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The Harlem Renaissance

The Harlem Renaissance is the vast migration of African-Americans to northern cities during the 1920’s and 1930’s. During this time African- Americans felt that they were finally able to freely express themselves as proud Black individuals. This period of time held some very important landmark occasions, but also came with its share of racial prejudice and segregation. Most frequently in this era the discrimination was intra- racial and a color line emerges with so many different gradations of black and white that everyone is treated differently.

Alain Locke describes this time period as “something of a spiritual mancipation”,[i] meaning a time where African-Americans are finally using their artistic and creative abilities to produce art and literature without suffering under the tyranny of the pressures expected of a Black man. However, even though this burden is alleviated, another comes to take its place. People are often times only identified as their race and not as what is in their power to produce or achieve.

The Black man was expected to write about “black” things and not sound like a white writer. There was a job he served and it was to entertain the white man as the white man saw it, and the black man was not to deviate from this. When a Black poet told Langston Hughes that he wanted to be known as a poet, not just a black poet Hughes thought that meant the man wanted to be white. [ii] However, this man does not wish to be white, he simply wants his work to be appreciated for its own beauty and not for the sheer fact that a Black man wrote it.

He wants to be able to write poetry without having to worry if he is using the “white” man’s style or not. It would be much easier to be a white poet with those given rights to not be troubled with trying to conform to a certain tyle of writing due to being a certain race. Associated with the color line are the advantages of the white man. In Fauset’s, Plum Bun: A Novel Without a Moral, Angela expresses that she learned the joys and freedom that to her were inherently associated with being white.

Placement on the color line determines how high one’s hopes can reach. Color or rather the lack of it seems to the child the one absolute prerequisite to the life of which she was always dreaming. “[iii] By being of a fairer skin she was allowed more opportunities. In Nella Larsen’s, Quicksand, the girl is black and spends some time with her Danish elatives in Denmark where even though she is more fortunate than her darker skinned peers she is treated as entertainment for the white friends of the family. This concept of being shown around is not unique to just this one case.

In Harlem it became the norm to see white people driving in at night to see the shows put on by Black talents. Langston Hughes demonstrates the absurdities of the Harlem night life in The Big Sea. All the entertainers and club owners were black, yet most of the patrons were white. “The Negroes said: ‘We can’t go downtown and sit and stare at you in your clubs. You won’t even let us in your clubs. “[iv] The whites were convinced that the people of Harlem loved to have the white people stroll in everyday by the masses and take over their clubs.

The whites think of themselves as starting to get cultured and more integrative by going out into Harlem and showing their enthusiasm, but in reality the Black people are a savage form of entertainment to them. “The lindy-hoppers at the Savoy began to practice acrobatic routines and to do absurd things for the entertainment of the whites… “4 They haven’t bothered to befriend any Black people; they simply go there and watch them in the shows acting ike fools for their entertainment without taking into consideration their homes and their families.

The worst act during the Harlem nightlife scene is executed by the club owners. The Black club owners demonstrated segregation to their own kind. Intra-racial prejudice is more psychologically disturbing than cross-racial prejudice. These club owners barred their own race from going to the club at night because of the abundance of white patronage. This worked against the club owners because part of the thrill for the white people was to watch the Black people interact with each other and amuse themselves.

The intra-racial prejudice was not just in the clubs of Harlem. Middle class Black families were raising their children to the social norms of a white society. “And they themselves draw a color line. In the North they go to white theaters and white movies. And in the South they have at least two cars and a house ‘like white folks. ‘”[v] The white world becomes synonymous with success and good virtues. Striving to be white does not give the children a proper sense of their roots; it in fact strips them of any pride they may have ever had for themselves.

Children must grow up with sense that their people are good people too and not only look to whites as role model citizens but to look at them as friends so that everyone is an equal. They should learn to not say, “I want to be white. ” But rather say, “Why should I want to be white? I am a Negro-and beautiful. ” [vi] This period of time gave the African-American population a lot to be proud of. A lot of fine literature and other artsy forms of work were created by Black hands. However, there also was a share of intra-racial prejudice, segregation, and a visible color line that made living for African-Americans hard once again.

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