The Harlem Renaissance and African American Identity
The Harlem Renaissance of the 1920’s was a pivotal era for African Americans. This was an era where African Americans produced a mass amount of literature, art, and music that represented and celebrated African American culture. The Harlem Renaissance also embarked “racial pride, and artistic expression” which “set a foundation for future activism” (Standish 40). This was the first time since the end of the Civil War where African American’s began to become more aggressive about fighting against the oppression and racism they faced as well as embracing their self-confidence. Although the Harlem Renaissance was set in Harlem, New York, there was an outbreak throughout different areas that celebrated blacks and spoke out against racism such as the Negritude movement for the French speaking blacks and also a movement in the British West Indies (Harden 8). Despite the various movements happening in different areas, the Harlem Renaissance was the most prominent and influential.
Several social situations influenced the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance such as the Great Migration, Jim Crow laws, and frequent lynching’s. The Great Migration was a time when a large amount of African Americans traveled from the south to the north in hopes of leaving behind the “mean brutality of southern racial bigotry” (Harden 8). This was the time after the Civil War where brutal racism and oppression rose greatly. The spark of chain of events that led to the Great Migration included the creation of Jim Crow laws, which essentially were created in order to suppress blacks from their rights and freedom. Furthermore, the amounts of lynching’s increasingly grew, with there being “more than four thousand reported lynching’s occur[ing] between 1877 and 1950” (Standish 41). All these factors pushed toward the Great Migration that eventually began the Harlem Renaissance. There was a great amount of people who were very well known during the Harlem Renaissance but Langton Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston are two of the most prominent writers of the time. Langston Hughes poem Theme for English B and Zora Neale Hurston’s essay How it Feels to Be Colored Me efficiently portray the American life, specifically for African Americans, by conveying their acknowledgement of being colored in areas that were predominantly white, being aware of the racial differences but also, expressing how despite these differences, they are American.
Langston Hughes is one of the most prominent writers of the Harlem Renaissance. He was recognized for depicting “African American pride” and portraying the “newly inspired, unapologetic voice of black America” (Standish 41). Hughes is greatly known for helping establish the newly found African American identity by opening up about personal experiences in his writing. In his poem Theme for English B, Hughes describes an assignment his professor assigned of writing a page that represents them. He begins the poem by stating “I am twenty-two, colored, born in Winston-Salem” (Hughes 1043). Hughes identifies that he is a young African American male in order to provide context to understand the contrasts he presents later on. He later states how he is “the only colored student in [his]class” (1043). Hughes points out that he is colored but emphasizes how he is the only person of color in his class to demonstrate the lack of diversity not only in in his school during that time but also the social segregation that was happening around them. Hughes attended school in a predominantly white area, therefore, being the only colored student in his class made him stick out a lot more.
Hughes then begins to describe things he enjoys doing and realizes that despite the racism occurring, the two races are very similar. He believed “being colored doesn’t make [him] not like the same things other folks like who are other races”(1043). Hughes expresses how despite being colored, he still shares similar interests with other races (including whites). He decides to include this in order to point out how they are more related and equal than they think or care to see. Hughes begins to try to compare and relate himself to his professor. He describes how his professor is “white—yet a part of [him], as [he] [is] a part of [him]. That’s American” (1044). Hughes acknowledges their differences yet he is able to find a connection between them, which is how they are both American. Despite being different races, different color and from different areas, they still share being American with each other, therefore, sharing a “part of them”. This is an important statement, which embodies not only the changed attitudes during the Harlem Renaissance but also the African American life during that time. Hughes represents the changed attitude of being more aggressive in wanting equality by demonstrating their equality by both being Americans.
Another important influential writer of the Harlem Renaissance is Zora Neale Hurston. Hurston is known for being able to “explore and capture Black cultural reality” (Harden 15). Especially in her essay How it Feels to Be Colored Me, Hurston vividly describes her experience as a child of when she was first made aware of being colored. Hurston was originally from Eatonville, Florida, a predominately colored neighborhood and it was not until she was sent to live in Jacksonville where she felt as though she did not fit in. Hurston begins the essay with the statement “I am colored” (Hurston 958). Hurston is very straightforward yet confident in how she is aware that she is a colored women, relating her American identity to being colored. Once Hurston was in her new environment, she felt as though her identity changed. She felt like she was “not Zora of Orange County any more, [she] was now a little colored girl” (959). Hurston’s identity changed when she moved because she felt as though she no longer fit in due to the racial differences of the area. She did not feel as if she was able to be just herself but as though she stood out and was viewed as solely the colored girl in her white neighborhood, meaning, the color of her skin defined her.
Furthermore, Hurston describes how she is not always made aware or made self-cautious of her racial oppression due to being colored. She states: “I do not always feel colored… I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background” (959). Hurston claims she is usually made aware that there are racial differences due to her skin color when she is forced to notice it, by being surrounded or in a environment where there are mostly people of white skin color who therefore, make her skin color seem much more noticeable. Hurston then provides an example of a situation where this happens such as “at Barnard…[she] feel[s] [her] race. Among the thousand white persons, [she] [is] a dark rock surged upon, and overswept, but through it all, [she] remain[ed] [her]self” (960). Just like Hughes, Hurston went to a school in a predominately white area. Similarly to Hughes poem, Hurston uses this experience to explain how she was one of the few colored people at her school, thus making her feel more aware of being black. Despite this realization of oppression and racism, Hurston expresses self-confidence, a common theme that was celebrated during the Harlem Renaissance, which emphasizes her views on African American identity during that time period. Lastly, just as Hughes does in his poem, Hurston points out how she is an American citizen but also colored. She believes she has “no separate feeling about being an American citizen and colored” (960). Stating that they are American allows them to show that being an American does not apply only to people who are white but people of color as well, further reclaiming their American identity. Hurston, along with Hughes, eloquently embodies the American identity of African American’s during the Harlem Renaissance.
In conclusion, the Harlem Renaissance presented various works of literature and art that helped embody the time period but also helped influence future aspects of society. The Harlem Renaissance brought forward black confidence which allowed them to express their desires and needs for changes in society. This movement and its works allowed blacks to represent their American identity and how the races are equal. The works presented, of Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, are works that can still be referenced to fight against the lasting oppression and racism that blacks face in society in present day.
Harden, Renata, et al. “Reading the Harlem Renaissance into Public Policy: Lessons from the Past to the Present.” Afro-Americans in New York Life & History, vol. 36, no. 2, July 2012, pp. 7–36.
Hughes, Langston. “Theme for English B.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature, by Robert S. Levine et al., W.W. Norton & Company, 2017, pp. 1043–1044.
Hurston, Zora Neale. “The Norton Anthology of American Literature.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature, by Robert S. Levine et al., W.W. Norton & Company, 2017, pp. 958–960.
Standish, Noah. “Pain, Pride, & Renewal: How Langston Hughes Embodied the Harlem Renaissance.” LOGOS: A Journal of Undergraduate Research, vol. 11, Fall 2018, pp. 40–50.