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New Negro is a term popularized during the Harlem Renaissance implying a more outspoken advocacy of dignity and a refusal to submit quietly to the practices and laws of Jim Crow racial segregation. The term "New Negro" was made popular by Alain LeRoy Locke.
The term had been used in African American discourses since 1895 and the concept associated with the term evolved over the years to become critical to the African American scene during the first three decades of the twentieth century, receiving most attention during the peak years of the Harlem Renaissance (1917-1928). The term has a broad relevance to the period in U.S. history known as the Post-Reconstruction, whose beginnings were marked symbolically by the notorious compromise of 1877 and whose impact upon black American lives culminated in the 1896 Supreme Court decision, Plessy v. Ferguson, which practically obliterated the gains African Americans had made through the 14th and 15th Amendments. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who in 1988 provided a comprehensive treatment of this evolution from 1895 to 1925, notes that "blacks regained a public voice, louder and more strident than it had been even during slavery."
More recently, Gates and Gene Andrew Jarrett have discussed a New Negro era of a longer duration, from 1892 through 1938, and Brent Hayes Edwards has pushed investigations of New Negro culture far beyond Harlem, noting that "the 'New Negro' movement [was] at the same time a 'new' black internationalism." This internationalism developed in relation to informal cultural exchange among black figures in the United States, France, and the Caribbean. New Negro cultural internationalism also grew out of New Negro work in the United States's official international diplomacy.
1895 is indeed a crucial year. Du Bois, with a Ph.D. from Harvard in hand, embarks on his long career in scholarship and civil rights, Booker T. Washington makes his Atlanta Exposition speech and Frederick Douglass dies after having made some of the bitterest and most despairing speeches on "race." Despite their rhetorical and ideological differences, these three leaders were speaking up during the 1890s, the decade described by African American historian Rayford Logan as the "nadir" of African American history and marked by nearly 2,000 documented lynchings.
New Negroes were seen invariably as men and women (but mostly men) of middle-class orientation who often demanded their legal rights as citizens, but almost always wanted to craft new images that would subvert and challenge old stereotypes. This can be seen in the 1895 editorial in the Cleveland Gazette and commentaries in other black newspapers. Books like A New Negro for a New Century (1900) edited by Booker T. Washington, Fannie Barrier Williams and N. B. Wood or William Pickens' The New Negro (1916), represent the concept.
The First World War
For African Americans, World War I highlighted the widening gap between U.S. rhetoric regarding "the war to make the world safe for democracy" and the reality of disenfranchised and exploited black farmers in the South or the poor and alienated residents of the Northern slums. In France, for example, the black soldiers experienced the kind of freedom they had never known in the U.S.
After the war ended, racial tensions began to boil over in the United States. Having experienced freedom and respect in France they had never known at home, African American soldiers returned to find that discrimination against blacks was just as present as it was before the war. A prime, but not isolated, example of this lingering racism is the case of African American soldier Wilbur Little. He was lynched in Blakely, Georgia upon his return from service after ignoring warnings from a group of white men to never wear his uniform in public.
In addition to this racially motivated violence there were African Americans flooding into the north in huge numbers, increasing segregation in the North and the regeneration of the Ku Klux Klan, all of which contributed to the rising racial tension which resulted in the riots that affected several major cities in the "red summer" of 1919.
Many African American veterans became disillusioned with the American rhetoric of fighting for democracy after enduring racial discrimination in the Army during the war, and at home after their return. They became more conscious racially, politically and socially, and all this helped to shape a new spirit of militancy that found expression, for example, in Claude McKay's sonnets such as "If We Must Die" and "America."
New Negro Movement
In 1916–17, Hubert Harrison founded the New Negro Movement. In 1917, he established the first organization (The Liberty League) and the first newspaper (The Voice) of the "New Negro Movement" and this movement energized Harlem and beyond with its race-conscious and class-conscious demands for political equality, an end to segregation and lynching as well as calls for armed self-defense when appropriate. Therefore, Harrison, who also edited (The New Negro) in 1919 and authored (When Africa Awakes: The 'Inside Story' of the Stirrings and Strivings of the New Negro in the Western World) in 1920, is called the "father of Harlem Radicalism."
In several essays included in the anthology The New Negro (1925), which grew out of the 1924 special issue of Survey Graphic on Harlem, editor Alain Locke contrasted the "Old Negro" with the "New Negro" by stressing African American assertiveness and self-confidence during the years following World War I and the Great Migration. Race pride had already been part of literary and political self-expression among African Americans in the nineteenth century, as reflected in the writings of Martin Delany, Bishop Henry Turner, Frances E.W. Harper, Frederick Douglass and Pauline Hopkins. However, it found a new purpose and definition in the journalism, fiction, poetry, music, sculpture and paintings of a host of figures associated with the Harlem Renaissance.
The term "New Negro" inspired a wide variety of responses from its diverse participants and promoters. A militant African American editor indicated in 1920 how this "new line of thought, a new method of approach" included the possibility that "the intrinsic standard of Beauty and aesthetics does not rest in the white race" and that "a new racial love, respect and consciousness may be created." It was felt that African Americans were poised to assert their own agency in culture and politics instead of just remaining a "problem" or "formula" for others to debate about.
The New Negroes of the 1920s, the "talented tenth," included poets, novelists and Blues singers creating their art out of Negro folk heritage and history; black political leaders fighting against corruption and for expanded opportunities for African Americans; businessmen working toward the possibilities of a "black metropolis" and Garveyites dreaming of a homeland in Africa. All of them shared in their desire to shed the image of servility and inferiority of the shuffling "Old Negro" and achieve a new image of pride and dignity.
No one has articulated the hopes and possibilities associated with the idea and ideal of the "New Negro" more than the Harvard-trained philosophy professor Alain Locke, who later described himself as the "midwife" to aspiring young black writers of the 1920s. According to Locke, The New Negro, whose publication by Albert and Charles Boni in December 1925 symbolizes the culmination of the first stage of the New Negro Renaissance in literature, was put together "to document the New Negro culturally and socially - to register the transformations of the inner and outer life of the Negro in America that have so significantly taken place in the last few years."
The anthology had already sold 42,000 copies in its earlier incarnation as the March 1925 special Harlem issue on Harlem of the Survey Graphic magazine, a record unsurpassed by the Survey until World War II. Highlighting its national and international scope, Locke compared the New Negro movement with the "nascent movements of folk expression and self-determination" that were taking place "in India, in China, in Egypt, Ireland, Russia, Bohemia, Palestine and Mexico."
Locke's philosophy of cultural pluralism is analogous to the thinking of many of his white contemporaries, especially cultural pluralists such as Waldo Frank, V.F. Calverton, Randolph Bourne and Van Wyck Brooks. Sharing the optimism of other progressive reformers, Locke recognized that "the conditions that are molding a New Negro are [also] molding a new American attitude." He defined as the creed of his own generation its belief in "the efficacy of collective effort, in race co-operation."
Like the black political leaders of the period, Locke seems to have believed that the American system would ultimately work for African Americans, but he refused to take cognizance of the disagreeable political leverage the system called for. Such an approach implied an excessive dependence of any black hopes for political change or reform upon white men of influence and their good intentions. In terms of art and literature, Locke saw no conflict between being "American" and being "Negro," but rather an opportunity to enrich both through cultural reciprocity. In a way, Locke was reinterpreting Du Bois' "double consciousness" concept for aesthetic and cultural uses.
It seems there was enough room in Locke's view for many different kinds of talents to exist and thrive together. Locke also did not see any direct connection between African arts that had influenced the works of many European artists such as Picasso. For him, the most important lesson the black artist could derive from African art was "not cultural inspiration or technical innovations, but the lesson of a classic background, the lesson of discipline, of style, of technical control."
As W. E. B. Du Bois himself recognized in his response to Locke's New Negro, the concept validated at one level the rejection of the accommodationist politics and ideology represented by Booker T. Washington and his followers around the start of the 20th century when despite Washington's access to the White House and mainstream politicians, violence against African Americans had continued unabated at a disturbing level with little progress in the area of civil rights and economic opportunities.
Different Points of View
At the same time, there were also voices of doubt and skepticism. Eric D. Walrond, the young West Indian writer of Tropic Death (1926), found all contemporary black leaders inadequate or ineffective in dealing with the cultural and political aspirations of black masses.
In 1923, in his essay The New Negro Faces America, he declared the New Negro to be "race-conscious. He does not want . . . to be like the white man. He is coming to realize the great possibilities within himself. The New Negro, who does not want to go back to Africa, is fondly cherishing an ideal – and that is, that the time will come when America will look upon the Negro not as a savage with an inferior mentality, but as a civilized man." According to Walrond, the "rank and file of Negroes are opposed to Garveyism; dissatisfied with the personal vituperation and morbid satire of Mr. Du Bois and prone to discount Major [Robert] Moton’s Tuskegee as a monument of respectable reaction."
By 1929, Wallace Thurman, the bohemian and brilliant leader of young writers associated with the "Niggeratti Manor" as well as journals such as Fire!! and Harlem, referred to the New Negro phenomenon as a white American fad that had already come and gone. In several pieces of journalism and literary essays, Thurman castigated the kind of interest both whites and black middle-class readers invested in the work of younger black writers, making it harder for them to think and create independently.
In one such essay, The Negro Literary Renaissance which was included in Aunt Hagar’s Children, Thurman sums up the situation thus: "Everyone was having a grand time. The millennium was about to dawn. The second emancipation seemed inevitable. Then the excitement began to die down and Negroes as well as whites began to take stock of that in which they had reveled. The whites shrugged their shoulders and began seeking for some new fad. Negroes stood by, a little subdued, a little surprised, torn between being proud that certain of their group had achieved distinction, and being angry because a few of them arrived ones had ceased to be what the group considered 'constructive,' having in the interim, produced works that went against the grain, in that they did not wholly qualify to the adjective 'respectable.'"
Again in 1929, Thurman had begun his second novel, Infants of the Spring (1932), a satire in which he took himself and his peers to task for decadence and lack of discipline, declaring all his contemporaries except Jean Toomer as mere journeymen. And while he admired Alain Locke for his sympathy and support for the young Negro writers, the salon scene in chapter 21 signals Locke’s failure at organizing the highly individualistic young writers into a cohesive movement.
Beyond the lack of consensus on the significance of the term "New Negro" during the Harlem Renaissance, many later commentators such as Harold Cruse considered it politically naive or overly optimistic.
As late as 1938, Locke was defending his views against attacks from John P. Davis and others that his emphasis was primarily on the "psychology of the masses" and not on offering a solution to the "Negro problem." In dismissing the construction of the New Negro as a dubious venture in renaming, as merely a "bold and audacious act of language," Gates confirms Gilbert Osofsky's earlier criticism that the New Negroes of the 1920s helped to support new white stereotypes of black life, different from, but no more valid or accurate than the old ones.
The concept of "New Negro" was first introduced in the 19th century and there are varied interpretations of its long-term significance. There is no doubt that despite the difficult challenges of race and class in the 1920s, a new spirit of hope and pride marked black activity and expression in all areas. All Harlem Renaissance participants, regardless of their generational or ideological orientation in aesthetics or politics, shared at some level this sense of possibility.
The middle-class leadership of NAACP and Urban League were deeply suspicious of the flamboyant and demagogic Marcus Garvey, who in turn saw Du Bois and others as dark-skinned whites. Yet all of them subscribed to some form of Pan-Africanism. Alain Locke and Charles S. Johnson rejected cultural separatism and endorsed a hybridity derived from the marriage of black experience and Euro-American aesthetic forms.
Maybe what is important for latter-day culture and literature is the New Negro's insistence in so many spheres at self-definition, self-expression and self-determination, a striving after what Locke called "spiritual emancipation." The many debates during the Harlem Renaissance years regarding art and propaganda, representation and identity, assimilation versus militancy, parochialism versus globalism, have enriched the perspectives on issues of art, culture, politics and ideology that have emerged on the African American scene since the 1930s. This is especially true concerning the perspectives offered by Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison and Toni Morrison. In the 1920s, the rich and diverse contributions made by journals such as The Crisis, Opportunity, and The Messenger helped to shape and interpret for their growing readership the powerful impact that World War I and the Great Migration had had on the African American masses.
- Gates, Henry Louis (Fall 1988). "The Trope of a New Negro and the Reconstruction of the Image of the Black". Representations 24: 131. doi:10.2307/2928478.
- Gates and Jarrett, eds (2007). The New Negro: Readings on Race, Representation, and African American Culture, 1892-1938. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
- Edwards, Brent (2003). The Practice of Diaspora: Literature, Translation, and the Rise of Black Internationalism. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. p. 2.
- Edwards. The Practice of Diaspora.
- Stephens, Michelle (2005). Black Empire: The Masculine Global Imaginary of Caribbean Intellectuals in the United States, 1914-1962. Durham: Duke University Press.
- Roberts, Brian (2013). Artistic Ambassadors: Literary and International Representation of the New Negro Era. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press.
- Jeffrey B. Perry, "Hubert Harrison: The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883-1918," Vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, November, 2008).
- Davarian L. Baldwin and Minkah Makalani (eds.), Escape from New York: The New Negro Renaissance beyond Harlem. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2013.
- Nathan Huggins, Harlem Renaissance. (1971)
- David Levering Lewis, When Harlem Was in Vogue. (1981)
- Gilbert Osofsky, Harlem: The Making of a Ghetto. (1965)
- Louis J. Parascandola (ed.), “Winds Can Wake Up the Dead”: An Eric Walrond Reader. (1998)
- Jeffrey B. Perry, Hubert Harrison: The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883-1918. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008.
- Amritjit Singh, The Novels of the Harlem Renaissance. (1976)
- Amritjit Singh and Daniel M. Scott, III (eds.), The Collected Writings of Wallace Thurman: A Harlem Renaissance Reader. (2003)
- "The Trope of a New Negro and the Reconstruction of the Image of the Black," Representations, Fall 1988.