Harlem 1920-1960 Culture of the Term Paper

  • Length: 30 pages
  • Sources: 10
  • Subject: Black Studies
  • Type: Term Paper
  • Paper: #29403060

Excerpt from Term Paper :

Their main arguments are based on historical assumptions and on facts which have represented turning points for the evolution of the African-American society throughout the decades, and especially during the Revolutionary War and the Civil War. In this regard, the Old Negro, and the one considered to be the traditional presence in the Harlem, is the result of history, and not of recent or contemporary events.

From the point-of-view of historical preconceptions and stereotypes, it would unwise to consider Harlem as being indeed a cancer in the heart of a city, taking into account the fact that there is no objective comparison being made. Locke points out the fact that the Negro of today be seen through other than the dusty spectacles of past controversy. The day of "aunties," "uncles" and "mammies" is equally gone. Uncle Tom and Sambo have passed on, and even the "Colonel" and "George" play barnstorm roles from which they escape with relief when the public spotlight is off. The popular melodrama has about played itself out, and it is time to scrap the fictions, garret the bogeys and settle down to a realistic facing of facts.

This idea comes to suggest that to a certain degree, it is important to take into account not necessarily the entrenched views on a certain group of individuals or a community, but rather to acknowledge both benefits and shortcomings. In this sense, while the fact that there is an increase sense of violence in the Harlem is an issue that cannot be overlooked, the fact that the African-Americans brought a new feeling of cultural identity is undeniable.

On the one hand, it is important to consider the wide variety of the Harlem environment and the possibilities it could offer from the 20s up to the 60s. There were for instance certain interesting, yet representative figures for the Harlem framework, such as Countee Cullen, Richmond Barthe, Wallace Thurman who were considered extravagant characters due to their particular sexual orientation. Therefore, from the point-of-view of a traditionalist critique, it could be said that it tined the image of a true and respectable artist, especially taking into account the fact that they were representatives for the voice of the black people.

On the other hand however, each of them was appreciated distinctively. Thus, Countee Cullen was one of the most important writers for the emancipation of the black community, with poems such as "Heritage" in which his presentation of Africa cannot be overlooked. Also, Richmond Barthe is one of the best known Harlem Renaissance artists, not so much for the artistic work he produced, but rather for the tremendous effort he put in revealing to the world the spirit of the African emancipation.

Therefore it would be hard to determine the actual impact each of the images these personalities had created had on the collective mentality of the white individuals analyzing Harlem. It may be that there is a predominance of a negative image, that of a depraved black society, or that of a creative and free spirited one. Each of these options notwithstanding, they represent in fact a set of guidelines which determines in the end the actual perspective one has over the Harlem neighborhood, a cancer to the city or a cultural spring.

The artistic manifestations and the theatrical representations that first emerged on the streets of Harlem and not on the most famous theatres of New York come to underline the perspective of the Harlem as a cultural framework rather than then a neighborhood pledged by scenes of violence and gang fights. The Harlem had been long perceived as an environment suited for the freedom of expression, in which artists could expose their creation without any critics limitations. The particular sense of racial rebellion that had long placed Harlem at the opposite corner of the white communities nurtured the idea of nonconformist attitudes and liberation from social, moral, and artistic constraints. A representative scene is the one presented by Clare Corbould who considered the 1936 representation of Macbeth as a sign for the free spirited nature of Harlem. Thus,

When the WPA production of Macbeth, directed by a young Orson Welles, opened in Harlem in 1936, the eighty-five members of the Monarch Negro Elks band marched in spectacular uniforms behind banners reading "Macbeth by William Shakespeare." They brought 10,000 people out onto the street and led them to the theatre. Out the front of the playhouse, the Elks' band played an open-air concert. Northbound traffic stood still for an hour while police battled to clear a path through to the theater's foyer.

Therefore, throughout the history of Harlem there was a constant sense of being able to defy the normal social conducts without however infringing the liberties of other communities. This came in response to the fact that there was a cultural background which could be exploited, one determined by coordinates that did not fit into the traditional marks of early modernist art. These initiatives are in this sense an important step taken towards the emancipation and reorientation of the artistic feel in America and New York because it offered artists and critics alike to explore certain artistic possibilities without respecting particular boundaries that would have curved interpretative desires. From this point-of-view, the Harlem background which facilitated this sort of artistic experiments had an important contribution to the modernization of American art.

Indeed, there are other examples that could be deemed important for revealing the artistic valences of the Harlem. As stated before, there is no doubt of the importance religion plays in the mental and moral organization of the African-American community. The belief in a supreme power that constantly protects the blacks' harsh destiny in a segregated society was a strong bond that developed and maintained the unity of the African-American communities throughout their existence, from the slave period up to the Harlem Renaissance artistic movement. This religiosity would explain the thorough attention given to Biblical issues. However, unlike traditional representations, certain themes and characters from the Bible were addressed through a black perspective, thus offering a sense of innovation and individuality to the way in which art can be perceived through racial and cultural lens. An important figure in this sense was African-American artist and poet Richard Bruce Nugent who presented at one point in the 1930s a distinctive image of Salome, the Biblical character, not so much through a particular use of traditional identifiable elements, but rather in a more open and uncensored view. In this sense,

His Salome images of 1930, for example, illustrate female bodies, many of them named for biblical characters, performing a sexy burlesque of hyperbolized gender. The curves of these dancing figures are sparingly outlined in transparent strokes, so that their bodies are denied a sense of corporeality. They are surfaces on which Nugent placed exaggerated attributes that seem to mimic gender, rather than to express its authenticity.

His approach did not betray a lack of knowledge of the traditional understanding of the artistic phenomenon; it was more a matter of innovation and of a free spirit, a sense of unrestricted interpretation. This innovative style is representative not so much for the actual results it produced, but rather for the cultural essence it stood for, which was a new influx of originality and interpretative freedom, a break away from dusty old forms of artistic approaches.

From a cultural point-of-view, therefore, it is rather difficult to deny the Harlem its major contributions it brought to developing what is today the true American culture. Albert C. Barnes underlines this fact, as the contributions of the American Negro to art are representative because they come from the hearts of the masses of a people held together by like yearnings and stirred by the same causes. It is a sound art because it comes from a primitive nature upon which a white man's education has never been harnessed. It is a great art because it embodies the Negroes' individual traits and reflects their suffering, aspirations and joys during a long period of acute oppression and distress

Therefore, it brought in a new sense of innovation and different perspectives on the way in which elements of common life and even biblical themes can be interpreted. Moreover, it was obvious that the African-American community was not seen as part of the traditional American society, but rather at its outskirts; this exclusion from the normal cultural and social framework of New York enabled Harlem to become an ideal place for the ideas of innovation and experimentation which were exploited more in a context which allowed such deviances from the social and cultural norm. From this point-of-view, it can be said that Harlem was more a cultural heaven rather than a poor racially segregated environment.

An economic view of the Harlem

The issue of the economic conditions in the neighborhood has often been invoked…

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