February is Black History Month in the United States, a chance to honor the lives and achievements of African Americans. This week the VOA program Point of View focussed on the Harlem Renaissance with Laban Carrick Hill, author of Harlem Stomp! A Cultural History of the Harlem Renaissance.
"The Harlem Renaissance was a sort of flowery of African American culture. Before the renaissance black culture and its influence on the broad American culture wasn't consciously acknowledged in America," Mr. Hill says. "With the rise of the Harlem Renaissance black culture became a primary acknowledged influence of American culture. Because what it did was it made America aware of the African American not as the derogatory stereotype that had been portrayed in American culture for many decades, but as what they call New Negro who was educated, incredibly cultured, part of the society that was really valuable. And the first step toward that sort of acknowledgment and public debt was the Harlem Renaissance."
Centered in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City, this cultural movement took place during the 1920s and the early 1930s. Laban Hill says one influential individual during this time was black historian and sociologist W.E.B.Du Bois (BOISE)
"The story of the Harlem Renaissance is also the story of Du Bois's life. He really set the stage and brought out the issues of what African American's should expect from American society. He was instrumental in bringing people to Harlem. He was instrumental in the founding of the N double ACP. He was instrumental in supporting people who came to Harlem.and getting their work and music published. He was at the core of everything that happened in Harlem."
Another contributor, Aaron Douglas best exemplified what -- Laban Hill calls -- the 'New Negro' philosophy. "He was called the artist of the Harlem renaissance. He did Jazz inspired illustrations and paintings. He created 2 murals for the 125th street public library. They are still hanging there. They are incredible. They are called Aspects of Negro Life and they track the history of African American culture, from Africa to the slave days, to re-construction, and then to Harlem and the Jazz age."
In the performing arts, Louis Armstrong, was the greatest of all jazz musicians. Again Laban Hill. "Louis Armstrong invented Jazz, Solo ……we don't think about that today. We know about his life in the 60's the early 70's before he died. But in the 1920's he is the one that single-handedly made jazz what it is."
The diverse literary expression of the Harlem Renaissance ranged from Zora Neale Hurston with works like How It Feels to Be Colored Me to Langston Hughes's poem I, Too which expresses his place in America. His is the poem by poetic Langston Hughes.
"I too sing America. I am the darker brother. They send me to eat in the kitchen when company comes. But I laugh and eat well and grow strong. Tomorrow I will be at the table when company comes. Nobody will dare say to me eat in the kitchen. Then besides they will see how beautiful we are and be ashamed …I too am America."
Author Laban Hill says Langston Hughes as well as many others contributed greatly to this era.
"Langston Hughes, the poet of the era in the poem The Weary Blues really sets the stage for the era. Zora Neil Hurston who was one of the most incredible fiction writers of the era, grew up in one of America's all African American towns: Florida. Both contributed significantly and both had strong African American cultural history. Their stories where compelling, their work was incredible."
Laban Carrick Hill, author of Harlem Stomp, A cultural history of the Harlem Renaissance puts it best.…"Through the music, and through the poems, and through the artwork, America came to realize that America is not America without African Americans. There is this wonderful quote that I always think about when I think about Harlem Renaissance .It is from an essay by Ralph Ellison called What America would be Like Without Blacks. And he says whatever else the true American is, he is also somehow …black."
A point of view on the cultural history of the Harlem Renaissance.
Note: Point of View is a weekly VOA radio segement that features leaders and experts debating different sides of an issue or topic. Click on the audio link above to listen to the full program.