Political Changes by way of Cultural Changes
How African Americans of the Harlem Renaissance reversed gruesome stereotypes in order to rework their image in the eyes of their white brothers.
A caricature of the African American, called the Old Negro, is a concept that came about in the United States to refer to the social status during the southern reconstruction period. The Old Negro was often depicted as an ignorant black worker, serving a wealthy white family. This socially accepted symbol added to the stereotype of the black American in the twentieth century up until the era referred to as the Harlem Renaissance. The Harlem Renaissance brought about an image of a New Negro: intelligent, articulate, and talented. Alain Locke’s The New Negro is a collection of stories, poems, art, and other works by black people during this period of vibrant thought, an example of the progress of African Americans into famous intellectuals. Many of the social changes caused by the intellectuals lead to further ones in the social and political dynamic of the country, ultimately culminating in great political change. “New Negro Politics,” a Gene Andrew Jarrett review article, quotes Kenneth W. Warren’s book, So Black and Blue. It says that Warren argues, “this logic is flawed because culture was not—and has not been ever since—as responsible and transformative as direct political action” (Jarrett, 836). However, stating that the advances in black culture after the Reconstruction should not be viewed as advances in political thought is wrong because, black cultural development and social contributions was one of the causes of political change in this era.
Though the popular idea in the Reconstruction period was that African Americans were not smart enough for political positions, the New Negro movement portrayed them as being intellectuals and capable of holding bigger roles in politics. Booker T. Washington says in his Atlanta Compromise speech, “It is important and right that all privileges of the law be ours, but it is vastly more important that we be prepared for the exercise of these privileges” (Washington). This means that Washington did believe that blacks were not educated enough in the South to be given the privilege to vote. However, the educated African American, the “New Negro,” will have earned his right to equality and his right to vote. As Alain Locke writes, “With this renewed self-respect and self-dependence, the life of the Negro community is bound to enter a new dynamic phase… from this comes the promise and warrant of a new leadership” (Locke, 4). This quotation echoes the aforementioned point that the independence of blacks, not only from the white binding but also intellectual freedom, is enough to start a movement, the movement for the equal right to vote. African Americans continue to prove themselves to white America through their unique and evolving culture.
The New Negro advancement in literature, art, and society brought about pride in one’s culture and became a way of motivating African Americans to believe that they were equals. Poets of the Harlem Renaissance shared the message that the time of strife had passed, therefore now, the New Negro period, was the time for them to rise up and change how white people viewed them. The famous Renaissance poet Langston Hughes, for example, writes in his poem, “Tomorrow, / I’ll be at the table / When company comes. / Nobody’ll dare / Say to me, / ‘Eat in the kitchen,’ / Then. / Besides, / They’ll see how beautiful I am / And be ashamed– / I, too, am America” (Hughes, 145). Here we see the same message motivating his readers, the African American population, to provide a brighter future by “be[ing] at the table” rather than hidden “in the kitchen.” This is quite a change from the image of the Old Negro, whose future was very much bound by the employment and exploitation of the white man, whereas the New Negro is very self-sufficient. The idea of African Americans growing and changing for the better, as well as breaking free of the white man’s constraints, was a leap forward. Furthermore, a good example of this growth is the flourishing of the city of Harlem as the black culture capital of the world.
Cultural contributions in society bring about political activism because they form a tight knit community of varying types of people, all motivated by growth, unity, and a common focus of being considered American. One of the most notable movements in this period was the induction of Harlem as the center of black culture. Locke emphasizes that Harlem is the first concentration in history of such a melting pot of African American life; so many blacks flocked to this urban center that welcomed all different kinds of people. He writes in The New Negro, “Each group has come with its own separate motives and for its own special ends, but their greatest experience has been the finding of one another” (Locke, 6). The success of this part of New York City is pivotal in making Black America a known entity in the United States. Harlem is a metaphor for the African American in America because, as it grows and changes, the character of a black person is viewed differently. In The New Negro, James Weldon Johnson writes about Harlem and its significance in America. Johnson states: “Harlem talks American, reads American, thinks American… New York guarantees its Negro citizens the fundamental rights of American citizenship and protects them in the exercise of those rights. In return the Negro loves New York and is proud of it, and contributes in his way to its greatness” (Johnson, 309-11). Harlem’s significance is that a successful neighborhood is a success for its African American population. Harlem provides blacks with a society that is accepting and normal, which paves the way for further cultural, social, and political expansion.
The change of status from the Old to the New Negro was pivotal in giving African Americans a social boost, and, therefore, the New Negro movement is one example of how culture can be transformative in direct political action. The cultural changes in the society of Harlem, the pride brought about by black culture, and intellectual developments proved to the rest of America the positive existence of African Americans, and in turn, led to various legislative changes accordingly. Jarrett’s review article states that many critics of African-American approaches to politics assert that all the social changes were not pivotal in causing direct political action. However, these critiques do not take into account the effects these cultural changes can have on the changed African American, and that they can indeed be the driving force to direct political action.
Hughes, Langston. “I Too.” The New Negro Voices of the Harlem Renaissance. New York: Touchstone, 1999. Print.
Jarrett, Gene A. “New Negro Politics.” American Literary History 18.4 (2006): 836-46. Print.
Johnson, James W. “Harlem: The Culture Capital.” The New Negro Voices of the Harlem Renaissance. New York: Touchstone, 1999. 309. Print.
Locke, Alain, comp. The New Negro Voices of the Harlem Renaissance. New York: Touchstone, 1999. Print.
Washington, Booker T. “Atlanta Compromise.” Speech. Cotton States and International Exposition. Atlanta. 18 Sept. 1895. Booker T. Washington Delivers the 1895 Atlanta Compromise Speech. History Matters. Web. 15 Oct. 2009. <http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/39/>.