The Renaissance: Black Arts of the Twenties


The exhibit "The Renaissance: Black Arts of the Twenties" speaks to a unique period in American history. The Renaissance Movement, as initiated by blacks in the 1920s, is also referred to as the New Negro Movement or the Harlem Renaissance. It was, in time, instrumental in fostering among many an appreciation and understanding of the Black Experience. Moreover, the impressive list of publications, plays, musical revues, songs, and art - works produced served to present Blacks as formidable participants in the building of contemporary America.

Black Americans found it important to create in a manner true to their ethnic convictions during the 1920s. Zora Neale Hurston, for example, both entertained and provided insights into the lives of Southern blacks through her folktales. Jessie Fauset explored the world of the black middle - class in her writings. Edward Kennedy ("Duke") Ellington, influenced by black musical idioms, helped define jazz and the "big band" sound. Roland Hayes carried Negro spirituals to many parts of the world. And in the visual arts, Aaron Douglas painted stylistic images that paid tribute to Afro American and African history.

Current events of the day fostered a rise in racial consciousness among black Americans of the renaissance. In 1903, the publication The Souls of Black Folk, by scholar and historian W. E. B. DuBois, analyzed the status of black America. This book presented history, while addressing the issues of education, economics, religion, and racial discrimination. In 1917, under the leadership of James Weldon Johnson, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) organized a Silent Parade to protest the Iynching of black people. In 1919 members of the all-black 369th infantry, home from World War I, marched up Fifth Avenue on their way to Harlem. They were led by the music of James Reese Europe, one of the foremost promoters of jazz in France. Never before had black soldiers been so honored, as pride in self and country swept across the many of their race who lined the city's streets.

An inspiring theme throughout the period was Africa. In 1917 Marcus Garvey, a pioneering PanAfricanist, was stirring the emotions of those who believed in a return to the "homeland" as a means of achieving social, economic, and political equality. One of (Garvey's mottos was, "Up you mighty race! You can accomplish what you will!" His weekly newspaper, The Negro World, was widely read in America and abroad.

Alain Locke, the noted Howard University philosopher and Rhodes Scholar, maintained: "But what the Negro of today has most to gain from the arts of the forefathers is . . . the lesson of a classical background, the lesson of discipline, of style, of technical control pushed to the limits of technical mastery."

As World War I ended, Black Americans from the South migrated in increasing numbers to such northern areas as Harlem, a largely segregated community in New York City. The black man was seen as a "second-class citizen," and racial prejudice in America remained a very real fact of life. Ironically, because of segregation, Harlem allowed for a concentrated artistic environment. New York City offered numerous literary publishing houses, music companies, theatres, nightclubs, and patrons of the arts. Poet Arna Bontemps mused, "In Harlem I found my cultural home. " A prominent figure of the time, Aaron Douglas once remarked "New York was 'where the action was' as far as the Negro artist was concerned."

Although Harlem was the focal point of the renaissance, other areas of the country contributed to the movement. Washington, D. C., was home to Willis Richardson, the playwright, and to the Howard Players, an acting troupe of Howard University. The District of Columbia was also home to literary figures Alain Locke, Georgia Douglas Johnson, and Sterling Brown. From New Orleans came Louis Armstrong and Dixieland jazz. Mississippi and St. Louis were partly responsible for the blues, while Florida natives James Weldon Johnson and Zora Neale Hurston offered folktales and Southern Black dialect.

As the decade of the 1920s came to a close, the era of the renaissance also ended. The demise of the movement was due partly to America's Stock Market crash of 1929. Less financial support was made available through patrons of the arts, foundations, and theatrical organizations. Also, some writers fell out of favor with their publishers because their works were viewed as too progressive, bordering on communistic ideals. Despite these and other obstacles, many renaissance figures were absorbed into other areas of American society, including universities and the Works Progress Administration of the United States government. Performing artists continued to travel and perform wherever possible. Aaron Douglas, Sterling Brown, Zora Neale Hurston, Josephine Baker, and Eubie Blake were among the few who worked throughout the 1960s, 1970s, and beyond.

The excitement of this decadethe focus of ' The Renaissance: Black Arts of the Twenties."


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