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.