The Harlem Renaissance, a Literary Movement of Purpose

by Tony Lindsay

            Few literary movements are actively constructed by the writers and even fewer have writers recruited to participate in the event. Writers: W.E.B. Du Bois,Alain Locke, James Weldon Johnson, and Charles S. Johnson whose workslead the New Negro movement were also responsible for its formation.The New Negro Movement, which was renamed The Harlem Renaissance by the New York Herald Tribune, was a literary movement of purpose (Lewis xxvi).   

            The purpose of the Harlem Renaissance was to advance African Americans towards full citizenship. The lesser second class citizenship that was readily applied to blacks was unacceptable to the newly educated, and this dissatisfaction was spreading through the mass of migrating blacks. This dissatisfaction yielded thought which sparked the New Negro Movement. From the essay, “The Negro Renaissance and its Significance” Charles S. Johnson writes of the era and the new movement:

American Negros in the 1920’s were just a little more than a half century on their rugged course to citizenship. This period was the comet’s tail of a great cultural ferment in the nation, the “melting pot” era, a period of ascendancy of unbridled free enterprise, of the open beginnings of class struggle and new and feeble mutterings of self-conscious labor; of muckrakers and social settlements, of the open and unabashed acceptance of “inferior and superior races and civilizations.”” (206-207)

The acceptance of being treated as an inferior was lessening with the migrating Negros; once out of the Jim Crow south, once free of sugar plantations, and once they reached the streets of Harlem in the 1920s - none wanted to be treated as a second class citizen. An ascendance occurred with migration and astute leaders knew this.

The principals of the new movement: W.E.B. Du Bois,Alain Locke, James Weldon Johnson, and Charles S. Johnsonvaried in their ideals, but the overall goal of directing the Harlem Renaissance to the benefit African Americans (Negros in the text) by moving the populous towards full citizenship did not falter; the principals were in unison targeting the one goal. W.E.B. Du Bois, the most noted scholar of the principals, initiated the movement with an idea.

William Edward Burghardt Du Bois’ idea of the talented tenth gave early structure to the Harlem Renaissance (Buck 1047). Du Bois argued that only a select few should be educated, and that few should represent the masses of Negros to white Americans.And this few should lead the mass. In his 1903 manifesto, titled after the idea,Du Bois states:

The Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men. The problem of education, then among Negroes must first of all deal with the Talented Tenth: it is the problem of developing the Best of this race that they may guide the Mass away from the contamination and death of the Worst, in their and other races. (Du Bois 1)

            The “talented tenth” who received the education would lead the mass to an uplifted state.Du Bois and other intellectuals of his era concluded that if Negros wereseen as equals by white Americans in arts and letters (being equal in intellect) then perhaps they would be viewed as equals in humanity. Nathan Irvin Higgins notes:

Inequities due to race might be best removed when reasonable men saw that black men were thinkers, strivers, doers, and were cultured, like themselves. Harlem intellectuals with their progressive assumptions, saw themselves as the ones most likely to make this demonstration. (qtd in  Pearson 124)

For such a drastic change in the country’s thinking to occur, Negro scholars like Du Bois calculated that if the best Negro writers in the country converged and produced art- this production would be respected by white America, and thereby move the Negro towards equality and full citizenship. Du Bois, “until the art of black folk compels recognition they will not be rated as humans” (Lewis xiv).

This gathering and collecting of work from the most talented tenth of the Negro race was the beginning of the New Negro Movement in Harlem. At the onset of the movement,W.E.B. Du Bois was a man of fifty years, not a potential young creative but an established writer. He had published scholarly work (“The Suppression of the African Slave Trade,” “The Talented Tenth,” “The Philadelphia Negro”), newspapers (The Moon, Horizon, The Crisis), earned his PhD from Harvard, and initiated the Niagara Movement in response to Booker T. Washington’s “Tuskegee Machine.”Du Bois’ talented tenth manifesto differed drastically from the ideals of the established leader, Booker T. Washington.(Du Bois 247-253).

Washington was more concerned with blacks providing labor for the South and thereby filling their immediate need for employment and the South’s need for labor. Du Bois considered Washington’s thinking subservient due to the little value he gave education. Developing a movement outside of the influence of Booker T. Washington was needed for the advancement of the Negro race in Du Bois’ opinion.He sates:

The black men of America have a duty to perform, a duty stern and delicate- a forward movement to oppose a part of the work of their greatest leader. So far as Mr. Washington preaches Thrift, Patience, and Industrial Training for the masses, we must hold up his hands and strive with him, rejoicing in his honors and glorying in the strength of this Joshua called of God and of Man to lead the headless host. But so far as Mr. Washington apologizes for injustice, North or South, does not rightly value the privilege and duty of voting, belittles the emasculating effects of caste distinctions, and opposes the higher training and ambition of our brighter minds-so far as he, the South, or the Nation, does this-we must unceasingly and firmly oppose him. By every civilized and peaceful method we must strive for the rights which the world accords to men . . .” (Du

Bois 245)

            Du Bois wanted intelligent Negro minds thinking, writing, voting, and competing with white America, not picking cotton.

As a scholar meeting with heads of state, captains of industry, and academics from all over the world - Du Bois’ involvements with world affairs were many.But, making certain that the New Negro Movementwas championed by the talented tenthwas one of his major concerns.He wanted the movement to be free of the existing establishment control (Booker T. Washington and the Tuskegee Machine); instead,growing truly from the intellect of the talented tenth thereby ensuring that it would be a Negro movement targeting Negro needs, not issues prescribed by the Tuskegee Machine such as labor concerns for the South (Du Bois 270).

Alain Locke, one of the talented tenth Du Bois hoped would lead Negros to a better existence within America, was an accomplished academic when the New Negro Movement began. His work with the Survey Graphic (1925) expanded into one of the premier pieces of the Harlem Renaissance, The New Negro.

Locke partially agreed with Du Bois; he did think the talented tenth would uplift the Negro race; but, “It does not follow that if the Negro were better known, he would be better liked or better treated. But mutual understanding is basic for any subsequent cooperation and adjustment” (“New Negro” 8-9).      

Locke’s purpose was not so much to find talented writers for the movement as it was to define the talented tenth. First, he told white America who the New Negro or talented tenth was not; he informed, “the day of “aunties,” “uncles” and “mammies is equally gone. Uncle Tom and Sambo have passed on . . .” (“New Negro” 5).A New Negro was amidst in the country; one thatmigrated from the South and the West Indies seeking opportunity in the North, specifically in Harlem. From Charles S. Johnson’s article, “The New Frontage on American Life,” he writes:

And there was New York City with its polite personal service and its Harlem – the Mecca of Negroes the country over. Delightful Harlem of the effete East! Old families, brownstone mansions, a step from worshipful Broadway, the end of the rainbow for early relatives drifting from home into the exciting world; the factories and the docks, the stupendous clothing industries, and buildings to be “superintended,” a land of opportunity for musicians, actors and those who wanted to be, the national headquarters of everything but the government. (279)

This newly migrated Negro, according to Locke, didn’t want equality given as a present or gift; he felt equality was his God given right as an American. Slavery entitled him to equal citizenship;serving in WWI entitled himto citizenship, and having his labor exploited through poor wages entitled him to first class citizenship (“New Negro” 10-11).

The New Negro Locke defines“resents being spoken of as a social ward or minor, even by his own, and to being regarded a chronic patient for the sociological clinic, the sick man of American Democracy” (“New Negro” 10).It was Locke’s intention to make America aware of this New Negro through the arts and letters. If he exposed white America to the educated- new thinking Negro the country would respect their intellect and recognize them as full citizens.

America would see that it wasn’t a hand-out or parenting the New Negro needed, but a fair opportunity to contribute to the society that their predecessors’ blood and labor help build.This would happen if the talented tenth of the Negro population met with the talented tenth of the white American population,and for the meeting to affect America’s and the Negro’s future it had to be intellectuals that met. Locke, “and that the only safeguard for mass relations in the future must be provided in the carefully maintained contacts of the enlightened minorities of both race groups” (“New Negro” 9).Locke viewed the Harlem Renaissance as a political tool that if properly understood and used would benefit the Negro talented tenth in meeting the white American talented tenth.

Alain Locke hoped that through defining the New Negro an understanding of the Negro people would be gained; if white America understood the educated talented tenth of the Negro, a clear vision of the mass would occur moving it closer to full citizenship. Locke’s New Negro with his fresh thinking was a harbinger of a changing America:

The Younger Generation comes, bringing its gifts. They are the first fruits of the Negro Renaissance. Youth speaks, and the voice of the New Negro is heard. What stirs inarticulately in the masses is already vocal upon the lips of the talented few, and the future listens, however the present may shut its ears.

(“New Negro” 47)

Locke did more than define the talented tenth in general; he identified some by name inThe New Negro: Arna Bontemps, Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, Zore Neale Hurston, and Jean Toomer to name a few. However,within the anthology he not only gathered the works of the young talented tenth but the senior principals of the movement were recorded as well including James Weldon Johnson. Steven Watson in his work The Harlem Renaissance agrees with Locke’s identification:

The connections and abilities Johnson developed during his first fifty years proved extraordinarily instrumental - atthe onset of the New Negro movement . . . In his cosmopolitan learning, his statesman like style, and his remarkable accomplishments, he embodied the Talented Tenth. (22)

Unlike Du Bois, James Weldon Johnson benefited greatly from his alliance with Booker T. Washington and the “Tuskegee Machine”: a consulate position, lyricist for a president, editorial position with the New York Age, translating placements, speech writer for a presidential candidate, and the re-issuing of his poorly selling and anonymously written novelThe Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man(Lewis, Harlem 148-149).However, like Du Bois and Locke, Johnson believed “a demonstration of intellectual parity by the Negro through the production of literature and art” would bring full citizenship that much closer to the Negro (qtd in Bell 87).

James Weldon Johnson, considered a traditional renaissance man, was an accomplished: songwriter, educator, playwright, poet, publisher, and political organizer. He valued high culture, so much so that he changed his christened name from James William to James Weldon due to ‘Weldon’ having a more cultured ring. His concerns for the New Negro Movement were not around the everyday art of the common black man or even folk art.Being a class conscious person and a member of the upper middle class of Negros, his purpose was to encourage and promote high culture art within the New Negro Movement. The article James Weldon Johnson in the NAACP History database states:

Johnson developed his own philosophy on lessening racism in America. While W.E.B. Du Bois advocated intellectual development and Booker T. Washington advocated industrial training to combat racism, Johnson believed that it was important for blacks to produce great literature and art. By doing so, Johnson held that blacks could demonstrate their intellectual equality and advance their placement in America. (“Johnson”)

Johnson considered himself a cultured member of the Negro upper middle class, andhe stoodapart from the poor and uneducated mass; however, from his culturally elevated position he did what he believed was best for Negros.

He promoted those who created high cultured art because the Negro needed high culture to be considered worthy by history;Johnson, “The final measure of the greatness of all peoples is the amount and standard of the literature and art. No peoplethat has produced great literature and art has ever been looked upon by the world as distinctly inferior” (Lewis, Harlem 149).

It would be the talented tenth who produced high cultured art that would improve how Negros on a whole would be viewed. The art the Harlem Renaissance writers produced had to reflect high culture so that the world, specifically white America, would recognize the humanity of the Negro. Not all the elders of the Harlem Renaissance took such a lofty stance.As a sociologist, Charles Spurgeon Johnson was more inclusive in his thoughts and beliefs.

Referred to as “the principal architect of the Harlem Renaissance” Charles S. Johnson’s purpose in regards to the New Negro Movement was twofold (Lewis 206).Onewas to acquiremoney and publishing opportunities for the young writers of the movement.Through his position as the National Urban League’s Director of Research and Investigations, he was able to meet that purpose. He secured publishing opportunities with major New York houses for unknown Negro writers. And through the Urban League’s Opportunity: A journal in Negro Life, he was able to publish many new Negro authors bringing their work to America’s attention(Lewis 206).

Johnson provided publishing opportunities that produced money and exposure for Harlem Renaissance writers. Gilpin, “Langston Hughes wrote in 1940 that Charles S. Johnson ‘did more to encourage and develop Negro writers during the 1920’s than anyone else in America’ ” (215). This was the attitude of the talented tenth toward Johnson.

Johnson also held monthly contests sponsored by Opportunity that continually provided a market place for new Negro talent. Gilpininforms that it was the Opportunity contest and dinners that were most successful in promoting “the new awakening of black culture.”Hewrites:

Johnson continued to use the contest to promote black men and women of letters. Even while the first contest was in process, the “New Negro Movement” was making concrete gains. Part of Johnson’s promotional scheme was to involve leading literary figures as contest judges. In all there were to be twenty-four judges involved in the first contest. . . Almost every month Johnson used the contest to promote the mutual interest of the black literati and white patrons. (238-239)

And to gain the reputation of “the principle architect,”Johnson proved himself quite the manipulator of the Negro upper middle class and wealthy white Americans beginning with a dinner at New York’s Civic Club. As historian David Levering Lewis writes from When Harlem was in Vogue:

. . . he intended to secure this unique moment for an Afro-American effort at breakthrough. On March 21, the moment came, in a magic evening at the Civic Club. White railroad heir and Urban League board member William H. Baldwin III had been delighted to wield his considerable influence in the right places, especially with Fredrick Lewis Allen, the Harpers & Brothers editor. As Baldwin recalled, “Allen invited a small ‘small but representative group from his field.’ And Charles S. Johnson ‘supplied an equally representative group of Negroes.’” (93)

            The other half of Johnson’s purpose was to uplift the Negro spirit and self-image, and he felt that the writings of New Negro writers could do this. He encouraged these writers to create work that would uplift their people by improving their self-esteem which had been damaged through the oppressive treatment of America.As a sociologist, his concern was for the Negro mass.

He wanted the work of talented tenth to advance the populous not just appeal to white Americans to make an impression in hopes being seen as an equal. He wanted the Harlem Renaissance writings to function, to instill pride, and to fight segregation. In the article,“Combating Racism with Art”scholar Ralph L. Pearson states:

Who better than black artist themselves could capture the “interest and beauty” of black lives that could emancipate much of the race from feelings of inferiority. Here, then, is the framework for understanding how the Harlem Renaissance became for Johnson a means to change the self-image of many blacks and, in the end, to alter race relations. Evidence of black talent equal to that of other races could be an important step in the direction of race pride. (125)

            Race pride was a major concern of Charles S. Johnson. He thought a people who saw themselves as inferior would accept bias and unequal treatment from others. People who viewed themselves as inferior would not fight against racism or demand citizenship. For a race to advance, individuals had to advance within themselves. Pearson:

Johnson was among the earliest sociologists to emphasize the psychological toll discrimination and segregation had taken on blacks and to combat the behavioral adjustmentsthe race made to survive and function in American society. He foughtthe resulting sense of inferiority so many of his race had lived with because he knew that until blacks conceived of themselves as equals with other races they could not begin to relate, and so be treated, as equals.(125)

            Charles S Johnson’s goal for the Harlem Renaissance was identical to the other principals of the movement; he wanted to advance the political, economic, educational, and social status of Negros during his era in hopes of a better future. His tactic was to improve the self-image of individuals through the writing of the talented tenth. He encouraged the young writers of the Harlem Renaissance to write about the Negro experience thereby illustrating his strength, his humanity, and his desire for fair play.

Johnson was not against the high culture writing James Weldon Johnson prescribed, but he valued the recording of everyday life in art: the common music, the common lyric, the laborer’s poem, the seamstress’ song, the chain gang’s melody, the tall tales from a bar stool, and folklore legends; they all had value for Johnson. He believed that the New Negro writers “had to free themselves from the hold white cultural values exercised upon their art,” (Pearson 126). And the young Harlem Renaissance writers had to free themselves of the influence of mimicking upper middle class Negro’s on their art as well.

            In Johnson’s thought, this mimicking or following the leads of high cultured white Americans would lessen the essence of what was truly Negro in the art. If the young writers imitated the white writers that came before them then would not create art that would raise the Negros’ self-esteem or self-image. If the young writers imitated white writers they would not be creating work the populous would identify with and value; the message that the Negro was an equal to any man had to carried by Negro characters and in storylines that reflected Negro life.

            A Negro citizen who thought more of himself required more from his country thereby moving him closer to full citizenship.

            There were four principals of the Harlem Renaissance: W.E.B. Du Bois, Alain Locke, James Weldon Johnson, and Charles S. Johnson. Though their reasons and purposes for being involved in the movement differ, they shared the common goal of the betterment of theNegro by bringing the mass to full citizenship.

            W.E.B Du Bois’ idea of the talented tenth stemmed from Reverend Henry L. Morehouse who coined the term in 1896. Morehouse “envisioned a class of erudite and upright African Americans emerging as a vanguard for the black community” (Buck 1047).This talent was gathered in one area largely due to Du Bois moving to New York.

            He like many intellectuals of the timewas dissatisfied with Booker T. Washington’s policy of accommodation. When Du Bois moved to New York, many of the talented tenthwho were also in disagreement with Washington followed his lead.They also shared his ideas about the talented tenth leading Negro’s to a better condition, and with Du Bois in Harlem they summarized that would be the place to voice their opinions and show their talents (Rhodes 2).

            Du Bois and the talented tenth that followed him where upset with more than Booker T Washington’s accommodation policy; they spoke and wrote against the race riots of 1919, the poor treatment and lynching of returning soldiers, the suppression of the Negro vote, and they found their views not only in conflict with the “Tuskegee Machine” but with what many coined “old negro thinking.” The New Negro, the talented tenth gathered and labeled by Du Bois were not with patiently waiting as the old Negro had done; they applied the scholastic abilities and creative prose and wrote papers of protest that proved that they intelligent, diligent, and aware of America’s maltreatment.

            Once gathered and writing, Alain Locke took up the call of informing white America that the talented tenth existed and was capable of producing work worthy of merit and equal toif not better than their white counter parts.The New Negro, the first anthology of the Harlem Renaissance was the most effective bullhorn used to notify America that the talented tenth had arrived. Of these writers Locke wrote:

These constitute a new generation not because of years only, but because of a new aesthetic and a new philosophy of life. They have all swung above the horizon in the last three years, and we can say without disparagement of the past that in that short space of time they have gained collectively from publishers, editors, critics and the general public more recognition than has ever before come to Negro creative artist in an entire working lifetime. (49)

            Alain Locke the first Negro Rhodes Scholar truly believed that if Negros intellectuals and white intellectuals viewed each other as equals that would be an initial step in moving the Negro mass towards full citizenship.

            James Weldon Johnson agreed with Du Bois and Locke that it would be the talented tenth that would change the relationship between Negros and white Americans. However, he thought the work produced by the talented tenth had to reflect high culture. The article James Weldon Johnson from the Schomburg Guide to Black Literature states:

Johnson believed that a wider appreciation for African American writers could be achieved only by transcending what he perceived to be limiting cultural aspects of African American literature, such as the “Negro dialect.” He strove to maintain the delicate balance of appealing to the mainstream white audience without betraying African American culture.” (Weldon 233)

            Johnson encouraged young writers of the Harlem Renaissance to avoid Negro dialect and to reach for more cultured themes and tone. In his opinion it would be the production of high cultured art that would bring the Negro closer to full citizenship.

The other Johnson principal, Charles S. Johnson took a different stance in his tutelage of young Harlem Renaissance writers; he encouraged them to write from the experience of Negro life. He argued that to lift the Negro mass individuals’ self-esteem had to be raised, and this could not be done if Negros were reading stories that mimicked white America in plot and character.

Johnson also understood that life as a young creative, even for those of the talented tenth, presented financial challenges. He did his best to ensure that monies and publishing opportunities flowed their way. He moved Negros closer to full citizenship by advising the talented tenth to write stories for and about Negros that would raise the self-esteem of the individual and thereby the mass. 

The purpose of the Harlem Renaissance was to advance African Americans towards full citizenship. W.E.B. Du Bois,Alain Locke, James Weldon Johnson, and Charles S. Johnson varied in their tactics, but the overall goal of directing the Harlem Renaissance to the benefit Negros by moving the populous towards full citizenship did not falter; Du Bois did this gathering the talented tenth, Locke through promoting young Harlem Renaissance writers, Johnson through encouraging the production of high cultured art, and Charles S. Johnson through advising the talented tenth to write stories that would raise the Negro self-esteem. Each of these principalstactics gave the Harlem Renaissance purpose.The Harlem Renaissance was a literacy movement with purpose.


Works Cited

Bell, Bernard W. The Afro-American Novel and Its Tradition.Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press

Buck, Christopher George. “Talented Tenth.” Encyclopedia of African American History. Ed. Leslie Alexander. 1 vols. California: ABC-CLIO, 2010. 1047-1048. Print.

Du Bois, William Edward Burghardt. The Autobiography of W.E.B. Du Bois.Canada: International Publishers, 2003, Print.

Gilpin, Patrick J. “Charles S. Johnson: Entrepreneur of the Harlem Renaissance.” The Harlem Renaissance Remembered. Ed. Arna Bontemps.  New York: Dodd, 1972. 215-246. Print.

Johnson, Charles Spurgeon.“The Negro Frontage on American Life.”The New Negro.Ed. Alain Locke. New York: Antheneum,1968. 5-16. Print.

Johnson, Charles Spurgeon. “The Negro Renaissance and its Significance.” The Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader.  New York: Penguin Books 206-218. Print.

“James Weldon Johnson.” NAACP Historyn.d.: 1-2 NAACP. Web. 11 Nov. 2012

“James Weldon Johnson.” The Schomburg Center Guide to Black Literature. Ed. Roger M. Valade III and Denise Kasinec. Detroit: Gale, 1996. Print.

Lewis, David Levering. The Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader. New York: Penguin Books, 1995. Print.

Lewis, David Levering. When Harlem was in Vogue. New York: Knopf, 1981. Print.

Locke, Alain. “The New Negro.”The New Negro. Ed. Alain Locke. New York: Antheneum, 1968. 5-16. Print.

Pearson, Ralph L.  “Combatting Racism with Art, Charles S. Johnson and the Harlem Renaissance.”  American Studies, Vol. 18, No. 1: Spring 1977. University of Kansas Libraries.Web. 10 Nov. 2012.

Rhodes, Henry. “The Social Contributions to The Harlem Renaissance.” 20th Century Afro-American Culture 1978, Vol. II: 2012. Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute. Web. 23 Oct. 2012.

Watson, Steven. The Harlem Renaissance.New York: Pantheon, 1995. Print.

The Harlem Renaissance, a Literary Movement of Purpose by Tony Lindsay

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