In the same way that DuBois challenged the idea that black Americans should focus on learning trades rather than seeking a classical education, Locke’s New Negro suggested that now was the time for blacks Americans to get rid of the stereotypes placed on them by white America. .
“The negro himself has been more of a formula than a human being…something to be debated, condemned, or defended…a social bogey or social burden,” wrote Locke who served as department chairman of philosophy at Howard University for many years.
The Old Negro, he said, was more a myth than a man and his time was over.
The New Negro, especially among the younger generations, was no longer too distracted or too depressed to gain perspective on art or to offer an informed critique of self or society. “The American mind must reckon with a fundamentally changed Negro,” Locke wrote.
“He saw this tremendous effort he was making to develop and advance the New Negro as an important way to advance black efforts,” said Michelle Y. Gordon, associate professor of African American studies at the Emory University. “He is one of 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 deserve the human and civil rights.”
The New Negro was concerned with racial pride, self-determination, self-expression through art and culture, and progressive politics. And while this “Negro renaissance” was happening across the country, a debate was going on about whether Harlem was its true center.
“I don’t call it the Harlem Renaissance. It confined and narrowed our perception of what this renaissance really was and pinned down Harlem too much as the center of things,” Gordon said. “I call it the New Negro Renaissance.”
This view was shared by some Renaissance participants such as poet Sterling A. Brown who wrote a 1955 essay claiming that few significant participants in the movement lived in Harlem and that most of the best writing was not about Harlem. Harlem, he said, was just a “showcase.”
The audience for Locke’s anthology of Blackness was largely international, white, and progressive, not unlike the patrons of Harlem Renaissance artists. Locke was reportedly criticized for filling the pages with elite black voices.
“There was a sense of generational and class conflict in terms of who can speak on behalf of black people,” Gordon said. “Who controls the image? »
In 1926, some of the young writers of “The New Negro” would develop their own journal, “Fire!!” in which they offered a different presentation of black life and racial struggles, Gordon said.
But in “The New Negro,” the authors of essays, poetry, and fiction offered a vision of black people that communicated their lived experience and reflected the economic and social context of the time.
In Rudolph Fisher’s “The City of Refuge”, a transplant from North Carolina arrives in Harlem after shooting a white man dead in his home country. But the streets of Harlem prove too rough when a shrewd acquaintance from his hometown sets him up for a crime and watches the police take him away.
Although the Renaissance, at least Harlem’s, was short-lived (it became another victim of the Great Depression) – its impact still resonates.
We continue to see efforts to offer positive images and portrayals of black people in books, especially for young readers, Gordon said. We can also see important roots and foundations of New Black Era protest in Black Lives Matter and related struggles.
“I urge all of us to understand that this new black or renaissance movement was so much broader, more diverse and richer than the version most of us inherited,” Gordon said. “A lot of people only know Langston Hughes, but there’s so much more.”