African American Arts of the Harlem Renaissance
“During the 1920s African Americans were undergoing a new artistic and intellectual revolutionary movement called the Harlem Renaissance, which was based in Harlem, New York but spread throughout the nation. After the Civil War, many blacks moved to northern states to escape the terrors of racism in the South. Harlem was the primary neighborhood that many blacks chose to make home and develop. Soon the Harlem Renaissance was born due to the explosion of African American culture that was being produced in Harlem, mainly “literature and art that worked toward undermining racism” (Carrol). Writers, artists, musicians, and poets found solace in creating art that captured the essence and struggles that blacks faced in this era. It had a huge impact at the time and can still be found in the 1930s and later throughout history. This paper will go into detail on four major pieces of art that emerged and that I believe was essential to portraying the experiences African Americans faced in this era. Langston Hughes’s poem “A Dream Deferred”, Zora Hurston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, Josephine Bakers’ musical comedy Shuffle Along, and finally Aaron Douglas’s painting “Let My People Go”.
Langston Hughes was a prominent poet in the Harlem Renaissance well known for his poems and literacy, which expressed the lives of middle-class African Americans using his own form of jazz poetry. His most notable work would have to be his poem “ A Dream Deferred”. While it is a short poem it is very layered in its analysis. After the Civil War, many African Americans were regarded as second-class citizens, which meant they were only allowed menial jobs. Hughes implies that after years of mistreatment African American people cannot tolerate the way this society had treated his fellow people. His line “does the dream explode or sag like a heavy load “ is a reference to his life story that should he let his anger explode due to these injustices, but rather his literacy genius and intellect, which would prove discrimination wrong and those who oppressed him, and pave a way for young blacks pursuit of civil rights.
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Next, we’ll look at Zora Hurston’s novel “ Their Eyes Are Watching God”, which portrayed the struggles African American women faced during this time. Themes of gender roles, marriage, and equality were the main takeaways from her novel. During this time women were expected to not be outspoken and disobey their husbands and that women could only attain status through marriage to a wealthy man. However, Ms. Hurston fought these stereotypes by making the main character of her novel a headstrong empowered woman who fought her husbands on their views of what a good woman was.
Also on the theme of woman empowerment during this era, we have a prominent figure Josephine Baker. The Harlem Renaissance’s influence was not only in America but spread throughout the world. Although American born Josephine Baker grew as an artist and performer in France were should remain for the rest of her life, but she brought with her the rich African American culture that was growing back in America. She is the first African American to star in a major motion picture back in 1927. Her performance in the ground-breaking musical Shuffle Along would help set an example for later African American performers that they would reach a wider audience than previous generations.
Finally we have prominent Harlem Renaissance painter Aaron Douglass art piece titled “ Let My People Go” which is inspired by the biblical passage of Moses. The painting allowed Douglas to connect the painting with the religious history to mirror the struggles under the Pharaoh to that of America on the backs of African Americans, for example, the history of slavery in this country. Author William Harris recorded Douglas quoting, “in the 1920s our poems and songs, pictures and novels was nothing less than a revival, a stirring of the souls of black folk which had continued to beat though ever so faintly from man’s first appearance on earth to our troubled time” (Harris). Douglas art expressed his views for justice he felt his people were owed due to the cruel injustice of racism in America.
This paper has helped me further understand the struggles African Americans faced in previous generations. By learning from all the ways blacks chose to express the feelings and ideas for the basic universal themes of equality and justice. Each artist chose a different way to express him or herself, whether through art to display for all to see, or perform for people of different races to attain a new audience. Their influence helped pave the way for black artist today to be some of the most known people in our society today.
- Carroll, Anne. “Art, Literature, and the Harlem Renaissance: The Messages of God’s Trombones.” College Literature, vol. 29, no. 3, Summer 2002, pp. 57–82. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=hft&AN=507776351&site=ehost-live&scope=site.
- Douglas, Aaron. Let My People Go. 1925, New York.
- Harris, William J. “Introduction.” American Studies (00263079), vol. 49, no. 1/2, Spring/Summer2008 2008, pp. 5–8. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1353/ams.2010.0008.
- Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. J.B Lippincott, 1937.”