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The Southern Roots of Harlem Renaissance
The African-American artistic, literary, and intellectual self-development, known as the Harlem Renaissance, is one of the most important and pivotal moments in the history of African-Americans -- and that of the United States in general. The Harlem Renaissance greatly influenced African-Americans' perception of who they were, their roles in American society, and their place within the racialized society dominated by Whites. The Renaissance movement, however, did not start out of nothing. What happened in Harlem in the 1920s and '30s was the result of a series of socio-economic and political events that preceded it. Among the most important events that contributed to the emergence of the African-American Renaissance movement in Harlem was the great migration from the South. The failure of the post-Emancipation reconstruction in the South forced many African-Americans out of Southern states to the North where industrial boom required cheap labor. Many of these migrants settled in industrial cities in the North, including New York. The influx of these migrants to Harlem and the shared painful experiences of African-Americans inspired them to seek intellectual, literary, and artistic development. This in turn led to the emergence of Harlem Renaissance movement.
African-Americans of the early twentieth century had a fresh memory of slavery that had lasted for several centuries. Although slavery was abolished during the Civil War, racial discrimination on an institutionalized basis continued. The backlash against African-American limited gains in the South quickly relegated the country's colored population -- more than ninety percent of whom lived in the South -- back to the shackles of slave-like relationship. Segregation in schools, restrooms, restaurants, and other public places was institutionalized, while African-American laborers were forced into sharecropping where combined forces of exploitative agricultural system and "the high interest rates that white planters charged sharecropping families for seeds, tools, and other essentials, kept most sharecroppers in a state of perpetual economic dependency and poverty."
In addition to the "Jim Crow" laws that confined African-Americans to horrible living conditions, both Southern and Northern Whites began to develop pseudo-scientific racist theories in late nineteenth century, suggesting that African-Americans were impoverished and uneducated because of their inner characteristics and biological traits rather than the discriminatory laws. The Klu Klux Klan and other terrorist mobs in the South lynched hundreds of African-Americans every year, and regularly destroyed their property, houses, and businesses. Because of political and socio-economic hurdles on the path of African-American development, many of them were hardly able to recover from the reign of terror and vandalism. The exploitative and racist treatment at the hands of the White population in the South tremendously influenced the psyche of African-Americans who increasingly became despondent and hopeless. Given the grim situation in the South, many African-Americans decided to migrate to the North because many of them literally had nothing to lose.
African-Americans who settled in the Northern industrial cities of Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, and the New York City were not necessarily welcomed with open arms. Although large industries were keen to employ cheap labor, racial prejudice against blacks existed. African-Americans then decided to prove their worthiness and loyalty to the nation by joining the U.S. military during World War I. However, the end of the war led to new challenges for them as the returning White veterans of war and the increased immigration from Europe led to a renewed wave of labor competition and racial violence. In the wake of these developments, African-American intellectuals began to question Booker T. Washington's belief that blacks should first increase their wealth instead of fighting for civil rights. Among the new African-American intellectuals was W.E.B. DuBois who rejected Washington's ideas and called for the utilization of the "talented tenth," educated blacks who could demonstrate that blacks could be equal citizens and also work for group interest. DuBois called for political and social equality among Whites and African-Americans.
DuBois and other African-American intellectuals such as Marcus Garvey, Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, and Langston Hughes were key figures in the development of the Renaissance movement. However, the Harlem Renaissance could not have happened without the Great migration from the South. Intellectuals in the North had the tools for cultural development -- some of them were middle-class citizens and could afford time…[continue]
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