The 1920s and 30s are often trumped as a time of remarkable social and cultural growth in the peacetime that followed the Great War. Such is not uncommon in America’s history. However, in 1920, postwar America was that this growth was not reserved for just white Americans. If anything, black America and its residents saw the greatest progress through The Harlem Renaissance.
The attitude of white Americans towards blacks during the 1910s and 20s helped set the stage for The Harlem Renaissance, a cultural movement that bred literary, musical, and artistic advancement. The still substantial amount of [However,] black progress was stifled by disconnect within black scholars and the effects of the patronage system.
The Harlem Renaissance was made possible by the abundant racism in the south, the Great Migration that followed, and the subsequent abandonment of Harlem by middle- and upper-class whites. Following the end of slavery, from 1889 until 1923, at least 50 to 100 black people were lynched across the south every year. Most of the victims were (falsely) accused of rape, lynched more because of their skin color rather than whatever offense they might have committed.
Many lynchings were instigated by members of the revitalized Klu Klux Klan including 64 in 1918 and 83 in the year after. During the summer of 1919, across the US, racial tension came to a heated climax. In July 1919, several race riots broke out in major cities further escalating racial conflict. In Chicago, a black teen was stoned to death by teenage white beachgoers after swimming too far over into the “white area”.
When authorities arrived at the beach, no arrests were made further escalating the already tense conflict. This set off an entire week of riots across the city. As a result, 1000 black families had their homes burned to the ground, 500 people were injured, and 38 people died (15 white and 23 black). This event and others like it in Texas, Nebraska, and Tennessee made it clear that the Midwest and South were going to uphold black rights. If fear of death by a mob or the Klu Klux Klan was not enough, an abundance of factory jobs in the north made leaving the south more and more attractive.
Economic opportunity in the North also led to the Great Migration and the emergence of Harlem as a black neighborhood. When soldiers went off to fight in World War I, the labor force in the US was significantly reduced. To keep production up and enhance it further, many companies enlisted help from black sharecroppers down South. The long-held view of the North as the promised land also encouraged blacks to back up their bags. Upper- and middle- class whites soon allowed for the creation of a black-only community. The influx of European immigrants and blacks to New York scared people farther North, to more suburban neighborhoods.
Combined with black realtors and a church group buying several blocks worth of property in Harlem, this made it quite easy for blacks to find an apartment to rent. Because these people had to create a community for themselves, there a unique bond between Harlemites. White northerners’ dependency on black labor, southern disdain of blacks, and northern people distaste for blacks all ironically led to the formation of a black-only neighborhood and an explosion of black culture. The rise in literature and performing arts were the clearest markers of the expansion of black culture during the Harlem Renaissance.
This was spearheaded by a young group of writers, dubbed the Niggerati. These writers rebelled against the white literary community and the civil rights activists at the time. They wanted to use art as a means of expressing themselves without concern or anxiety. One member of this group, Langston Hughes, wrote an essay titled The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain which showed his and other Niggerati’ feelings on the matter. “We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame.
If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too… If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn’t matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves.” Hughes’ words were a very powerful rallying cry to writers and artists of the period. He was part of the reason that Van Vechten felt compelled to write Nigger Heaven.
Hughes also galvanized several other young black poets and artists into declaring their independence from the messages and ideas of conservative black leaders like the Talented Tenth. , The Talented Tenth was not a group, but rather older writers, such as W.E.B DuBois and others who believed and spoke about two main points. One, that “The Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men.” And two, that black artists should create works that show the respectability of blacks so that whites would see that they were all civilized. These beliefs drove a deep wedge between the Niggerati and the Talented Tenth.
Thus, the two groups clashed often making it hard for there to be one single unifying message coming from black leaders in Harlem. Inherently, was not the problem, disagreement is a hallmark of American democracy. The problem was their inability to compromise in any meaningful way. Because the black leaders could not agree on something as simple as the purpose of art and literature, they often spent just as much time condemning their black brothers and sisters as they did on their lack of civil liberties. This inner turmoil played a role in allowing whites to influence the movement. While black cultural growth during the Harlem Renaissance was significant, black artists and writers were still exploited by white writers and the Patronage System.
During the Harlem Renaissance, white northerners happened across a certain fascination with black life in Harlem. Among these was Carl Van Vechten. He famously -and controversially- wrote Nigger Heaven (the term for the balcony of a segregated theater). In it, he described Harlem’s darker side, much to the dismay of members of the Talented Tenth such as W.E.B. Du Bois. Du Bois characterized the title as insulting and the contents “an affront to the hospitality of black folk and to the intelligence of whites.” Critic Benjamin Brawley said Nigger Heaven was “the perfect illustration of a book that gives the facts but does not tell the truth.” Such quotes exemplify the exact feeling many Harlem blacks felt.
They feared that it would make blacks appear less respectable in the eyes of white people reading the book. Such fear was warranted, as the book was incredibly detailed about the ‘underbelly of the beast’.Van Vechten was also a patron of black writers, helping many publish their books. He appeared to be an important ally to black scholars during the 20s however he was quoted writing, “Jazz, the blues, and negro spirituals all stimulate me enormously for the moment… Doubtless, I shall discard them too in time.” It’s clear that he had no desire to do good, but rather to haven’t fun. Other patrons had similar philosophies.
Among these was Charlette Osgood Mason. She was a wealthy widow who decided to help black artists because she believed the Holy Spirit was strongest in the most primitive and child-like races. Her condescending nature also led her to demand strict obedience, requiring her ‘clients’ to read to only certain books, listen to particular music, attend specific plays, and even escort her to social events. Her restrictions went as far as the artwork produced, often having Aaron Douglas, an artist, withdraw from major commissions “that offended her sense of what was proper Negro art.”
Osgood Mason clearly saw her actions as helpful and possibly even holy given her perception of blacks as spiritual. And to an extent, they were, as she made it possible for several black writers and artists to get their works published and displayed. However, the way that she and other patrons treated their “beneficiaries” is similar to slavery. To think that such a comparison could be made and defended, 60 years after its abolition, speaks volumes about how little racial progress was being made. The Harlem Renaissance is an interesting place in America’s history due to the racial dynamics and progress that intermixed over its tenure. Southern and midwestern whites’ racism drove blacks farther North.
In New York City, white’s disgust in blacks gave migrating blacks a large neighborhood to call their own. This allowed for the cultural growth for which the Renaissance is so well known. Be that as it may, white patron’s fascination with black culture and their desire to profit off black success did cut back on the potential of the movement. Perhaps the Harlem Renaissance should be analyzed for what it could have been. Had it not been for the Great Depression and ill-intentioned white influencers, it could have been a turning point in race relations in the United States.