By Isabella F.
African-American empowerment are the two words that come to mind when looking back at the Harlem Renaissance. This movement took place in the 1920s and early 1930s and, though the term is confusing, spread throughout numerous cities in the United States. The movement was not confined to Harlem but it is considered the symbolic capital as intellect and talent seemed to be concentrated in it. Media seemed to reveal itself in art forms during this period. Drama, visual art, poetry and literature (for which this movement is best known for) all became mediums for reflection and outlets to let go of long-held emotions. In this article I choose to focus on three media forms; drama, visual art and literature, to render my appreciation to the legacy of this movement, which for me is precisely these three pillars (though definitely not confined to them).
Black and white playwrights both contributed in presenting the “Negro life” through theater. Among the white playwrights’ works are Eugene O’Neill’s “The Emperor Jones”, Green’s “In Abraham’s Bosom” and Ridgely Torrence’s “Plays for a Negro Theater”. Georgia Douglas Johnson focused on folk experience and protested oppression. She explored lynching which was a common theme in the Harlem Renaissance drama by women. She believed that “mimicry, ostentatiousness, angular movement and playfulness characterized black folk expression” (Hutchinson). Her work is described as humorous as she exaggerates black life. While some take this as comedic, some regard this as a reinforcement of stereotypes.
Hurton was not the only artist who exaggerated features. Palmer Hayden also used this in his paintings. Hayden was born Peyton Hedgeman in Virginia in 1890. He was amongst the first artists to use African subjects and designs in his paintings. In his work The Watermelon Race the three men show exaggerated cartoon-like features, big noses and big mouths. He could have done this for many reasons and being art its up to the spectator to decode what he meant. It could’ve been a complaint to society, a release of his feelings or a means to show that racism was still alive even in a time where black’s rights were increasing.
Aaron Douglas was another painter whose theme also focused on the African heritage. He used cubism to portray important factors of African history, namely slavery. His paintings depict movement, which exhibit that same playfulness previously discussed in theater. He not only focuses on slavery in his time but also goes back to the Egyptians, which further emphasizes the importance that this played in his work and essentially in his life.
Again, the system of oppression is linked to all art forms of this time. Literature “explored the diversity of black experience across boundaries of class, colour and gender while implicitly or explicitly protesting antiblack racism” (Britannica). Nella Larsen and Rudolph Fisher were two novelists who focus on various aspects of racism such as racial psychology, class and sexuality. Larsen took the psychological perspective in her novels Quicksand and Passing, she analyzed race consciousness and explored the “pressures to subordinate woman’s sexuality to the rules of race and class” (Hutchinson). She attempts to comprehend or explicate through her work the complexity of race identification and its boundaries.
Novels weren’t the only form of literature present and flourishing in the renaissance, many resorted to poetry. There are; however, opposing views as to how poetry should’ve been regarded during those times. Some black poets believed that previous Anglo-American poetry belonged as much to them as to anyone else while others believed that blacks should form a distinct “negro art”. Langston Hughes was one of these artists that believed in a separate art. He relied on appealing to Negro identification, which he did by writing about working-class life and black popular culture.
The Harlem Renaissance ended in the 1940s but its legacy lives on. As in any point in history, great minds or in this case, artists, stand on the soldiers of past giants, “Black artists who began their careers after 1940 were either taught or influenced by their artistic forebears” (Museum of Art and Archaeology). In the work of these artists their apprehension of their ethnic heritage is consequence of the Harlem Renaissance. A great example is Jean-Michel Basquiat who still incorporated aspects common of the Harlem Renaissance (like the exaggerated, disproportioned human features). He also criticized specific aspects of African American treatment in his art, like the stereotypical roles that African American actors were allowed to play (i.e. gangsters and farm laborers). Now, in the twenty-first century, many artists reference Basquiat in their work, such is the case with famous rapper Jay-Z. My point with this is that the Harlem Renaissance was an event that gave way for more art to be produced- all possible because of the artists of that period who fought for change in their respective mediums. To this day museums still continue to put up exhibitions that focus on the tie that Harlem Renaissance art shares with current art and how it has developed since the 1940s.
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