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tomorrow / Bright before us / Like a flame. (Alain Locke, "Enter the New Negro," 1925)
From the 1920's Alain Leroy Locke has been known as a prominent figure in the Harlem Renaissance. Through his writings, his actions and his education, Locke worked to educate not only White America, but also the Negro, about the beauty of the Negro heritage. He emphasized the idea that no single culture is more important than another. Yet it was also important to give sufficient attention to one's own culture and its beauty. This was Locke's philosophy of cultural pluralism.
The White heritage has enjoyed prominence for a large part of American history. During the colonization period, the Whites have emphasized their own superiority while at the same time ensuring that people of other ethnic heritages knew in no uncertain terms their own inferiority. This gave rise to a nearly monocultural America, where all other cultures were oppressed to the point of annihilation. Locke with many of his contemporaries worked to reestablish cultural pluralism through literature, politics and art. Particularly Locke used culture as a weapon to fight against the annihilation of the Black culture. His aim was to educate Americans, bringing home to them the beauty that was Negro culture, and also the fact that cultures could coexist in peace. It was not necessary to make way for a single culture in favor of the richness of pluralism.
Cultural Pluralism and The Harlem Renaissance
Harlem during the 1920's and 1930's was a kind of cultural home, welcoming musicians and other artists from every conceivable race and origin. Musically the blues and jazz were enjoyed by both blacks and whites.
Harlem was then also the birthplace of the idea of the "New Negro," a phrase addressed prominently in the work of Alain Locke. This was a time of rich opportunity for Negroes to make progress in all areas of education and art, including politics, literature and the social sciences. The North had become industrial, and Negroes were driven away from the south by brutal and outdated racist practices such as slavery and institutions such as the Ku Klux Klan.
For the Negro in the South, Harlem and the North appeared to issue a call away from the brutality suffered at the hands of the ignorant, and towards enlightenment, education and prosperity in a non-hostile environment. Cities like New York, Chicago and Detroit all issued the call towards a life filled with unharrassed human rights for the Negro.
And indeed, it appears that Harlem provided all the elements that this call promised. Black and White joined on the dance floors and at the tables of the newest blues and jazz clubs, and it appeared that racial prejudice was non-existent in these settings. However, the deep-rooted racism of White America was difficult to quench. In fact those Whites who did join in the Negro way of fun did so merely out of curiosity.
This was also not a harmless curiosity: it was a sentiment born out of the desire to see the Negro in his primitive environment, characterizing the race's inferior habits of thinking and living.
There were however not only hostilities, however subtle, between Black and White, but result of this is that, while many Blacks did indeed find good jobs with good pay, many were also forced to be come factory or domestic workers. Poverty was thus still a reality for many Negroes.
A also between Negro and Negro. While it was true that the African-American could enter any area of life that was open to a White American, it was also true that such opportunities only existed for the rich, or at least those who were fairly well off, whether black or white. Furthermore areas such as the arts, literature and sciences, previously dominated by Whites, were open only to Blacks who repudiated the White lifestyle in terms of mores and manners. This caused a further rift between the middle classes and the poor of the Negro nation. Each group thought the other was betraying the Negro either by acting like White people, or by holding the Black nation back through remaining "common."
Thus, while the original call from the North delivered some of what it promised, the drawbacks were obvious.
Harlem nonetheless remained the center of all Negro hopes and efforts. Writers, dancers, musicians, and those who wanted to effect social change all flocked to Harlem. This was where a Black person had the best chance of reaching his or her goals. These goals ranged from the intensely personal to the altruistically social. Some African-Americans came to Harlem to create better circumstances for themselves, while others came to do the same for those in a less privileged position than themselves.
It was in Harlem that the Renaissance of African-American arts and letters occurred. Harlem was therefore also the heart of all pertaining to African-American life and art during this time. Harlem was thus both the physical and symbolic home of African-American hopes, dreams and efforts during the 1920's and 1930's.
Thus referred to as the "Harlem Renaissance." Harlem was also the main setting in most African-American literature of the time.
The era referred to as the Harlem Renaissance is characterized by an artistic, cultural and social treatment of racial issues in writing. This dealt both with issues of race and racism, as well as the African-American as a person attempting to find a place in American life. Together with the growth in literary consciousness there was also a social awakening. Social criticism, protest and the growing presence of the Negro in politics are all developments that reached fruition during this time.
Specifically, the novel Cane by Jean Toomer, published in 1923 mark the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance for many critics. With its investigation of lower class life in African-American culture, the novel further explores areas such as the spiritual and psychological slavery to which the Negro has been subjected. The idea of the "New Negro" who has lost sight of the spiritual Negro heritage in his pursuit of the American Dream in terms of material things. Furthermore Toomer insisted on treating the subject of Negro life with dignity and respect, as well as realism. This aesthetic was followed by subsequent Harlem Renaissance writers.
This is the environment in which Alain Locke lived and worked. His ideal of cultural pluralism was integrated in his involvement with visual arts, literature and also the theatre movement. Through these, Locke attempted an educational effort. On the one hand, through encouraging Negro artists to draw on their cultural heritage for their material, Locke attempted to show the rest of the country the beauty of this heritage. On the other hand, Locke's educational effort was directed towards the African-American nation itself, showing them the beauty of their
Locke was associated with the Theatre Arts Monthly known as the Howard University Players. Furthermore his work in collaboration with Montgomery Gregory resulted in the anthology Plays of Negro Life, published in 1927.
A roots. In this way Locke's ideal of cultural pluralism is connected with Toomer's ideas of realism of presentation, as well as the dignity of ethnic heritage.
The Harlem Renaissance was a time of hope for the African-American. Alain Locke promoted the Negro's rediscovery of self in order to be free from past fictions cultivated by brutal colonists. In this way the Negro could find a new integrity, as promoted by Toomer's and subsequent literature. In this way both individual self-assertion and an assertion of the validity of the Negro race resulted from this rediscovery.
Locke, while attending Howard University, refuses to shy away from the issues closest to the heart of his people. Through public lectures he thus addresses the issue of race. Unlike other critics  of the term, Locke refuses to hide behind a deconstruction effort for the term "race" itself. Instead he insists on the integrity and the existence of race as a sociocultural reality. Instead of searching for global criteria with which to judge the entire human race, Locke opts for a pluralistic philosophy. He acknowledges the obvious differences in race and heritage as not only acceptable, but desirable and beautiful for their difference. Locke however goes further than merely biological difference. Instead he focuses his pluralistic view upon culture. His conception of race is nourished by cultural heritage, and thus he brings the concept away from biological differentiation to a differentiation of culture itself.
This approach makes the concept of race as a cultural issue more complex than race as a biological issue. Scientifically, race can be defined in clear boundaries. This is not possible
Many social critics have attempted to deconstruct the term "race," claiming that it is a relic of an unequal past.
A when race is considered in cultural terms. When considered thus, race can be moulded according to ever-changing cultural ideals, rather than remaining rigid in its conception. Locke strongly promotes the categorization of race as a cultural rather than a biological notion. Thus he…[continue]
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