"The New Negro" Launched a Renaissance, and Not Just in HarlemHistorians in the News
tags: African American history, literature, Harlem renaissance, Alain Locke, New Negro
Alain Locke never lived in Harlem. He was not an artist or editor. But in 1925, the Harvard graduate and the first Black Rhodes scholar in 1907, conceived a work that would capture one of the most important moments and movements in Black culture.
“The New Negro: An Interpretation,” curated by Locke, has come to be known as the bible of the Harlem Renaissance, the cultural awakening in the 1920s when Black Americans used the creative arts to shift the narrative about Black identity.
The anthology, which had its roots in a special edition of Survey Graphic magazine devoted to Harlem, featured contributions from Black artists and intellectuals including Rudolph Fisher, Jean Toomer, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, and Walter White, the Atlanta-born civil rights advocate who would later serve as executive secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
According to some scholars, “The New Negro” was the first literary attempt to revise the perceptions of Black America since W.E.B DuBois published “The Souls of Black Folk” in 1903.
In much the same manner that DuBois challenged the idea that Black Americans should focus on learning trades as opposed to seeking a classical education, so did Locke’s New Negro suggest that the time had come for Black Americans to dispense with stereotypes placed upon them by white America.
“The Negro himself has been more of a formula than a human being ... a something to be argued about, condemned or defended ... a social bogey or a social burden,” wrote Locke who served as Chair of the Philosophy Department at Howard University for many years.
The Old Negro, he said, was more a myth than a man and his day had come to an end.
The New Negro, particularly among the younger generations, was no longer too distracted or too depressed to have a perspective on art or to offer informed criticism of self or society. “The American mind must reckon with a fundamentally changed Negro,” Locke wrote.
“He saw this tremendous effort he was putting in to develop and advance the New Negro as an important means of advancing black striving,” said Michelle Y. Gordon, senior lecturer in African American Studies at Emory University. “He is one among many who sees culture and the arts as a means by which Black people can demonstrate their humanity to non-Black people and help facilitate their recognition and inclusion in the human family and thus be deserving of human and civil rights.”
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