JAZZ, POETRY & THE BLACK CULTURE

In 1910, a church group and several African-American realtors purchased a large section of 135th Street and Fifth Avenue. Southern blacks, looking for paid labor, moved north to join the throng. Also emerging during that time was a new political movement that arose from the grass roots of the African-American community that began to champion civil rights for blacks. This insurgence of discrimination awareness led to a rich paradigm shift in the culture, education and political thought within the African-American community.

In 1910, a church group and several African-American realtors purchased a large section of 135th Street and Fifth Avenue. Southern blacks, looking for paid labor, moved north to join the throng. Also emerging during that time was a new political movement that arose from the grass roots of the African-American community that began to champion civil rights for blacks. This insurgence of discrimination awareness led to a rich paradigm shift in the culture, education and political thought within the African-American community.

One of the first organizations founded early in the Civil Rights era was The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), founded in 1909 by black sociologist W.E.B. DuBois, a noted historian, who began to speak out against the white establishment for its institutionalized racism. DuBois encouraged African-Americans to educate themselves and participate in American politics and mainstream culture. As a result of this movement, a number of literary artists and musicians managed to move into mainstream American culture and still maintain a vast influence in all circles of American society.

As a result of the huge migration from the South, several musicians populated the area, making jazz and blues very popular in Harlem. Before the turn of the century, Paul Lawrence Dunbar accomplished national acclaim as a black writer and was a huge influence on many subsequent African-American literary artists. World War I saw the recognition of Claude McKay as a poet and writer, and James Weldon Johnson as a black fiction writer. In the early 1900’s, McKay’s book of poetry Harlem Shadows (1922) became one of the first works by an African-American author to achieve national acclaim with a reputable mainstream publisher. Jean Toomer followed in 1923, with the publication of Cane, an experimental novel that combined poetry and prose to tell the story of African-Americans in the urban North and rural South. On the political front, Jamaica native Marcus Garvey, kicked off the worldwide Black Nationalist movement.

With these personalities and events as precursors, the Harlem Renaissance got its real boost of activity between 1924 and 1926, when the National Urban League hosted a dinner to honor the growing literary talent of the African-American community. This led to a popular literary magazine, Survey Graphic, producing a Harlem issue in March 1925. Black philosopher and literary scholar Alain Locke edited the issue. Locke later expanded the issue into an anthology titled The New Negro.
In 1926, a white novelist, Carl Van Vechten, published a book on Harlem life titled Nigger Heaven. The book offended some members of the black community but it was influential in developing a wider interest in African-American literature among blacks and whites and drew people from all over to experience Harlem’s burgeoning nightlife.

Also in 1926, a group of black writers started their own literary journal called Fire!. Such long lasting influences as Langston Hughes, Wallace Thurman, and Zora Neale Hurston, saw their names in print in this journal and the Harlem Renaissance was well on its way.

Noteworthy poets of the Harlem Renaissance include Langston Hughes, Jessie Fauset, Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, James Weldon Johnson, and Arna Bontemps. To visit an excellent web site featuring female African-American poets and writers of the Harlem Renaissance go to Female Harlem Renaissance Poets.

So what can we learn from the poets of the Harlem Renaissance? A great deal if we just take the time to study. In a free style that borrowed the rhythms of blues and jazz, Hughes wrote about what he considered to be the music that expressed the soul of black people.
Fauset was perhaps the most prolific female writer of the Harlem Renaissance. Cullen, raised primarily in a white neighborhood, was a bit different than the other writers of the Harlem Renaissance, but his influence is no less important. McKay migrated from Jamaica only to be confronted with racism when he hit American shores. His poetry is rich with description on the racist experience.

Johnson was the first African-American accepted to the Florida bar. With a long public life, he is well known for having penned “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which has long been considered the “Negro National Anthem.” Bontemps, another influential writer of the Harlem Renaissance, now has a museum in Louisiana named in his honor.

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