Jazz, Social Commentary, and the Harlem Renaissance

Fighting for Freedom Abroad…and at Home.

3 May 2020

Fighting for Freedom Abroad…and at Home.

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On February 17, 1919, a mass of nearly two thousand black soldiers triumphantly and stoically marched up Fifth Avenue in New York City in a tight formation reminiscent of the allied French infantries. These men, members of Harlem’s 369th Regiment, were dubbed by their German foes as the Harlem Hellfighters; they valiantly fought for freedom abroad for nearly two hundred consecutive days and facilitated the Allied invasion of the Rhine. For their bravery, they were awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French commanding officers. Once the regiment reached its destination of Harlem, the soldiers broke ranks and were rejoined with friends and family. It was, perhaps, at that moment that the age of the “New Negro” had arrived–the African American community would use all means necessary to procure the respect of the white population and quell the subjugation, denigration, and inequity from which they suffered since the advent of slavery. The Harlem Renaissance, “that dramatic upsurge of creativity in literature, music and art within black America that reached its zenith in the second half of the 1920s,” would be the fulcrum by which the African American community would strive to achieve its leverage. 

Soldiers of the 369th Infantry Regiment parade up Fifth Avenue in New York City on Feb. 17, 1919. Image courtesy of the New York National Guard.

Nathan Huggins affirmed this sentiment when he declared, “The aura of the post-war decade, epitomized in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘younger generation’ and the Jazz Age, was reflected among Negro intellectuals too. They created the ‘New Negro.’” Alain Locke clarified, “The Old Negro, we must remember, was a creature of moral debate and historical controversy. He has been a stock figure perpetuated as an [sic] historical fiction.”


Lt. Jim Europe’s 369th Infantry “Hell Fighters” Band “Memphis Blues” (W. C. Handy). March 3, 1919.

 



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