Jazz, Social Commentary, and the Harlem Renaissance

The “New Negro.”

5 May 2020

The “New Negro.”

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Alain LeRoy Locke has been proclaimed as the “Dean of the Harlem Renaissance” for his conviction to cultivating cultural change in America. In 1925, he published the epoch-making anthology, The New Negro. The collection portended a “new spirit is awake in the masses, and under the very eyes of the professional observers is transforming what has been a perennial problem into the progressive phases of contemporary Negro life.” He lamented, “…for generations in the mind of America, the Negro has been more of a formula than a human being—a something to be argued about, condemned or defended, to be ‘kept down,’ or ‘in his place,’ or ‘helped up,’ to be worried with or worried over, harassed or patronized, a social bogey or a social burden.” The turn of the twentieth century, however, realized that “[i]n the very process of being transplanted, the Negro is becoming transformed.”

 The transplantation to which Locke was referring was the Great Migration—a mass exodus of African Americans who fled to points North, East, and West:

The wash and rush of this human tide on the beach line of the northern city centers is to be explained primarily in terms of a new vision of opportunity, of social and economic freedom, of a spirit to seize, even in the face of an extortionate and heavy toll, a chance for the improvement of conditions.

Locke, in direct opposition to Du Bois, asserted:

My chief objection to propaganda, apart from its besetting sin of monotony and disproportion, is that it perpetuates the position of group inferiority even in crying out against it. For it leaves and speaks under the shadow of a dominant majority whom it harangues, cajoles, threatens or supplicates. It is too extroverted for balance or poise or inner dignity and self-respect. Art in the best sense is rooted in self-expression and whether naive or sophisticated is self-contained. In our spiritual growth genius and talent must more and more choose the role of group expression, or even at times the role of free individualistic expression—in a word must choose art and put aside propaganda.

In 1925, Locke compiled and edited a corpus of work, which included fiction, poetry, drama, prose, plays, music historiography, and illustrations by black and white artists. The intention was to demonstrate that “[e]ach generation…will have its creed and that of the present is the belief in the efficacy of collective effort, in race cooperation.” The anthology was among Locke’s most weighty contributions to his legacy—The New NegroAn Interpretation.

In the introduction to Locke’s opus, Arnold Rampersad espouses, “To many scholars and critics of the movement known as the Harlem Renaissance…The New Negro is its definitive text, its Bible.” It is quite telling that a tome of this magnitude reserves a miniscule portion of its contents to the significance of music to the movement; merely twenty-eight pages of the four hundred and fifty-two (not including front matter) are used to discuss or illustrate music’s role in the Harlem Renaissance. Moreover, some of what is included within the dearth of material is poetry; the implication is obvious. Locke, being aligned with his contemporaries, discounted the unifying power of music and relegated its role to the periphery. Later scholars, such as Samuel A. Floyd, Jr., attempted to remediate this issue.


 



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