A Renaissance in Harlem: Lost Voices of an American Community

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  1. A renaissance in Harlem : lost voices of an American community - Washington Carnegie Public Library
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  3. A renaissance in Harlem : lost voices of an American community, edited by Lionel C. Bascom

What actually happened in Harlem and the many other Harlems across America where millions of black migrants flocked in the last century were not the aberrations books like Nigger Heaven portrayed them to be. Harlem was the front line of an insurrection, a cultural, social and political revolt that had been feared and thwarted for centuries in America. While the face of this revolt appeared to be participants of an artistic front in New York, it was peopled by baggage handlers, busboys, cooks and maids who fled feudal America and settled in New York and many other cities.

The writers, artists and intellectuals who followed this exodus, became the faces of a renaissance that were first noticed in New York, where a burgeoning black media, network radio and a recording industry popularized it. It spread across America. Millions of black Americans -- one fifth of the nation -- began leaving the farms and hamlets of the south where they had always lived at the start of the 20th Century.

This exodus from plantations and grubby pieces of share cropper land to cities where they found work in hotels, factories and industry caused a seismic population shift throughout America that would last for decades. In Chicago, they settled on the Southside of the city. These were all Harlem-like places for the black migrants where they participated in the same communal rituals at storefront churches, rent parties and they joined benevolent, protective fraternal orders like the Elks, the Urban League and eventually developed cultures of urban living we all now embrace in one way or another.

There was no solitary renaissance just in Harlem. Wherever these migrant African-Americans traveled, they peopled a Negro Renaissance in America that was first noticed and popularized in Harlem of the s. These Harlems that sprang up in Pittsburgh, Hartford, and in the South Central region of Los Angeles, but all shared traits in common with the Harlem of New York, the national metaphor for what Langston Hughes captured so well in a poetry collection called Fine Clothes to the Jew.

The Harlems, he said, all had dreamers, storytellers, dishwashers, crap shooters, maids and jazzers. In Harlems all over America, the descendants of slaves underwent a metamorphosis, evolving from being Negroes to the full blooded, self-conscious, African-Americans we recognize today who are now mostly Americans.

While thousands of black people flocked to Harlem in the s, Brown said there were many thousands more took up residences in the black sections of Chicago, in Washington, D. It was the Negro Renaissance, Brown declared in a interview published in the literary journal Callaloo.

You had bright young Negroes all over the country who were waking up and writing. The whole business of Harlem has been blown out of focus. The notion that this sweeping social movement just disappeared in when the richest Americans lost their wealth when the stock market crashed is fiction too. One of the ridiculous things … in a whole lot of this nonsense about the so-called Harlem Renaissance is that it ended with the panic of , Brown said.

As these separate and singular movements took on life of their own, it unleashed what Gunter Lenz, also writing in Callalloo , called the subversion, revision, and transformation of their old forms of community and communal rituals. The suspension of traditional, subservient behaviors among these Negro populations opened up to the migrants from the South a new perspective on the validity and potential use of their folk culture and set free enormous energies for understanding, appropriating, and influencing a reality that they at first could neither describe nor comprehend.

In the arts alone, this new reality was expressed in music, dance crazes that eventually swept across America, in poetry, songs, novels, short stories in Esquire magazine and Vanity Fair, in politics and fueled unprecedented social and political movements. It was thrilling, shocking and to many, a disturbing departure from the idyllic poetry, music and literature being created to describe communities that were rapidly becoming poor ghettos at the same time they were being called havens and heavens. They want to transform Harlem, the Harlems of their country. These places are precious to them.

These places are where they have dreamed, where they have lived, where they have loved, where they have worked out life as they could. All of these Harlems, Ellison said, contain important forms of social memory and literary invention of people that have always had the power to imagine places like Harlem and another community called Camelot, the imaginary realm of knights and the kings of literature.

If you were black in America in the 20h Century, Harlem was Camelot in the imaginations of a people whose dream would eventually evolve into a culture forged by a community that began to call themselves African-Americans. Sails furled, flag drooping at her rounded stern, she rode the tide in from the sea. She was a strange ship, indeed, by all accounts, a frightening ship, a ship of mystery, wrote J.

Saunders Redding, a black writer describing the landing of a slave ship to North America in Whether she was trader, privateer or man-of-war, no one knows.

A renaissance in Harlem : lost voices of an American community - Washington Carnegie Public Library

Through her bulwarks black mouth cannon yawned. The flag she flew was Dutch; her crew a motley [bunch]. She came, she traded, and shortly afterwards was gone. Probably no ship in modern history has carried a more portentous freight.

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Her cargo? Twenty slaves, Redding wrote in his book, They Came in Chains. Slavery and the indelible mark it left on that culture and on America are inseparable. And the problem of the color line" as W. Slavery developed quickly into a regular institution, bled its way into the mainstream of the normal labor relations of blacks to whites in the New World. With it developed that special racial feeling — whether it was hatred, or contempt, or pity, or patronization that accompanied the inferior position of blacks in America for the next years — that combination of inferior status and derogatory thought we call racism," Zinn posits.

This is not a history or commentary on racism. It is the story of an exodus, the greatest Exodus in American history where millions of former slaves and generations who came after them, literally ran north to save their lives, if not their souls. Zinn notes that everything in the experience of the first white settlers acted as a pressure for the enslavement of blacks. That enslavement and the effects are the African-American experience.

What happened in New York too symbolized a struggle for equal rights that was carried out in many places simultaneously.

A renaissance in Harlem : lost voices of an American community, edited by Lionel C. Bascom

Unshackled by civil war that freed millions of black slaves by the year , living generations of former slaves, their children and grandchildren, then began an historic cultural migration to flee feudal America. It was a trek into the future that would take the greater part of the next century. Stripped of their bonds, ex-slaves were left culturally, socially and economically naked at the close of a war some ex-slaves described in first person narratives as the war between the white folks.

When the civil strife between free states and slave states ended, slaves found themselves free from human bondage but hey were also stripped of the paternalism and protections against violence by masters who had valued them as personal property and therefore kept them safe from outside violence or death. After emancipation, millions of freed slaves and their families suddenly became prey to widespread economic and social discrimination, vigilante violence and a justice system that saw them as anything but equals.

Laws that were passed in almost every southern state to control and restrict the lives of blacks and these black laws almost immediately replaced the chains of slavery. The widespread segregation which ensued effectively barred Negroes from voting, purchasing property, having access to adequate public schooling, employment and the other necessities needed for the unfettered pursuit of happiness guaranteed by the Constitution.

By the end of World War I and decades after emancipation, millions of black tenant farmers and laborers could not vote in Mississippi, Virginia and South Carolina, and other southern states, boarded railroad train by the thousands each week bound for new lives in northern cities. This move from life on the plantations of the south to futures in urban cities became one of the great sagas in modern American history. It was a tale of two countries, two Americas, one black, the other white, one free, and the other perpetually seeking freedom.

Langston Hughes & the Harlem Renaissance: Crash Course Literature 215

It was this Greatest of Exoduses since the beginning of slavery transported to this side of the Atlantic that seemed to have been plucked whole from the pages of second book of the Old Testament in the Bible that was called Exodus that tells the universal story of the Israelites escape from Egypt. They left cotton fields in Georgia, orange groves in Florida, and tenant farms of Arkansas to begin the impossible task of reconstructing their lives at the turn of the 20th Century, just three decades after the emancipation.

They took jobs in meat packing plants, donned the uniforms of railroad porters and red capped baggage handlers. Bean pickers from South Carolina became housemaids in Chicago, autoworkers Detroit, and sewing machine operators in the garment district of New York City. Some began calling themselves New Negroes, and they became he participants of this great migration that evolved into what would become the first generation of a soon-to-be assimilated group who eventually began calling themselves African-Americans late in the same century.

Their exodus became known as the Great Migration and was first noted in the pages of a magazine called Survey Graphic , a journal that covered social change throughout the world.


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A railroad ticket and a suitcase, like a Baghdad carpet, transport the Negro peasant from the cotton-field and farm to the heart of the most complex urban civilization, Locke wrote. Here in the mass, he must and does survive a jump of two generations in social economy and of a century and more in civilization.

With the mass migration of tens of thousands of African Americans to Harlem in the s and s, Harlem experienced a renaissance or rebirth in a number of ways. As Ryan p. All Rights Reserved.

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