Immigration and Migration
During the nineteenth century, the American racial dilemma had appeared to be a regional problem. The Northern states had abolished slavery early in the century, and the abolitionists self-righteously condemned Southern slaveholders while remaining unaware of their own racism. However, the twentieth century showed that racism was really a national issue. Thousands of Afro-Americans moved from the rural South into the urban North, creating a more even distribution of that population throughout the country. At the same time, there was a fresh wave of voluntary immigration into America by peoples with an African heritage. Most of these newcomers also moved into Northern cities. As thousands of blacks spread into the North and West, the inhabitants there developed sympathies with Southern racists. Actually, this population shift only unearthed attitudes which had been there all the time. This gigantic migration of peoples was symptomatic of the change in the heart of the black community. It signaled a new dynamism and a new aggressiveness.
The voluntary black immigration which occurred during the twentieth century was a new and unusual phenomenon. Almost all blacks who had previously come to America had been brought in chains. Those who came voluntarily during this century came in spite of their knowledge that racism would confront them. Their awareness of American racism, however, was an abstraction and was only partially understood by them. Nevertheless, they saw America as the land of prosperity and opportunity at a time when, for many of them, social and economic conditions in their homeland did not seem promising. While only a few came from Africa itself, except as students staying for a limited period, there was a swelling flow from the West Indies and the entire Caribbean area.
At the beginning of the 1920s, the United States imposed a new quota system on new immigrants and this drastically slowed the influx of people from South and East Europe. In spite of the racist and ethnic overtones of this legislation, it failed to build significant barriers to movement by blacks within the western hemisphere. During the 1920s large numbers of blacks came to the United States from other parts of the Americas. By 1930 eighty-six percent of the foreign-born Negroes living in the United States were born in some other country in this hemisphere. By far the largest number of these, seventy-three percent, came from the West Indies and most of them were from the British West Indies.
By 1940, there were some eighty-four thousand foreign-born Negroes living in the country. As large as this total might appear, still less than one percent of the twelve million Negroes were recorded in the 1940 census. Most of these new immigrants went to live in large cities in the Northeast, with by far the majority being concentrated in New York City itself. At the point when the influx was at its highest, in 1930, seventeen percent of the Negroes in New York City were foreign born.
An unusually high percentage of these newcomers had held white-collar occupations-- mostly young professionals with little hope of advancement in the static economy of the Islands. Although they were aware of the American racial situation, they were still unprepared to cope with it. Most of them were accustomed to being part of the majority in their homeland. They had experienced discrimination before, but it had not been as uncompromising as what they found on arrival in America. Society, as they knew it, was divided into whites, mulattoes, and blacks instead of into black and white. Many mulattoes were not psychologically ready for the experience of being lumped in with the Blacks. Moreover, the racism they knew had been modified by an economic class system which left some of the poor whites with less status than that of professional blacks. Coming to America, for them, meant a loss of status although it might also mean an increase in affluence.
James Weldon Johnson described the West Indian immigrants as being almost totally different from the Southern rural Negroes who had moved into New York City. He said that the West Indians displayed a high intelligence, many having an English commmon- school education, and he noted that there was almost no illiteracy among them. He also said that they were sober-minded and had a genius for business enterprise. It has been estimated that one-third of the city's Negro professionals, physicians, dentists, and lawyers, were foreign born.
The West Indians had an ethos which stressed saving, education, and hard work. The same self-confidence and initiative which enabled substantial numbers of them to move into professional employment made others into political radicals. Unaccustomed to the intensity of racial hostility and harassment which they found in America, they reacted with anger. They had not been trained since birth in attitudes of submission and nonresistance. This was the phenomenon which created Marcus Garvey and the United Negro Improvement Association. The West Indian community had been gradually merging with the larger Afro-American society. It never established a separate place of residence, and the second generation became mixed with the larger Afro-American community. After the Second World War, there was a fresh wave of emigration from the West Indies to America, but the 1952 Immigration Act drastically reduced the West Indian quota, thereby 'deflecting this stream of emigrants to Britain.
In contrast, the Spanish-speaking immigrants from the Caribbean did establish separate communities. After the United States acquired Puerto Rico, a sizeable number of Puerto Ricans moved to the mainland. This flow began as a trickle at the beginning of the century, and it has grown rapidly since. Most of the Puerto Ricans settled in urban centers in the Northeast, and they established a large, Spanish-speaking community in New York City. The migration of Cubans into America, while not as large, has been important in both Miami and New York. The largest number of Cubans came during the 1950s and 1960s.
In 1910, the Puerto Rican community in New York City numbered only five hundred, but by 1920 it had grown to seven thousand. In 1940, the number of New York residents who had been born in Puerto Rico reached seventy thousand, and in 1950, it jumped to one hundred eighty seven thousand. The 1960 census showed that the Puerto Rican community of New York City, including those born in Puerto Rico as well as those born in America of Puerto Rican parentage, had reached 613,000.
The Spaniards in Latin America had intermarried with both the Indians and Africans to a far highier degree than had the Anglo-Saxons in North America. For this reason, it is much more difficult to identify the racial background of individual Puerto Ricans. Certainly, there was a significant African influence on the entire population of the island. In 1860, it was estimated that almost 50 percent of the island's residents were Negro. In 1900, the percentage had dropped to 40 percent, and, by 1950, it had dropped to 20 percent. The change in these statistics was due to assimilation through intermarriage. Those who migrated to the continent did not include many with dominant negroid characteristics. The 1960 New York City census listed only 4 percent of its Puerto Ricans as being Negro. Nathan Glazer and Daniel P. Moynihan, in their study of this community, believed that the Puerto Rican racial attitudes may alter the racial views of the entire city and thereby have some effect on the nation. Puerto Ricans are not as race conscious as are most Americans. Most of them are not clearly either black or white. Intermarriage between color groups is common. The Puerto Rican community in New York City is more conscious of being a separate, Spanish- speaking community than it is of being either a black or white one.
The other major Caribbean element in the American Spanish- speaking community comes from Cuba. In 1960, the Cuban community in the United States, including those born in Cuba as well as those born in America of Cuban parentage, totaled 124,416. Only 6.5 percent of this community is nonwhite, while 25 percent of the population in Cuba is nonwhite. The Cuban community in the United States has almost 46 percent of its number living in the Northeast, and it has another 43 percent living in Florida. Almost the entire community is divided between the cities of Miami and New York.
This immigration of foreign-born blacks into the cities of the North and West was concurrent with a sizeable movement of American blacks from the rural South into these same cities. Actually, this internal migration was not new. As soon as the Northern states had begun to abolish slavery, runaways from the slave states in the South began to trickle into the North. As the underground Railway developed, this trickle swelled into a sizeable flow.
Immediately after the Civil War, the flow reversed directions for a short time. Many who had run away during the war returned home to be with friends and family. Thousands of others, born in the North, hurried south to help educate and rehabilitate their brothers. However, this flow was short-lived. As the South moved from slavery into segregation, hope slid into disillusionment and cynicism. In 1878-79 there was a wave of migration from the south into the West. "Pap" Singleton, an ex-slave from Tennessee, had come to the conclusion that the ex-slaveholder and the ex- slave could not live together in harmony, and he believed that the best solution was to develop a separate society. As a result, he formed the Tennessee Real Estate and Homestead Association, but there was not enough land available in Tennessee for the program. Finally, he decided that Kansas was the ideal location in which to build a separate Negro society. Various transportation companies saw this scheme as a way for them to make money, and they encouraged this westward migration.Although the original migrants to Kansas were welcomed, opposition grew as their numbers increased. Before his death in1892, Singleton became disillusioned with the possibilities of developing a separate society anywhere in the United States, and he came to favor a return to Africa. He believed that this was the only place where his people could escape racial discrimination. Nevertheless, Singleton took pride in his work, and he claimed, probably with some exaggeration, to have been responsible for transporting some 82,000 Afro-Americans from the South into Kansas.
Another ex-slave, Henry Adams, called a New Orleans Colored Convention in 1879 to examine the condition of the ex-slave throughout the South. A committee was formed for this purpose. It found the situation discouraging and recommended migration into other regions. Another convention held in Nashville reached similar conclusions, and it requested funds from Congress to assist in the process. Funds were not forthcoming. When Congress did investigate this vast migration, Southerners assured the committee that their Negroes were really very happy, and they claimed that "the migration was a myth."
In spite of this earlier migration, the 1900 census showed that 89.7 percent of the Afro-American community still resided in the South. One-third of the Southern population was nonwhite. The real exodus still lay ahead.
The migrants were moved both by forces within the South which pushed them out and by those within the North which pulled them in. On one hand, continuing violence and segregation drove many to leave their homes. When the boll weevil spread across the Southern states like a plague, it wiped out many poor farmers, and it drove them to seek other means of livelihood elsewhere. On the other hand, the war had interrupted the flow of immigrants from Europe into the Northern industrial centers, and at the same time it created the need for even more unskilled labor in the factories. After the war, the restrictive immigration laws which were passed kept the flow of European immigration low, and Northern industry continued to draw labor from the Southern rural pockets of poverty.
Between 1910 and 1920, some 330,000 Afro-Americans moved from the South into the North and West. By 1940, the number of those who had left the South since 1910 had soared to 1,750,000. Between 1940 and 1950, there were another 1,597,000, and between 1950 and 1960, there were 1,457,000 more who left the South. The percentage of the Afro-American community living stil In the South had dropped from 89.7 percent in 1900 to 59 percent and for the first time, more than half of them lived outside of the Deep South.
Another indication of the northward migration which had occured was that a Northern state, New York, had acquired an Afro- American community which was larger than that of any of the Southern states. Much of this migration was also a move from the country to the city. In the South, 58 percent of the Afro- Americans lived in cities. In the West, there are 93 percent who live in the cities, and in the North, there are 96 percent. In the first half of the twentieth century, the Afro-American community had been transformed from a rural and regional group into a national one.
Harlem: 'The Promised Land'
Alain Locke edited a volume of critical essays and literature entitled The New Negro. In it, Locke heralded a spiritual awakening within the Afro-American community. It was manifested by a creative outburst of art, music and literature as well as by a new mood of self-confidence and self-consciousness within that community. The center of this explosion was located in Harlem. Famous personalities such as Claude McKay, Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson, James Weldon Johnson, Duke Ellington, and Louis Armstrong either moved to Harlem or visited it frequently in order to participate in the vigorous cultural exchange which took place there. The artists of the "Negro Renaissance", as important as they might be themselves, were merely symbolic of the new life which was electrifying the Afro-American community. This new life was also evident in the large urban centers of the North and particularlyin Harlem.
Locke pointed out the significance of the great northward migration when he said that the Negro "in the very process of beingtransplanted," was also being "transformed." This migration was usually explained either in economic terms--jobs pulling Negroes northward--or in social terms--discrimination pushing them out. In both cases, the Afro-American was represented as the passive victim of external socioeconomic forces. Locke insisted that, to the contrary, it was more accurate to understand this migration as a result of a decision made by the Negro himself. For the firsttime in history, thousands upon thousands of individual Afro- Americans had made a basic choice concerning their own existence. They refused to remain victims of an impersonal and oppresseve system, and, as the result, they deliberately pulled up their roots, left their friends and neighbors and moved north to what they hoped would be "the promised land."
From this decision emerged the new Negro. If he was less polite and more aggressive than before, he was also more self-reliant and less dependent on pity and charity. This change, however, did not occur suddenly. The passive, well-behaved Negro, content to stay in his place, had largely been a myth. In part, he, had been the product of a guilt-ridden white stereotype which found this myth comforting. The Negro himself had also contributed to this fiction by his custom of social mimicry, his habit of appearing to fill the role which whites expected of him. By the end of slavery, however, a spirit of individuality had been growing within the Negro consciousness. The opportunity for industrial employment in the North which had resulted from war and from the slowdown in European immigration along with the increase of racism and segregation in the South combined to open the way for the development of the growing spirit of determination.
The new Negro was doing more than asserting his own individuality; the entire Afro-American community was developing a new sense of solidarity. The racist attitudes of mainstream America, both North and South, made it almost impossible for a Negro to conceive of himself purely in individualistic terms. Any Negro who thought of himself as an exceptional or unique individual was brought sharply back to reality by this racism which relentlessly and mercilessly depicted him as nothing more than a "nigger."
In spite of the individualism which was preached as a basic part of the American creed, the Afro-American community was forced to develop a strong sense of group cooperation. In the face of growing racism and segregation, the idealism of the new Negro was still based on the American ideal of democracy, and his goal was still to share fully, some day, in American life and institutions. The Afro-American's heightened sense of racial consciousness was not an end in itself. This racial self-consciousness gave him strength to withstand the daily injustices which confronted him, and it provided him with faith in himself and hope in the future. Locke believed that the new Negro was taking the racism which had been forced upon him by white society and was turning it to positive uses, transforming obstacles to his progress into "dams of social energy and power."
The factor which prevented this new, energetic Afro-American from becoming alienated from America was that its goals were identical with the expressed ideals of the country. The racial discrimination and injustice from which Afro-Americans suffered, though deeply entrenched in national institutions, were themselves a contradiction to the American democratic philosophy. The Afro- American, besides having justice on his side, was comforted knowing that his goals were sanctioned and hallowed by the nation's ideals. As Locke put it, "We cannot be undone without America's undoing".
Thousands of Negro migrants poured north into Chicago. The factories in Detroit attracted thousands more, and Harlem became the center of "the promised land." James Johnson described the Harlem of the 1920s as the "culture capitol of the Negro world." Its magnetism attracted Negroes from all across America, from the West Indies and even some from Africa itself. Harlem contained more Negroes per square mile than any other place on earth. It drew a bewildering and energizing diversity of peoples. Students, peasants, artists, businessmen, professional men, poets, musicians, and workers; all came to Harlem. It combined both the exploiters and the outcasts. Langston Hughes, in describing his first entrance into Harlem from the 135th Street subway exit, said that he felt vitality and hope throbbing in the air. In Black Manhattan, James Weldon Johnson said that Harlem was not a slum or a fringe. Rather, he insisted that it was one of the "most beautiful and healthful sections of the city."
According to Johnson, the stranger traveling through Harlem would be totally surprised by its appearance. Crossing 125th Street on his way up Seventh Avenue, Johnson said, the visitor would not expect to find himself in the midst of an Afro-American community. The character of the houses did not change. For the next twenty- five blocks the streets, stores, and buildings looked no different from those he had already passed. With the exception of their color, the appearance of the people on the streets was the same too. Moreover, Johnson insisted that Harlem was an integral part of metropolitan New York and was not just a quarter within the city in the sense that was true of the communities inhabited by recent European immigrants. Its citizens were not aliens. They spoke American; they thought American.
Harlem Negroes, claimed Johnson, were woven into the fabric of the metropolitan economy. Unlike the Negroes in other Northern cities, they did not work in "gang labor"; rather, they had individual employment here and there scattered throughout the city. He believed that this integration into the society as a whole made a difference in the kind of race relations which existed there, and he said that it explained why New York had not had a major race riot in the "bloody summer" of 1919. He contended that Harlem was a laboratory for the race problem. Many had argued that when Negroes moved north, the race problem would follow them. Johnson pointed out that 175,000 Negroes had recently moved into Harlem without any substantial racial friction and with no unusual increase in the crime rate. Unfortunately, Johnson's views were not to be fulfilled. Before long, crime rates rose in Harlem, and race riots occurred there as well as in other parts of New York City.
Johnson was aware that there had been considerable racial tension at earlier dates as Negroes first moved into Harlem. The community had been, in turn, Dutch, Irish, Jewish, and Italian. Originally Negroes, living in New York, worked for wealthy Whites and lived in the shadows of the large mansions surrounding Washington Square. Several of the streets in Greenwich Village had been almost entirely inhabited by Negroes. About 1890, the community shifted its focus northward into the 20's and low 30's just west of Sixth Avenue. At the turn of the century, it moved again into the vicinity of 53rd Street. By this time, the city's Afro-American community was developing a small middle class of its own, and it contained its own fashionable clubs and night life. Visiting Negro entertainers from across the country usually performed at and resided in the Marshall Hotel. The "Memphis Students", probably the first professional jazz band to tour the country, played at the Marshall. Shortly after 1900, Negroes began to move to Harlem.
Harlem had been overbuilt with large apartments which the owners were unable to fill. The Lenox Avenue subway had not yet been built, and there was inadequate transportation into the area. As a result, most tenants preferred to live elsewhere. Philip A. Payton, a Negro real estate agent, told several of the owners, located on the east side of the district, that he could guarantee to provide them with regular tenants if they were willing to accept Negroes. Some of the landlords on East 134th Street accepted his offer, and he filled their buildings with Negro tenants.
At first, whites did not notice. However, when Negroes spread west of Lenox Avenue, white resistance stiffened. The local residents formed a corporation to purchase the buildings inhabited by Negroes and to evict them. In turn, the Negroes responded by forming the Afro-American Realty Company, and they too bought out apartment buildings, evicted the white tenants, and rented the apartments to Negroes. White residents then put pressure on lending institutions not to provide mortgages to prospective Negro buyers. When one was able to buy a piece of property, regardless of how prosperous or orderly he might appear, local whites viewed it as an invasion, panicked, and moved out in droves. This left the banks, still unwilling to sell to Negroes, holding a large number of deserted properties. Eventually, they were compelled to sell these properties at deflated prices. During and immediately after the First World War, Negroes poured into Harlem, obtained high-paying jobs, and purchased their own real estate. Johnson believed that Harlem Negroes owned at least sixty million dollars worth of property, and this, he believed,would prevent the neighborhood from "degenerating into a slum."
However, the great migration from the rural South had only just begun. As thousands upon thousands more poured into Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, Newark, Boston, Harlem, and other Northern centers, housing became increasingly scarce. Harlem, like the other Negro communities of the North, became more and more crowded. At the same time, jobs became harder to obtain. Poor "country cousins" streamed into "the promised land" to share in the "milk and honey," but, unfortunately, there was not enough to go around. As the Negro population of Harlem grew, white resistance and discrimination also increased. Although Johnson had been impressed with the wealth contained in Harlem, it was infinitesimal compared to the great sums of money held by whites downtown.
Langston Hughes, wbo had also been impressed by the vitality of Harlem, came to realize that Negro Harlem was, in fact, dependent on downtown financing. As Harlem grew, downtown financiers became increasingly aware that money could be made there. In the 1930s, in contrast to Johnson's optimistic vision, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. and others pointed out that almost all the stores on 125th Street, the major shopping district, were owned by whites and that they employed whites almost exclusively. Harlem soon became a center for both crime and exploitation.
However, in the 1920s Harlem throbbed with vitality and hope. Besides attracting Afro-Americans from every walk of life, it became the focal point for young intellectuals whose creativity resulted in the Negro Renaissance.
The Negro Renaissance
In 1922, James Welden Johnson edited a volume of American Negro poetry, and in the same year Claude McKay, who had come to Harlem from Jamaica, published his first significant volume of poetry, "Harlem Shadows". These twin events, however,were only the beginning of a vast outpouring of cultural activity, and Harlem became, as Johnson called it, the "culture capital" for this movement. Artists poured into Harlem from across the country. Night clubs rocked with music and dance. Publishers were besieged by poets and novelists, and, surprising to the young writers, publishers were eager to see Negro authors. Besides the new creative urge, thousands of Negroes and whites were hungry to consume the fruits of this new renaissance. This artistic renaissance did not come out of a vacuum. Negroes had been publishing poetry for over a century and a half, since the time of Phillis Wheatley and Jupiter Hammon. Paul Laurence Dunbar was the first Negro poet to gain nationwide recognition, at the beginning of the twentieth century. While, on one hand, he captured and depicted the spirit of the Negro folk, on the other hand, he did it in such a way as to perpetuate black stereotypes and white prejudices. Actually, this aided his popularity, and he later came to regret it.
Negroes had also been dancing and creating music in America for over three bundred years. Vaudeville and minstrelsy were their first commercial products. Ironically, the first professional entertainers to perform in minstrel shows were whites who were imitating plantation slave productions. In the beginning, whites performed in blackface, and, only later, did Negroes themselves perform commercially. The spirituals were a religious manifestation of the Afro-American heritage. They appear to have been on the verge of disappearing when the "Fisk University Singers", late in the nineteenth century, took steps to preserve them. A choral group from Fisk was touring the country in order to raise money for the school. They received only polite appreciation. When, on one occasion, they decided to offer one of their spirituals as an encore, the audience was enthusiastic. Since then, spirituals have become a standard part of American religious and concert music.
In short, even before the Negro Renaissance of the 1920s the Afro-American community had made a basic contribution to American culture, providing America with a peasant folk tradition of the greatest importance. Tbe social mobility in the American scene had permitted each wave of European immigrants to move up the social ladder before it had time to develop into an American peasant class. However, this mobility was not extended to the Afro-American. Therefore, it was from the Afro-American peasant class that an indigenous American folk culture was to emerge. When minstrelsy and jazz spread around the world, they were seen as American productions. They were, at the same time, Afro- American creations.
The Afro-American folk culture must be seen as the product of the African's experience in America rather than as an importation into America of foreign, African elements. Although the content of the Afro-American folk culture grew out of the American scene, its style and flavor did have African roots. It was based on the artistic sense which the slave brought with him--a highly developed sense of rhythm which was passed from generation to generation, and an understanding of art which conceived of it as an integral part of the whole of life rather than as a beautiful object set apart from mundane experience. Song and dance, for example, were involved in the African's daily experience of work, play, love, and worship. In sculpture, painting and pottery, the African used his art to decorate the objects of his daily life rather than to make art objects for their own sake. The African could not have imagined going to an art gallery or to a musical concert. Art was produced by artisans rather than by artists. This meant that slave artisans in America could cotinue to produce decorative work, and slave laborers in the field could continue to sing. Art and life could still be combined, though in a restricted manner.
However, while the African brought his feeling for art with him, the content of his art was actually changed as the result of his American slave experience. The dominant African arts were sculpture, metal-working, and weaving. in America, the Afro- American created song, dance, music, and, later, poetry. The skills displayed in African art were technical, rigid, control disciplined. They were characteristically sober, restrained and heavily conventionalized.
In contrast, the Afro-American cultural spirit became emotional, exuberant, and sentimental. This is to say the Afro- American characteristics which have been generally thought of as being African and primitive--his naivety, his exuberance and his spontaneity--are, in reality, his response to his American experience and not a part of his African heritage. They are to be understood as the African's emotional reaction to his American ordeal of slavery. Out of this environmental along with its suffering and deprivation, has evolved an Afro-American culture.
LeRoi Jones, the contemporary poet, playwright, and jazz critic, points out in "Blues People" that the earliest Negro contributions to formal art did not reflect this genuine Afro-American culture. It was only with the emergence of the "New Negro" and the Negro Renaissance that this folk culture entered the mainstream of the art world. Previously, those Negroes who had gained enough education to participate in literary creation generally strove to join the American middle class, and tried to disavow all connections with their lower class background. in doing this, they were only following the same route as that pursued by other ethnic minorities in America. They were ashamed of slavery as well as of everything African.
The folk culture, nevertheless, flourished within the music produced by the Afro-American community. The spirituals and work songs were the product of the slave. After Emancipation, work songs were replaced by the blues. Work songs had been adapted to the mass labor techniques of slavery, whereas the blues, which is a solo form, was the creation of a lone individual working as a sharecropper on his own tenant farm. It continued to express the earthy folk culture, and it, too, was woven into daily life. It expressed the daily tribulations, weariness, fears, and loves of the Afro-American after Emancipation. At the beginning of the twentieth century , blues along with ragtime, became popular, although not always respectable. They could be heard most often in saloons and brothels-- nevertheless, they were beginning to move out of the Afro-American subculture and into the white society. W. C. Handy, while by no means the father of the blues, became its best-known commercial creator. He is still remembered for the "Memphis Blues" and the "St. Louis Blues."
In New Orleans, the folk tradition and formal music came together for the first time. There, the Latin tradition had permitted the Creoles to participate in education and culture. They had developed a rich musical tradition, and many of them had received training in French conservatories. However, they preferred the sophisticated European music to the more earthy sounds of their blacker brothers. With the growth of Jim Crow legislation, the Creoles lost their special position in society, and they found themselves forcibly grouped with the blacks, whom they had previously shunned. Out of this fusion of technical musicianship and folk creativitiy emerged a new, vigorous music which became known as jazz.
Jelly Roll Morton was one musician who had begun by studying classical guitar but preferred the music of the street. He became a famous jazz pianist and singer. Over the years, he played his way from night spots in New Orleans to those in St. Louis, Chicago, Los Angeles, and scores of smaller cities. The musical quality of jazz, instead of adopting the pure tones of classical music, was boisterous and rasping. Instruments were made to imitate the human voice, and they deliberately used a "dirty"sound. Both the trumpet playing and singing of Louis Armstrong illustrate this jazz sound particularly well. When Armstrong appeared in Chicago with King Oliver as the band's second trumpeter, he was immediately recognized as a jazz trumpet vituoso, and his playing sent an electric shock through the jazz world.
The most famous jazz musician and composer to appear in New York City during and after the Negro Renaissance was Duke Ellington. His well-known theme song "Take the A Train" made reference to the subway line which went to Harlem. By the time jazz had reached Harlem the Negro Renaissance was in full swing. This renaissance, unlike previous art produced by Negroes, consciously built on the Afro-American folk tradition.
Langston Hughes, the most prolific writer of the renaissance, wrote a kind of manifesto for the movement. He said that he was proud to be a black artist. Further, he said that he was not writing to win the approval of white audiences. At the same time he claimed that he and the other young Negro artists were not attempting to gain the approval of black audiences. They ,were writing to express their inner souls, and they were not ashamed that those souls were black. If what they wrote pleased either whites or blacks, Hughes said, they were happy. It did not matter to them if it did not.
In "Minstrel Man", Hughes expressed the inner emotions of the stereotyped, well-behaved Negro which white America thought it knew so well:
Because my mouth
Is wide with laughter
And my throat
Is deep with song,
You did not think I suffer after I've held my pain
Because my mouth
Is wide with laughter
You do not hear
My inner cry:
Because my feet
Are gay with dancing,
You do not know I die.
Claude McKay expresses an inner anger rather than a secret pain felt by a contained and somewhat more sophisticated Negro responding to segregation:
Your door is shut against my tightened face,
And I am sharp as steel with discontent;
But I possess the courage and the grace
To bear my anger proudly and unbent.
In still more defiant tones, McKay expresses the aggressive response which many Negroes made during the race riots of 1919:
If we must die, let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursed lot.
If we must die, o let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
Nevertheless, Langston Hughes made it clear that his bitter hostility was aimed at injustice and inhumanity and not at American ideals when he wrote:
O, yes, I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath--
America will be
An ever-living seed,
Lies deep in the heart of me.
Besides articulating the Negro's emotional reaction to prejudice and discrimination, the Negro Renaissance depicted other aspects of the Afro-American culture. The flavor of its religious life was captured best by James Weldon Johnson in his volume "God's Trombones: Negro Sermons in Verse", which he published in 1927. Instead of resorting to the standard technique of using stereotyped dialect to capture the flavor, Johnson used powerful, poetic imagery to express its essence. In "The Creation" Johnson depicted a Negro minister preaching on the opening verses of Genesis:
And God stepped out on space,
And he looked around and said:
I'll make me a world.
And far as the eye of God could see
Darkness covered everything,
Blacker than a hundred midnights
Down in a cypress swamp.
Then God smiled,
And the light broke,
And the darkness rolled up on one side,
And the light stood shining on the other,
And God said: That's good!
The Negro Renaissance, besides losing its shame over its folk culture, developed a fresh interest in its African heritage. One of the many expressions of this was made by Countee Cullen:
What is Africa to me:
Copper sun or scarlet sea,
Jungle star or jungle track,
Strong bronzed men, or regal black
Women from whose loins I sprang
When the birds of Eden sang?
The Renaissance also included an outcropping of Negro novelists. There had been Negro novelists before, and the best known of them were Charles W. Chestnut and, to some extent, Paul Laurence Dunbar. Chestnut's novels included "The Conjure Woman" and "The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line", whereas Dunbar, who wrote mainly poetry, was best known for his novel "The Sport of the Gods". Chestnut's writing, though moving away from the plantation romanticism which had glorified slavery, developed a more realistic flavor, and it emphasized intergroup relations based on the color line rather than developing the interior lives of its characters. Negro fiction came into its own in 1923 with Jean Toomer's publication "Cane", and, in 1924, with Jessie Redman Fauset's "There is Confusion". These works dealt with Negroes as people and not merely as objects to be manipulated for racial propaganda. Langston Hughes, in 1930, published "Not Without Laughter", a novel to gain wide renown.
To catalog all the authors of the Negro Renaissance would become tedious. However, all the poets and novelists listed within these pages are generally accepted as having gained a place among America's significant writers. They were more than products of an Afro-American subculture; their work became part of the mainstream of American literature. These authors, along with other Negro artists, gained the respect of American art and literary critics. With them, the Afro-American folk culture made its way into the formal art of the nation.
The Negro Renaissance of the 1920s, however, was more than a literary movement. There was, as had been noted earlier, a vast outpouring of musical creativity. Besides the jazz composers and performers, many made their mark in classical concert music. The best known composer from the Afro-American community was William Grant Siill. Many operatic and concert singers have been Negroes, and they include such well-known names as Paul Robeson, Marian Anderson, Leontyne Price, and William Warfield.
The most famous of the Afro-American painters was Henry O. Tanner, who had made his reputation before the Negro Renaissance. Tanner's paintings had been widely acclaimed at the Paris Exposition in 1900, the Pan-American Exposition in 1901, and the St. Louis Exposition in 1904. Tanner avoided Negro subjects and concentrated on biblical themes. In the field of sculpture, Meta Warrick Fuller was the first Negro to gain attention. Augusta Savage became well-known for her head of Dr. DuBois, and Richmond Barthe gained recognition for the bust of Booker T. Washington.
In retrospect, the Renaissance of the twenties can be seen as the beginning of a continuing, self-conscious cultural movement within the Afro-American community. During the 1930s, however, the outpouring diminished. The Depression affected the entire American scene, businessmen, workmen, and artists, and its impact on the Negro Renaissance was particularly severe. One of the New Deal measures which alleviated the situation considerably was the Federal Writers Project. Sterling Brown, literary critic and Howard University professor, headed the Negro section. Two of the better known authors who were helped by the Project were Arna Bontemps and Richard Wright.
Wright's novel "Native Son" was widely acclaimed. In it, he depicted the inner anger and hatred felt by many young Negro men as dominating characteristics of the hero's personality; eventually, his life was destroyed. The first Negro to win a Pulitzer Prize was Gwendolyn Brooks, who won it for her poetry. Later, Ralph Ellison was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his novel "Invisible Man".
Since the Second World War, innumerable Negroes have made significant contributions to American culture through the mass media: radio, television, and movies. Large numbers have also joined the ranks of professional athletes in every field from tennis to football. Nevertheless, complaints persist that prejudice continues in these areas. While they are often included as performers, rarely do Negroes achieve significant decision-making authority in their field. In the 1968 Olympics, several black athletes, especially Carlos and Smith, claimed that instead of being accepted on an equal basis, they were being exploited.
The decade of the 1960s has been marked by a militant spirit throughout the Afro-American community; this spirit was reminiscent of the new Negro of the 1920s although it appears to be more cynical and disillusioned. LeRoi Jones and James Baldwin are only the best known of dozens of contemporary black writers. Their bitterness, undoubtedly, springs partly from the dashed hopes of the new Negro. Unfortunately, at the very time that the Afro-American community was stepping forward with new confidence, the nation was tottering on the brink of economic disaster. The year 1929 brought a harsh end to the optimism of the 1920s.
Although Langston Hughes had been confident that the American dream could be made to include his people, thousands upon thousands of other Afro-Americans, especially among the lower classes, were extremely dubious. In 1916, Marcus Garvey came to Harlem, and before long his Universal Negro Improvement Association had opened chapters in urban centers all across the nation. As mentioned previously, Garvey did not believe that blacks could be taken into American society. Hundreds of thousands, who apparently agreed with him, followed his banner. Whatever was the actual number of members of the U.N.I.A., the movement gained more grass-roots support than had any other organization in Afro-American history. While the nation was willing to tolerate the Afro-American folk spirit, the people, themselves, did not believe that they would be accepted.
Although Garvey's movement was by far the largest black nationalist organization in America, it was not the only one. In Chicago, Grover Cleveland Redding was preaching a Back-to- Africa philosophy of his own. He organized the Abyssinian Movement and urged Negroes living on the south side of Chicago to return to Ethiopia. On Sunday, June 20, 1920, Redding led a parade through the Chicago streets. He sat astride a white horse and wore what he claimed was the costume of an Abyssinian prince. At the corner, of East 25th Street and Prairie Avenue he stopped the procession, poured a flammable liquid on an American flag, and burned it. A Negro policeman, who attempted to break up the demonstration, was shot by one of Redding's followers. In the course of the melee, a white storekeeper and a white soldier were killed. Redding and another Negro were later executed for their part in the affair.
In 1925 Noble Drew Ali came to Chicago and established the Moorish American Science Temple. Actually, he had previously attempted to organize other temples in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Michigan. He claimed that American Negroes were of Moorish descent and, instead of being really black, were olive-hued. His movement had a banner which carried a Moorish star and crescent on a field of red. He also claimed that American Negroes, being Moors, had an Islamic heritage rather than a Christian one, and he endeavored to spread his particular version of that faith throughout the Afro-American community. By 1927 Ali had established branches in Pittsburgh, Detroit, Philadelphia, Kansas City, Lansing, and elsewhere. He wrote his own version of the Koran which combined passages from the Moslem Koran, the Christian Bible, and some of the writings of Marcus Garvey.
Ali gave his followers a new sense of identity. Most of them wore a fez which set them apart from the typical urban black. Many were also bearded, and each one carried a membership card. Having a different religion from that of the typical ghetto black contributed further to their special sense of identity. Ali's teaching also made them feel that they had a special and unique heritage of which they could be proud. His emphasis on separatism instead of on integration struck a harmonious note with their disillusionment. Instead of leaving them in despair, it permitted them to face white America boldly.
In 1929 a power struggle broke out between Noble Drew Ali and Claude Green, one of his organizers. When Green was found murdered, the Chicago police charged Ali with the crime. While Ali was out on bond, he too died under mysterious circumstances. While some claimed that he had been beaten by the police, others said that he had been "mugged" by Green's followers. Before he was released on bail Ali wrote a letter from prison to his followers encouraging them to have faith in him and in their future. His letter bore distinctly messianic overtones. After assuring them that he had redeemed them, he concluded by extending to them his peace and by commanding them to love one another. His movement splintered after his death into innumerable competing factions.
In Detroit, sometime before 1930, a dark-skinned man appeared selling silk and raincoats. He said that he was W. D. Fard and that he had come from the Holy City of Mecca in order to save the American Negro. People generally described him as being unusually light-skinned for a Negro with perhaps an Oriental cast. Fard also taught that the American Negro was Islamic in origin and that he should return to his ancestral faith. Sometime in 1933 or 1934 he disappeared as mysteriously as he had come. While many believed that Fard and his movement must have been connected with Noble Drew Ali and the Moorish American Science Temple, the Black Muslims have always denied it.
Fard founded, in Detroit, Muslim Temple Number One, and he acquired a handful of devout followers. He insisted that the Muslims should refrain from eating pork, should pray facing the East, and should practice a daily washing ritual. Muslim members were reminded that their last names had been imposed upon them by the white man whom Fard equated with the Devil. It is the practice among Muslims to drop their Christian name and, until their true names will be revealed to them, to substitute the letter X for their last name symbolizing the unknown. Fard insisted that the first man had been a black man and that whites were a corruption of humanity. The days of the White Devil, he said, were numbered. Blacks should deliberately withdraw from white society in order not to be caught in its final destruction.
The Muslim's life was rigidly disciplined. There were temple services almost every evening. Individual behavior and dress were carefully dictated. Besides forbidding the eating of pork, devout Muslims were not allowed to drink alcohol or smoke tobacco. Relationships between men and women were extremely puritanical. Each temple had special groups to prepare young men and women for manhood and womanhood. The Fruit of Islam was the young men's group, and it was a semi-military defense corps aimed at developing a sense of manhood and the ability for self-defense. The common belief that the Fruit of Islam was preparing for racial aggression has never been substantiated. The Muslim Girls' Training Classes taught cooking, sewing, housekeeping, and etiquette,.
After Fard's disappearance, the leadership passed on to Elijah Muhammed, formerly Elijah Poole, whom Fard had been grooming as his successor. Elijah Muhammed moved to Chicago and began Temple Number Two and established his headquarters there. The "Black Muslims", as well as other small, semi-religious, separatist groups, continued to exist unnoticed by the general public. When Malcolm Little, better known as Malcolm X, was converted to the "Nation of Islam", he gave the movement the organizational skill and the eloquence which it previously lacked. This brought it into national prominence.
Black Nationalism and the Negro Renaissance shared a strong sense of racial consciousness and racial pride. However, while the writers who expressed the spirit of the new Negro still believed in their future in America, the black nationalists enunciated a mood of alienation and despair. The Depression, which eroded the hopes of many Americans, hit the Negro unusually hard. It served to increase the level of bitterness in the Afro- American community as a whole.