pearson Education Inc.