The New Negro and African American poetry

Although we can locate the actual beginning of the Harlem Renaissance in about 1922, the literary and cultural roots of the Renaissance can be traced to the end of the previous century. The Harlem Renaissance was the literary and artistic expression ofideas that had been developing within African American culture since the end of the Civil War. Foremost among these ideas was the concept of the "New Negro," a term that was first used in 1895 to describe a new class of American blacks who for the first time had access to both money and education. The "New Negro" movement stressed racial pride and self-reliance, full rights for blacks as American citizens, and, in general, the desirability of assimilation into white middle-class culture. Another important element in the New Negro movement was the interest in the African heritage of American blacks: this heritage was held up as a source of pride and the basis for a worldwide racial solidarity. The so-called "pan-Africanism" movement was embraced by a number of black intellectuals, including W. E. B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey.

It was in the Harlem district of upper Manhattan that the promise of the "New Negro" was turned into a reality. By the mid-1920s, the vanguard of young black writers and painters had moved to Harlem, and it was there, as Alain Locke proclaimed in his 1925 book The New Negro, that "Negro life [was] seizing its first chances for group expression and self determination."1 It was the involvement of black intellectuals like Locke as much as the production of writers and artists that shaped the Harlem New Negro movement. This black intelligentsia included Locke, a professor at Howard University, James Weldon Johnson, the general secretary of the NAACP (National Assoiation for the Advancement ofColored People), and Charles S. Johnson of the Urban League.

Another important source for the Harlem Renaissance was the literary tradition of African American writers. Two of the most celebrated black poets of the generation prior to that of the Renaissance writers were Paul Lawrence Dunbar and James Weldon Johnson. Dunbar, who was born in Dayton, Ohio, in 1872 to two former slaves, dedicated himself to becoming a writer in order to "interpret my own people through song and story." Dunbar's second volume of poems, Majors and Minors (1896), received a positive review in Harper's Review from William Dean Howells, then America's foremost literary critic. Howells went on to write the introduction to Dunbar's next collection, Lyrics of the Lowly Life, and Dunbar was launched on a successful literary career that allowed him to publish ten more books of poetry and fiction before his death in 1906. Dunbar wrote two basic types of poetry: poems in black dialect and poems in standard English. In the dialect category we find poems like "When Malindy Sings" and "A Negro Love Song," while among his finest non-dialect poems are "We Wear the Mask" and "Sympathy."

While editors and patrons encouraged Dunbar to submit more dialect poetry, these poems placed him in a double bind. Such poems could be seen as expressing more directly the thoughts and feelings of the black race, but they could also be read as reinforcing negative racial stereotypes and conforming to a nostalgic vision of antebellum plantation life. James Weldon Johnson, for example, criticized dialect poetry as a form typified by "exaggerated geniality, childish optimism, forced comicality, and mawkish sentiment."2 While some of Dunbar's dialect poems suffered from these faults, others are redeemed by their skillful composition and their humor and irony. In "When Malindy Sings" (1895), Dunbar celebrates the "natural"

singing of the black Malindy as superior to that of the musically trained white mistress:

G'way an' quit dat noise, Miss Lucy -

Put dat music book away; What's de use to keep on tryin'?

Ef you practise twell you're gray, You cain't sta't no notes a-flyin'

Lak de ones dat rants and rings F'om de kitchen to de big woods When Malindy sings.

Despite Miss Lucy's ability to read music, she lacks the "nachel o'gans" to "make de soun' come right." Malindy, on the other hand, has an intuitive gift that puts even the birds to shame: "Robins, la'ks, an all dem things, / heish dey moufs an' hides dey faces / When Malindy sings." Dunbar not only presents the "reality" of black life, but manipulates racial stereotypes; as Shelly Eversly suggests, he uses "existing assumptions about the qualities of a distinctly African American temperament to illustrate the depths of Malindy's skill."3

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