Monday, December 3, 2007

The Harlem Renaissance - A Spiritual Awakening

On a recent trip to New York City, my cab driver leaned out the window and said, "This is Harlem, you know, W.E.B. Dubois, Zora Neale Hurston, all that stuff." We quickly rounded the block. I barely had time to look back at the tall red brick buildings.

To my dismay, I had to admit that I knew very little about why this 3 mile square area of Manhattan was important. I'd seen movies about 1920's Harlem and heard the names of famous African-Americans tossed around at dinner parties but that was all I knew. In the small Southern town where I grew up, African-American culture was rarely discussed and if it was, it was always with a sense of dismissal or comedy. They were not to be taken seriously. As a teenager, I thought the only influential Black man in history was Martin Luthur King Jr. and even he was looked upon with a certain disdain.

I came home from my trip determined to learn more and fill the missing gaps in my history knowledge. Here is what I found:

The Harlem Renaissance, originally named the New Negro Movement, was a time of spiritual, intellectual, and literary awakening with an explosion of art, poetry and social thought. Between 1920 and 1930, almost 750,000 African Americans left the South, and many of them migrated to urban areas in the North to take advantage of the prosperity—and the more racially tolerant environment. The neighborhoods of Harlem drew nearly 175,000 African Americans, turning the area into one of the largest concentrations of Blacks in the world.

This instant community of determined, open minded people proved to be the perfect breeding ground for new thought proving the opportunity for group expression. It has been characterized as a time when social disillusionment was transformed into race pride.

Out of this environment came such influential people as poets Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen. Zora Neale Hurston and Nella Larsen wrote the first critically acclaimed novels by African-American women. They paved the way for giants such as Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Ralph Ellison and many others among a new generation of African-American novelists, poets and playwrights.

W.E.B. DuBois was the first African-American to earn a PhD. He once wrote to former President Rutherford B. Hayes, who in 1905 was the current head of a fund to educate Negros challenging him on his position that there was not one Negro in the country with the credentials to study abroad. DuBois anger about the statement caused him to apply to Hayes directly. DuBois was granted funding and sent to The University of Germany in Berlin. After which, Hayes assured DuBois that he'd been misquoted by the newspapers and never made the remark that angered him so.

W.E.B. DuBois went on to help found the NAACP and was the autocratic editor of it's journal "The Crisis" for over 25 years. He is called the father of social science due to his work in Philadelphia and tireless study and writings about his own social group. Martin Luthur King Jr. wrote of DuBois, "History cannot ignore W.E.B. DuBois because history has to reflect truth and Dr. DuBois was a tireless explorer and a gifted discoverer of social truths. His singular greatness lay in his quest for truth about his own people. There were very few scholars who concerned themselves with honest study of the black man and he sought to fill this immense void. The degree to which he succeeded disclosed the great dimensions of the man."

I love this quote I found - "Children learn more from what you are than what you teach." - W.E.B. DuBois 1987

I plan to keep exploring this part of history that seems to have been totally ignored by the adults in my life during my formative years. There are so many great Americans to discover and read about, so many to be inspired by, so many worthy of study by our young people. Maybe things have changed since I was in school and children are taught these things. It's sad to think that only college students who sign up for African-American studies are afforded this knowledge.


Peter said...

Hi! I read with great interest about this man I do not know. Always interested in History I did some background work and found that he was indeed a great man with a great cause. I just find it sad that in the final months of his life, DuBois became a Ghanian citizen after all that he had done.


Lisa McGlaun said...

I found that interesting and sad, too. But I think he was just totally disillusioned with the United States. If you think about it, he worked for change for over sixty years before giving up and moving elsewhere.

Thanks for the comment. Always great to hear from you, Peter.


Mr. Grudge said...

Hi Lisa,
Welcome back. I hope you enjoyed your time with your family. I worked in Harlem as a young rookie cop in the late 1980's and early 1990's The neighborhood is greatly misunderstood by folks who do not know its history and who have never been there. I am glad you experienced this wonderful part of the city. I remember standing on a footpost at 125th st. and Amsterdam Avenue as looking east. "So That's the Apollo Theatre?" I said aloud. That's when an older man nearby heard me, smirked and said "Welcome to Harlem, Officer." Have a great day.

Lisa McGlaun said...


That's a great memory. I wish I'd had time to explore the area but I didn't. My introduction was the cab driver's comments. Next trip to NY I have lots of places in mind that I want to see..Harlem and its history is one of them.


Moonshadow said...

Wonderful post, Lisa. Everyone should be so curious about the world around them. There's lots of history that isn't normally taught in our public schools. Along the same line, have you ever heard of Tuskegee? Several years ago my hubby and I had the opportunity to stop in and tour the museum at Tuskegee, fascinating history!

Lisa McGlaun said...


The Tuskegee Insitute. I don't know alot but what a great opportunity to learn. Thanks for pointing it out. You may see my research appear in a post one day soon..:)

Thanks for the comment.


Edward Blum said...

Great blog; there was a spiritual component to the writings of the Harlem Renaissance. You can see this really clearly in a book that I published a few months ago. It is a religious cultural biography of W. E. B. Du Bois, entitled _W. E. B. Du Bois, American Prophet_. In it, I tried to draw out the inner workings of Du Bois's religious approach to politics, culture, society, literature, etc. I think you may find it very interesting. If you do end up reading it, please let me know what you think. Best, Edward J. Blum

Lisa McGlaun said...

Mr. Blum,

I am honored to have your comment on my blog. I'd love to read your book and I'm happy that you found my blog.

I am very interested in this period of history and the social evolution of different races and cultures in our nation.

When I've read your work I will certainly take you up on the offer to contact you.


Edward Blum said...

Great Lisa! I look forward to hearing from you. My email address can be found easily at the San Diego State University history department website. Best, and happy holidays! - Edward J. Blum