In this study, Jon Spencer sets to explain the Harlem Renaissance as not just a literary movement, but also a musical movement. He interprets the Harlem Renaissance by focusing on the music that it produced. He sets out to show the Renaissance in a different light then most of the previous authors on this subject. During the early 1900s many African-Americans from the south moved towards the north to start their lives over and find jobs. Many came to Harlem a place where mainly Blacks lived. This is where the beginning of a new culture emerged.
African-American literature, art, music, dance and social commentary began to show in Harlem. This African American cultural movement became known as The New Negro movement and later as the Harlem Renaissance. In these books we find that music is treated as being of relative importance and that the unifying vision of each book is that the Harlem Renaissance was a failure(pg. xix). By challenging the writings of authors Nathan Huggins and his book Harlem Renaissance, and David Levering Lewiss When Harlem was En Vogue.
Spencer wants to disprove there theory that the Harlem Renaissance was unsuccessful in what they were trying to attempt. In the book Harlem Renascence written by Nathan Huggins, he talks of the Renaissance as being an inadequate strategy and an answer to the old problem of racism (pg. 1). Spencer argues that the music of the Renaissance actually brought people together on many accounts and dispelled the racism at certain times. Besides setting out to prove the success of the Renaissance, he shows how the Renaissance was not only the Literature but also the music.
In particular once again he looks at the texts of Huggins and Lewis. They do not altogether leave out the music of Harlem but they do fail to give black music a more important place in their discussions of the Negro Renaissance(pg. xxi). He talks of how they do not take into account all the earlier texts that have been written on the subject. The musicians are part of the whole that helped to obtain the vindication of the Negro which was the goal of the Renaissance not the rid of racism.
Spencer also shows the Renaissance era was a much larger span of time than thought and written about by other scholars. It spanned more than the 1920s, it was well at the beginning of the turn of the century and for three decades beyond the 1920s. He assertains that the end of the Harlem Renaissance was the beginning of the Great Depression when there was no longer enough money to support the artistic aspirations. Spencer defines the Harlem Renaissance as not a fight to end racism but rather a way to attain vindication of the Negro.
Renaissance intellectuals such as Alain Locke, Charles S. Johnson, and James Weldon Johnson felt that they must in order to attain vindication was to debut the New Negro, whose image would displace the image of the old Negro that the white thought of. The stereotypical beliefs that whites created and perpetuated about the Negro being immoral, criminal, and mentally inferior. The point was that all the old myths needed to be dissolved in order for the new image of the Negro to emerge. Spencer relates that the white patrons and the critics of the Negro Renaissance wanted the old Negro, they wanted them to use the old dialects, and the spiritual songs, but the new white intellectuals did not want that.
Huggins felt the Renaissance Negro had a self hatred for the Old Negro, but as Spencer points out it is not a self hatred it is a displeasure with the myths of the Old Negro and the stereotypes that defined and enslaved black people (pg. 5) In the case of the Renaissance being a failure because it did not end the racism towards blacks, you must look and understand that there were those who felt that the Renaissance was to separate blacks, form their own culture, and recognize black superiority within the black community.
Essentially the black community, I feel was not looking towards away to reach out and have the whites embrace them make them part of their community, but rather to bring the black community closer together and somehow form a culture of their own that had somewhat been lost through years of slavery. In any case when a group of people is freed, or anything of that nature they must somehow form a community of their own, a culture of their own. Culture is formed around that central theme of music, art and literature.
David Levering Lewis dates the Harlem Renaissance from around 1919 to 1932, and draws that same conclusion that Huggins did, that the Renaissance as caused by the devastation of the countries economic crisis. In the final chapter of his book When Harlem was En Vogue, Lewis says that Depression accelerated the inevitable failure of the Renaissance as a positive social force (Lewis,305). But the Spencer argues that how could the Renaissance die when you have the musicians like those of Dett, Still, Hayes and Maynor, whose music influenced others after them well into the Fiftys.
The training and experience for these artists were just beginning. Many articles have been written about Harlem being the pathway to the music of the Fortys and Fiftys. How do intellectual movements end when they can live on in the minds of men and women. If we were to say that an era was still continuing because artists, and the influence of artists was still going on then we would never quite evolve into another time, and nothing could ever end. . I think that one reason that also attributes to the end of the Harlem Renaissance was the exhaustion of artistic production.
When you look at the type of art and literature that was being produced you see that they are about being black. At first that was fine because they were beginning to explore who they were, but there is a point where there is nothing more to say, you have told everything and now everyone is having the same views and feelings. In the end it lead some writers to produce works that were not up to the quality of work that they and others around them were used to. The Harlem Renaissance reached a natural end but was able to further other developments in the 1930s and further in the future.
The single accomplishment of the Harlem Renaissance composers and musicians was to achieve a two tiered mastery Spencer believes that their work draws on the mood and spirit of African American folk music while mastering the forms and techniques of the European classical tradition. To master to the men such as James Weldon Johnson, and Locke was to court the white patrons, become proficient in the music and style that they were used to and have them come to associate it with the music of blacks. They were writing to make the whites happy and interested in their works.
The white patrons were demanding for the traditional sound from the plantation and even back to Africa. Many such as Charlotte Mason were insistent that blacks get rid of the white culture, and go back to their roots. On the other side of that Spencer expresses how they came to use the two tiered mastery to their benefit. This type of two tiered mastery was quite evident throughout the readings and in other readings on Harlem. Blacks were expected to sing their spiritual songs, songs that they sung back in the slave days and share those with their audiences, and the audiences that most wanted to hear those were the white audiences.
A perfect example is out of When Harlem was En Vogue, white listeners were happy to hear a black choir on the radio because they could not tell that they were black (pg. 163). Jon Michael Spencer is currently the Tyler and Alice Harness Professor of American Studies, and Professor of must at the University of Richmond, he has written dozens of books about blacks, multiculturalism, and music. He is academically sound, credential wise. The research for the book was astounding in facts and those that helped him to gather all of the information.
He worked with many archivists, at the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University. He has thorough discussion on each of his points and research to back everything up that he brings to point in the reading. Spencers book has sound argument and good points yet there is severe repetition in what he is saying, the points in the book never seem to really connect together, often skipping from one subject to another, he tells you that they tie in but the obvious is never there.
If not for him pointing out the fact that yes he has just explained a reason for what has been going on you would not have know and kept on reading. The other texts on this topic are much better written I feel, to give better explanation rather than the vague and often tiring same comments. The content of the book was not his own words rather then just large excerpts and pieces of the peoples work, never explaining much about what was going on just throwing the occasional comment in on the end of a paragraph. Spencer should have integrated more of what Huggins and Lewis wrote rather than bashing on what he felt their ideas were.
It gives the reader no clue about what he is opposing other than the words that Spencers uses to describe the views that Lewis and Huggins write about. Spencer says that his goals are to rebut the failure of the Harlem Renaissance, the great role that music held, and when the length of the Renaissance really ended, but throughout the book there is really no in depth on these topics, other than the music which is just pieced together and you are left to either be puzzled, or take the answer that he gives you which is music played a great role.
So much more could have come out of this book, there were very good points brought up. It could have been my inability to understand all that was being said but there was much to be desired in explanation and further delving into topics that Spencer brought up. In learning about the role that music played in the Harlem Renaissance you will be left dry, if you want to learn about little known talent from the renaissance then you will be happy, but the main focuses of this book were not addressed in any depth.
Because Spencer has such strong beliefs he did not make strong cases for each of his arguments, rather gave you bits and pieces that you could not piece together so that you thought that his arguments were right. I feel that they need to be more closely examined, there is a lot of extra that is of no substance in the book that can be removed to make it more useful. This book is definitely not for those that have no understanding of the Harlem Renaissance, without a greater understanding of the topic you will not get any information out of this book.
It is thoroughly confusing, to the readers. If Spencer would take more time to put things in order, take the time to relate them to the articles, and books that he is so against rather than throwing statements out there saying how absurdly wrong the other author is this book could have some value. The New Negroes and their Music: The Success of the Harlem Renaissance has made no real contribution to the understanding of the Harlem Renaissance and the role that music played, which is what Spencer set out to do.