THE BLUEPRINT OF THE NEW NEGRO By: Hamida Chumpa
“The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife, -- this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost... He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American...” ― W.E.B. Du Bois
Introduction In the British Museum, there is a drum intricately carved from the bark of a tree that was collected from Virginia in the mid 1730s. Initially, British collectors believed this drum to be Native American. However, the distinct shape, carvings, texture, and form all resembled the drums of the Akan-speaking people from Ghana. Logically, the drums must have traveled to the Americas from Africa through the slave trade. It is odd to imagine an object of creativity to have traveled the same journey along with thousands of captured, oppressed slaves. This drum not only serves as one of the oldest preserved African American items, but as a reminder of the cultural shock that continues to impede on African Americans Figure 1: Banjo and drum being played in an 18th today because of the slave trade. As a result, as soon as blacks century slave quarter. were able to have a voice, they have ventured to transform the black image against demeaning stereotypes. This can be seen from the beginning with slave narratives all the way into The New Negro, or the Harlem Renaissance and today.
Figure 2: Map of the Atlantic Slave Trade.
History of Retaining African Roots in America A major controversy exists in which historians debate about the true extent of African heritage in the New World. While some historians believe the experience of slavery erased the remnants of African culture in the Americas, others claim that African influence was present and crucial in developing communities. While they were able to adopt a few aspects of their culture into America, it is agreed that the ability to retain traditions were extremely difficult. This was especially evident in, “The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself.” Douglas, a fugitive slave from Maryland, recounts his experience as a former slave. His writing portrays the African American plight not just for physical freedom, but intellectual as well. Even after the abolition of slavery, the characterization of blacks being barbaric was nightmarishly present. African American activists were under even more pressure to defend the image of blacks. It became apparent that many of these leaders were defeating stereotypes by highlighting the social class differences within the black population, inherently feeding the stereotype itself. Thus, the educated class became the “better class.” Rather than unifying the African Americans, it emphasized controversial ideas like patriarchy which only added to the tension. This internal class division, or “racial uplift ideology,” hindered social advancement and unification of the black population (Gaines 17). Many blacks responded to this ideal as an agent to public service. The Great Migration of hundreds of blacks from the South to the North had provided for them new opportunities to open “reformist social gospel churches, civic and fraternal organizations, settlement houses, newspapers, trade unions, and other public institutions” (Gaines 17). With these new resources, an opportunity to reform the American perception of the black image seemed possible.
Figure 3: This image depicts the migration of hundreds of blacks who move North seeking for better opportunities, or the “American Dream.”
Figure 4: "THE REASON" Albert A. Smith cartoon. African Americans heading North for opportunities during the WW1 era.
With WW1 as a catalyst for change, black migration changed the face of black identity in the Americas. Many blacks moved north to attain the jobs that were now open because many left for war. African American activists rose to more power as “protestoriented and ideologically diverse” organizations were developed such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (Gaines 17). The “New Negro” was a high-spirited and assertive Black advocate. When World War 1 ended in 1918, soldiers returned to the country to take back the jobs they left. White mobs of people who felt their livelihood was being threatened, reacted to black nationalism through catastrophic race riots. 19 19 is memorable for having the “Red summer,” a period of urban chaos in cities such as Chicago and Washington D.C. Slogans such as, “No Jobs for Niggers Until Every White Man Has a Figure 5: The above image Job" (Trotter 1) and "Niggers, back to the cotton fields—city displays segregation within jobs are for white folks” (Trotter 1) were tossed around. employment. Black urban unemployment skyrocketed to over 50 percent. The unemployment rate for Harlem Blacks in specific, “hovered between oneand-a half and three times that of the Whites in New York” (Naison 31). This time, however, the New Negro were reportedly fighting back against these unfair attacks. Black nationalist groups, like the Harlem Figure 6: The Chicago Race Riot of 1919 Business Men’s Club and the Garveyites, groups concerned with Negro improvement,
followed a, “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work Movement” to combat the unemployment (Naison 50). This method of protest appealed to the community of Harlem and various other campaigns ranging from legislation outlawing segregated facilities and educational tactics to support Black businesses were employed to push for governmental interventions. Racial uplift was beginning to be replaced with black pride, a movement embracing mass protest, labor organization, and reconciliation for the African American struggles. After years of Africans struggling to re-root themselves in America, they were beginning to create an identity and culture on their own terms. From them, arose infamous musical genres such as the blues, gospel, and jazz (Gaines 17). Despite the massive social movements to embrace black life after the civil war, the United States was very much still rooted in segregation. From education, employment opportunities, to public facilities, there was an obvious distinction between the ones meant for blacks and whites in terms of quality. This helped feed the constant need to improve on the black image. African Americans felt they needed to place importance on their image in order for society to recognize them as fellow citizens. The struggle to maintain a positive image to counteract the negative connotations society associated them with became a natural inclination. Thus, blacks were conditioned to work twice as hard to possibly Figure 7: The above image depicts earn the same treatment as their white counterparts. the influence of European beauty standards on Black communities. Beyond the inequality economically, blacks faced prejudice within their own community because of the influences from the European standards of beauty. According to, Trudier Harris, a literary historian, pigmentocracy was used to distinguish between the different ranges of skin tones within the black community, from whiteness (deemed as beauty) to the darkest shade (deemed as ugly). Skin tones created a hierarchy within African American communities which only provided more tension. Thus, many African Americans began to degrade ones who were darker. This was done as an attempt to uplift the black image—an ironic, but expected result from a constant cycle of psychological degradation (Harris 18).
Pigmentocracy existed since the beginning of slavery for Africans. Even within the Black community, the lighter ones were sent to work inside homes while the darker ones were chosen to spend all day in the plantations. There were even some cases where the offspring of a white owner and a black slave, were sent North to receive highend education. Some individuals took advantage of their white counterparts and used it to help their fellow black people. Others who were born with the European features of their white father, “left their black identities behind, moved into white society” and started new lives (Harris 18). This division became more apparent when patterns appeared of darker Figure 8: Ad for lightening skin. skinned blacks seeking to marry blacks of lighter tones for social mobility purposes. The politics of skin color influenced all forms of life from Madame CJ Walker’s hair straightening serums to skin lightening cream ads on Ebony magazine (Harris 18). Though these actions were not directly degrading the black community, they did help create the stigma that whiter features, such as straight hair and light skin, are indirectly better—or at least, more desired. It’s absurd to believe two people who come from the same African heritage, can end up on two completely different sides of the power spectrum…simply Figure 9: Ad for lightening skin. due to melanin. However, this is a reality that should have been logically expected after decades of black devaluation. Nonetheless, this phenomenon further fueled the divide between the African community in terms of establishing an identity as a unified front.
Early Black Writers Returning to Africa There was scientific research done that proved “a literary impulse to reconnect black Americans to their African roots” (Harris 20). Many writers felt inclined to return to Africa not purely because of their origin but because it was, “the source of all life” (Harris 20). Two nineteenth century nationalists who did travel back to Africa were Martin Delany and Alexander Crumell. While Martin Delany stayed in Liberia for a year, Crummell spent over twenty years there. He then spent his life educating Africans, preaching Christianity, and supporting black nationalism (Harris 20). He would come back to the U.S. to attract more black Americans and convince them to visit Africa. While his underlying mission was to enlighten Liberia with Christianity, his literature exposes his convictions of reconciling roots in America with Africa. In his book, “Africa and America: addresses and discourses,” he notes that slavery has prompted, “laws and letters, art and learning” of the black people to die (Crummell 5). For 200 years, “the misfortune of the black race has been the confinement of its mind in the pent-up prison of human bondage” (Crummell 5). However, after visiting Africa, he witnesses how drastically different life is. While there were economic, social, and political issues in Africa too, they did not stem from racism. There was no Civil War in Africa to end slavery nor did Jim Crow laws exist to impede on communities. This lack of pressure was shocking. In turn, Crummell notes that American history puts African Americans in a, “fossillated state” or arrested development (Crummell 6). In other words, in order for black American civilization to progress, they must not be “swallowed up in morbid memories, or narrowed to the groove of a single idea or purpose” (Crummell 6). Many people misunderstood his writings and believed he was telling people to forget about slavery. However, it’s important to note the distinction between forgetting and recalling. Crummell knows it is impossible to forget slavery. Many whites will try to “impute us (referring to the black population) as a natural inferiority, which is simply the result of that former servile state” (Crumell 7). In other words, even though slavery in America is gone, the economic, social, and political disparities between blacks and whites because of slavery, is still present. What Crummell urges, after living in Africa for so long, is for black Americans to avoid the constant recollection of it. Slavery was a degrading concept, and the recollection of it, by association, can become degrading to someone’s psyche. This is evident in many black writers who felt both disconnected from their African roots, and disconnected from America due to their race. The memory
of slavery should not make African Americans self-conscious of their identity and dissuade them from making notable progress. Instead, it should be as the “commanding thought of a new people, who should be marching on to the broadest freedom of thought in a new and glorious present, and a still more magnificent future” (Crummel 9). Obviously enough, the main reason why so many blacks felt disconnected from Africa is because they were descendants of people who were re-rooted here, forcibly put through slavery, and ended up having lives here. After traveling to Africa, Crummell realizes that the consequences of slavery continue to impinge on American black lives. Many feel the need to reconstruct their image to finally feel like they belong. However, he notes that it’s imperative to not let slavery define them because although the past dictates otherwise, they do not need validation to their identity. Protest Poetry There isn’t much information about black culture in America during slavery. Even the few African artifacts found in the Americas that reflect a culture is at a minimum. Perhaps this is because they weren’t in the New World to create songs, stories, and art. Considering they were used solely for physical labor, developing any form of art amidst the horror and hatred must have been immensely difficult. Since the arrival of Africans in America, they have been deprived of their ancestral roots, leading to an absence of black identity. Protest poetry serves as a reminder of the African plight, from the laborious tasks and hardships to segregation, and loss of identity. Protest poetry is African American literature that refers to heightening the rank of black individuals to one of power. By displaying the disparities within the black community, protest poetry aims to eradicate the injustice that impedes on many African American lives. The literature discusses inequalities in education, employment, public resources, housing, in addition to so much more. George Moses Horton was a prominent poetic protester—in fact, his collection of poems entitled, The Hope of Liberty, created the “first volume of poetry published by an enslaved person who could not read or write” (Pearson 2006). A professor from the University of North Carolina would transcribe his work as he would recite it during his work trips to Chapel Hill, which was nearby the university. In poems like, On Liberty and Slavery, Horton says, “Alas! and am I born for this/ To wear this slavish chain?/ Deprived of all created bliss/ Through hardship, toil and pain!” (Horton 1829). Horton is questioning his identity in
whether he was born to be deprived of basic human rights. His questions reflect moments of doubt and sorrow. In his poem, The Slave’s Complaint, he continues to question his painful circumstances. In, “Will the world my pains deride Forever?/ Must I dwell in Slavery’s night,” he compares slavery to an endless night of torment where he’s lost all sense of hope (Horton 1829). Paul Laurence Dunbar was another important writer that preceded Horton. Similar to Cummell and many other activists of his time, Dunbar recognized the misfortune of blacks even after slavery and he began a night school to assist them in becoming literate (Gates 19). He notes, “Some people…think Negroes should be maids and bootblacks, but I am determined they shall not make menials out of all of us” (Gates 19). While poets like Horton criticized slavery, many of Dunbar’s poems focused on the conditions after slavery, mainly referring to the Jim Crow era. Black people had difficulty integrating into society because of their limitations. Osofsky in his book, Harlem: the making of a ghetto, mentions how restrictions on voting rights, access to public facilities, and demeaning signs all contributed to racial antagonism against Black groups (Osofsky 12). Though slavery was absent, the repercussions from years of degrading Black folks created an unfair, and false generalization of an entire race. In turn, Dunbar addresses discrimination in public transportation in, To Miss Mary Britton, lynching in, The Haunted Oak, and the overall oppression blacks suffered from in, Sympathy.
Figure 10: The Paul Laurence Dunbar ad on the Dayton Daily News Archive Blog
Harlem Renaissance Writers Protest poetry reached its apex during the Harlem Renaissance, a surge of artistic, cultural, and intellectual movements spanning the 1920s. During this time, Jim Crow laws were still in effect so more literature was focused on contemporary conditions of the black population. The literature created during this time is reflective of the black experience during this era. For example, more individuals were coming in to the North for economic opportunities as described in Langston Hughes’ poem, One Way Ticket. His poem, Ballad of the Landlord then describes the opposition they faced, “and the unwavering resentment that turns hope into resignation” in the poem, Harlem. Claude McKay is another prominent Harlem Renaissance figure as he was known for his more graphic depictions of black hardships. For example, he portrays ferocious images of beatings in, The Lynching, being limited to second-class citizenship in, If We Must Die, and a “closed-door society” in the poems, America, Baptism, and The White House. He is also notable for his poem titled, “Harlem Shadows” where he displays the negative parts of Harlem. In the lines, “Its veil. I see the shapes of girls who pass/ To bend and barter at desire's call” McKay describes the immoral things (prostitution) women had to do in order to financially support themselves. Since the 1870s, Jim Crow’s racial caste system had systematically made it difficult for African Americans to attain jobs and have social mobility. In fact, Black workers who did have jobs, were paid drastically less than their White counterparts. Factors such as discriminatory hiring policies, lack of resources, and a lack of proper assistance limit the achievements of Black individuals. Their limitations only deepen the disparity between Black and White economic status. This cycle of poverty tends to reinforce historical stereotypes of the African American to be lazy or poor. Behind the scenes however, these groups are systematically placed into lower social classes. Poverty is a common theme in McKay’s poems. In Harlem Shadows, McKay describes the unfortunate case of how many blacks had to make money at the expense of their identity and morals. Since the Harlem Renaissance is known for the explosion of culture and art, it’s uncanny that there was actually so much literature on the oppression of black lives, almost the opposite of this idea of a “cultural paradise.” However, it’s this very idea that blacks were able to speak their latent convictions made the Harlem Renaissance so remarkable. The first step to equality is recognizing the societal injustice, and shedding light on their issues is a pivotal aspect of progress.
Later Black Writers Returning to Africa Throughout the Harlem Renaissance and beyond, African Americans searched for a history before slavery. While these communities were seeking for equality, it seemed most of their identity and history revolved around that fatal journey through the Middle Passage. Although with reform programs like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) led by W.E.B. DuBois encouraged widespread black pride, blackness was still being devalued by not only white Americans, but some black Americans too. How can one dismiss the negative stereotypes and search for a positive identity within the confines of a country which aimed to oppress them? Eugene Redmond, a black poet, labeled this concept as a “shore to shore” mentality in which “blacks began to look for sources of pride that did not locate their origins in America slavery” (Harris 20). Identifying with black history beyond the scope of America meant looking into Africa. Some writers like Langston Hughes were able to physically travel to Africa while others’ claims about African identity “were rooted more in imagination and reading knowledge than in actual facts” (Harris 20). For Langston Hughes, Africa was this beautiful sanctuary that celebrated “blackness.” In his poem, The Negro Speaks of Rivers, he holds a striking stance that blacks have been contributing to society since the beginning of time. In the line, “I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it” he represents the strength and creativity of the collective black people. In the line, “...and I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset” Hughes reflects upon the countless times blacks were being degraded. However, he notes blacks becoming “golden in the sunset” which refers to how they gloriously fight and will fight for their freedom each time. The poem also travels throughout many locations such as the Euphrates, the Nile, and the Congo to represent the massiveness of the black community. Hughes finally arrived at Senegal, Africa in 1923. He notes, “my Africa, motherland of the Negro people! And me a Negro!...The real thing, to be touched and seen, not merely read about in a book.” He was amazed by the culture there, “...no two people dress alike. Some have on capes, some shawls, some pants, some wear blue clothes…” However, he is disappointed when he is “not embraced as a long lost brother” (Harris 20). In fact, the native Africans
viewed Hughes’ copper skin and straight hair to be closer to a white man than black. When telling Africans he was not white, they would respond saying he was not black either. Along his travels, he witnessed patriarchy where women would be degraded by males. He would be mocked by natives and consistently called, “white man.” Nonetheless, Hughes still felt sentiments towards Africa and continued to use this place as a creative outlet: “Home can be welcoming, embracing, questioning, denying, elusive, and perhaps even unattainable, but there is ever a reason to reach, to claim, to assert kinship” (Harris 20). A lesser known black writer, Gwendolyn Bennett, also wrote about African identity. Her poem, To a Dark Girl, encourages reclaiming Africa and reclaiming black women’s beauty. According to the National Humanities Center, Bennett would say, “look to the past, to Africa, to home...and find the pride, history and self-love that will enable contemporary African Americans to re-define themselves as healthy and valuable beings.” Marcus Garvey, a major proponent of Black nationalism, urged American blacks to return to Africa. In fact, he would hold elaborate parades and even had a ship to transport the travelers. Evocations of Africa were also found in art like with Aaron Douglas. As a black painter, he would paint iconic images of black figures that would be on the cover of many books, magazines, and anthologies (Harris 20). Alain Locke’s photographs of African masks were also very popular. Locke once mentioned, “the possible role of the American Negro in the future development of Africa is one of the most constructive and universally helpful missions that any modern people can lay claim to…” The New Negro was an assertive individual who was inspired by his heritage and was hopeful for the progress of Africa.
Figure 11: Marcus Garvey Parade in Harlem, 1924
Figure 13: Figure 12: Winold Reiss, â€œAfrican Phantasy: Awakening,â€?
Helmet Mask, Images from the Alain Locke papers.
Figure 14: Aaron Douglas, From Slavery to Reconstruction
Conclusion The writings of the authors are all windows into the black experience. Each piece of poem, play, and story reflects the experience of that time period. Through the writing, it’s clear that not only did blacks struggle with American integration, but also felt disconnected with their African roots. It is no doubt that the black experience involves massive amounts of trauma. Their culture shock was also an important factor that contributed to the trauma. This detachment from both worlds, and the struggle of finding a home, continues to impede on the black community today. Having to reconcile with two completely different societies is a direct result of systematic and institutionalized racism. The literature of yesterday and today provides a lens in understanding the lives we can never truly empathize for, but begin to sympathize with. Perhaps African Americans are not comparable to native Africans. Although they are originally all from the same place, perhaps the difference in history each experienced has made them unique from each other. African Americans do not need to be identical to Africans as validation of their roots. Their identity does not need to be associated to one specific location. While they are African, they are also American. They have overcome decades of brutality in America and continue to radiate resilience against injustices set against them. This has made them unique, and indeed powerful. It’s imperative that African Americans are recognized as integral parts of America’s history and community.
“All Roots lead back to Africa”
Works/ Figures Cited Osofsky, G. (1996). Harlem: the making of a ghetto. Wiley Online Library. Retrieved from, http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ncr.4100550715/abstract Naison, M. (2004). Communists in harlem during the depression. JStor. Retrieved from, https://www.jstor.org/stable/4285472?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents Locke, Alaim. (2009). Freedomâ€™s Story. National Humanities Center. Retrieved from, http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/tserve/freedom/1917/newnegro.htm> Harris, Trudier. (2009). Africa in the Harlem Renaissance. National Humanities Center. Retrieved from, http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/tserve/freedom/1917/harlem.htm Gates, Henry. (2009). The New Negro and the Black Image. National Humanities Center. Retrieved from, http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/tserve/freedom/1917/newnegro.htm Gaines, Kevin. (2009). Racial Uplift Ideology. National Humanities Center. Retrieved from, http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/1865-1917/racialuplift.htm Ebron, Paulla. (2009). Looking for Africa. National Humanities Center. Retrieved from, http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/freedom/1609-1865/aaculture.htm Vlach, John. (2009). Rooted in Africa, Raised in America. National Humanities Center. Retrieved from, http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/freedom/16091865/essays/africa.htm Figure 1: http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/tserve/freedom/1917/harlem.htm Figure 2: https://michaelfarellaa.wordpress.com/assignments/triangular-trade/ Figure 3: http://time.com/3879426/the-american-way-photos Figure 4: http://teachers.phillipscollection.org/artwork/reason Figure 5: https://www.britannica.com/event/Jim-Crow-law Figure 6: https://www.history.com/topics/tulsa-race-riot Figure 7: http://www.margaretbowland.com/ Figure 8: http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/tserve/freedom/1917/harlem.htm Figure 9: http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/tserve/freedom/1917/harlem.htm
Figure 10: http://www.math.buffalo.edu/~sww/dunbar/dunbarphotos.html Figure 11: https://www.buyblackmovement.com/MarcusGarvey/ Figure 12: https://americanart.si.edu/artwork/african-fantasy-awakening-20721 Figure 13: https://www.doaks.org/resources/cultural-philanthropy/alain-locke Figure 14: http://exhibitions.nypl.org/treasures/items/show/170