Early American Influence on the Harlem Renaissance: The New Negro

Despite the Civil Rights Act of 1875, African Americans saw their modest gains in freedom reversed in the South where white Democrats regained power and made racism a definitive institution. There they created the Jim Crow laws that would see the South segregated for decades to come. This prompted the Great Migration of southern African Americans and Caribbean Africans to the North. These people were hoping to build better lives where work was abundant, and discrimination was less severe. A great many of these people relocated to Harlem, New York, and it was at this time that the Harlem Renaissance, also known as the New Negro Movement after a 1925 compilation by Alain Lock of stories and poetry called the New Negro, began to emerge. This renaissance saw the emergence of black authors, poets, writers, and intellects whose works have altered the perspective of black America around the world. Among these paradigm-changing individuals were notably Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. The NY Times cites a quote from Youval Taylor’s book, Zora and Langston: A Story of Friendship and Betrayal, about the pair, “Hurston and Hughes were the first American writers to create great bodies of work that were unmistakable — and proudly — black”.

Zora Neale Hurston was an American folklorist and writer who spent many years of her life traveling through the rural South studying the impact of the Democratic white-dominated society on southern, rural African Americans. Through her works of fiction, she wrote about the issues that African Americans faced at the time, namely racial division and prejudice. These writings earned her a place of great recognition and respect as a noted contributor of the Harlem Renaissance. She wrote a short story entitled “Spunk” which tells the tale of a love triangle set in the rural south. It was this work that earned a place in the New Negro and cemented Hurston’s position as an influencer of the Harlem Renaissance. She wasn’t alone in her thinking when she stated, “But for the national welfare, it is urgent to realize that the minorities do think, and think about something other than the race problem”.

Langston Hughes, another Harlem Renaissance contributor was once quoted to say, 'My seeking has been to explain and illuminate the Negro condition in America and obliquely that of all humankind”. He differed from Hurston in that his upbringing and his adult life were spent mainly in the north. Nevertheless, he tried to show through his work an honest portrayal of the difficulties that African Americans, most especially the men, endured at that time in America. Much of Hughes’ works reflected the lives and struggles of blacks in post-Civil War America, and this can be seen in the following poem by Hughes:

Po' Boy Blues

Langston Hughes - 1902-1967

When I was home de

Sunshine seemed like gold.

When I was home de

Sunshine seemed like gold.

Since I come up North de

The whole damn world's turned cold.

I was a good boy,

Never done no wrong.

Yes, I was a good boy,

Never done no wrong,

But this world is weary

An' de road is hard an' long.

I fell in love with

A gal I thought was kind.

Fell in love with

A gal I thought was kind.

She made me lose ma money

An' almost lose ma mind.

Weary, weary,

Weary early in de morn.

Weary, weary,

Early, early in de morn.

I's so weary

I wish I'd never been born.

Langston and Zora met in 1925 at the Opportunity Awards Dinner in New York, and, in the summer of 1927, the two ran into each other at the train station in New Orleans. Langston decided to accompany Zora as she traveled through the rural south to gather information about the African Americans there and their way of life. The two became very close and collaborated on several works, ‘and their friends ‘informed practically everything they wrote, during those years, Taylor wrote. In a 1989 essay by Alice Walker, she wrote of the two, “It is so easy to see how and why they would love each other. Each was to the other an affirming example of what black people could be like: wild, crazy, creative, spontaneous, at ease with who they are, and funny”. “They were best friends, collaborators, and literary lights of the Harlem Renaissance. They jointly brought to life a new conception of African American literature quite unlike any that had come before”. They shared a patron, Charlotte Osgood Mason, who insisted they call her Godmother, who was an eccentric and wealthy woman enamored of what she deemed the primitiveness of native American and African American culture. Eventually, the friendship ended it is assumed over a culmination of a falling out between Mason and Hughes, jealousy over a woman who worked as a secretary for the two, and the rights to their play, Mule Bone. In the last 30 years of their lives, the close friends never spoke again.

In spite of the end of their friendship, the two have been long recognized for their contributions to the Harlem Renaissance as many of their works of literature and poetry were able to shine a light on the trials and tribulations of poor American negroes. Their individual and collaborative works were able to inspire generations to come and would contribute to the pride and self-awareness that motivated other African Americans to change their circumstances and improve their lives. This resulted in African American society as a whole becoming more politically motivated; moreover, it was central to providing the foundation for the Civil Rights Movement that took place in the 1950s and 1960s.

29 April 2022
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