The Advent of Black Harlem

Great Migration

Concerning leadership in Harlem during the Renaissance, few organizations held more weight the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. It included people considered to be foremost intellectuals and sympathetics concerning race relations in the United States. As such, the movement in Harlem during the 20s greatly benefited the flourishing yet still infant organization. In order to take a closer look at what the program of this organization, it is useful to examine the lives of people who would find it attractive. One such person was James Weldon Johnson. A native of Jacksonville, Florida, Johnson achieved a great amount in the years before he migrated to Harlem. Before arriving in Harlem in 1914, Johnson had a career of prolific sorts including work as a high school principal, a lawyer, achieved great success writing songs and plays for New York musicals and was active in the Republican Party and eventually worked in the consular service during the Roosevelt and Taft administrations. In addition to these successes, Johnson was also a published poet, anthologist and novelist with his most famous work being Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man.

For an audio clip of Johnson's sermon, "Creation," click here

After much success in his native Jacksonville, it was only logical that upon arriving in New York, he would continue to flourish in his professional life. In 1917, only three years after arriving in Harlem following his brother J. Rosamund Johnson, the NAACP invited Johnson to become its first executive secretary.

His acceptance enabled him to channel his many talents and great passion toward a more fulfilling cause: attacking "the brutality of white Americans, the crippling limitations on Negro opportunity imposed by a race-conscious society" and "lobby[ing] forcefully and effectively for federal legislation" to remedy these difficulties. (Huggins, 18)

His work for the NAACP did not mark the limits of his contributions to this moment and the Negro cause. Instead, he carried his concern for these personal and communal interests into the arena of art, seeing this realm as a worthy location for performing a more accurate representation of black American life and ability, stating: "A people may become great through many means, but there is only one measure by which its greatness is recognized and acknowledged.

The final measure of all peoples is the amount and standard of the literature and art they have produced." He continues to emphasize how central he believes art is to the recognition of the "Aframerican" as a worthy and equal resident of American to declare that "No people that has produced great literature and art has ever been looked upon by the world as distinctly inferior."(Johnson, 9)

In the preface to his poetry anthology The Book of American Negro Poetry, Johnson seeks to define and catalogue what he feels the artistic expressions of Negro life should look like. He envisioned his work not as selections from the only talented Negroes in America, but merely as "a demonstration of intellectual parity" with whites. In this compilation, he sought to describe how distinctly American the poetry of Negroes was.

While the majority of his work in the preface was dedicated to talking about how the Negro produced the only authentically American art at this time, speaking specifically of Ragtime, the folklore of "the Uncle Remus stories", spirituals, and the cakewalk, his preface is perhaps most noted for what it seeks to exclude or remove from what he believes is characteristic Negro representation, namely dialect. (Johnson, 9-10, 40)

Johnson commented that "The newer Negro poets show a tendency to discard dialect" saying that "much of the subject matter which went into the making of traditional dialect poetry, 'possums, watermelons, etc.," he concluded, "they have discarded altogether" as poetic material. (Johnson, 40)

The reason he documented this "tendency" stemmed from what Johnson believes it represented about the Negro and with what it continued to associate the Negro. He felt that not the dialect itself, but how dialect was used in America's racist ideology confined black life to artistic, imaginary space, rather than to acknowledge the true dynamism that exists in black communities. Subsequently, he believed that dialect had been limited to only two possible uses in art: "humor and pathos."

The limitations, he argued, forced the Negro to live in "a certain artistic niche" defined by the legacy of minstrel traditions that were maintained and recreated in the white imagination, through works like Birth of a Nation and Gone With The Wind. (Johnson, 41) His argument about dialect is that this "tendency" of Negro writers away from dialect, whether this trend is real or framed through his creation of an anthology, shows that at least some writers did agree with his argument. He argued that to depict Negro life through the lens of dialect would be to aid in recreating this niche and re-confining blacks to temporal and aesthetical stagnation in white American thought and imagination through art.

The result was that the Negro was only thought of "artistically", Johnson argues, locating his conversation on a depiction of the Negro as solely a "happy-go-lucky, singing, shuffling, banjo-picking being." (Johnson, 41) He essentially argues that this picture of the Negro is one produced by the American consciousness, seeking to preserve or conjure this monolithic idea/convention of a living, breathing, and for Johnson, an increasingly diverse mass of people.

Logically then, Johnson asserts: "Negro dialect is at present a medium that is not capable of giving expression to the varied conditions of Negro life in America, and much less is it capable of the fullest interpretation of Negro character and psychology."(Johnson, 42) To use dialect, he felt, was to aid in suspending black Americans in the white American consciousness, essentially halting their progress in America. As a result, he seeks an art that shows hope and complexity outside the boundaries that already exist at this time.

In these notions about how best to improve the quality of life for black Americans, we can see a heavy influence of Dubois on his particular views about the power of art and the limited usefulness of dialect. This is logical considering that Dubois was one of the co-founders and Director of Publications and Research for the NAACP. Considering that Dubois's previous research included the publication of The Souls of Black Folk, it is safe to believe that Johnson felt his views concerning art's power to sway public opinion about black Americans were trustworthy.

In view of Johnson's particular views about art and its supposed transformative power for how peoples are perceived, one can safely locate James Weldon Johnson closest to Dubois on the continuum of early black American leadership etched out in this project. Furthermore, this assertion is especially reliable considering that Johnson himself ascribed to bourgeois intellectual ideas concerning uplift before ever meeting Dubois.

In his work The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, Johnson describes a scene in which the narrator travels to Macon, Georgia on his journey. The characterization and viewpoint he delineates in his description draw further our attention to the fact that Johnson's project is essential one of bourgeois intellectualism. He begins:

This was my first real experience among rural colored people, and all that I saw was interesting to me; but there was a great deal that does not require description at my hands; for log cabins and plantations and dialect-speaking "darkies" are perhaps better known in American literature than any other single picture of our national life. Indeed they form an ideal and exclusive literary concept of the American Negro to such an extent that it is almost impossible to get the reading public to recognize him in any other setting; so I shall endeavor avoid giving the reader any already overworked and hackneyed descriptions. This generally accepted literary ideal of the American Negro constitutes what is really an obstacle in the way of the thoughtful and progressive element of the race.

The significance of this quotation lies in that it reflects Johnson's disposition toward race relations. His viewpoint is not one of participation but of observation. He does not challenge the caricature of rural black Americans but conjures their image in the national consciousness to make his point about how "this generally accepted literary ideal" constitutes "an obstacle" for "the thoughtful and progressive element of the race." In this moment, he essentially participates in recreating this idea of blackness in the American consciousness.

His statement in this quotation accomplishes several ends. First, it makes a firm distinction between rural blacks whom he describes as backward and a point of ridicule for the Negro race, and the "thoughtful and progressive" blacks on whom he focuses (and to whom he purports to belong) through creating this image. Secondly, his point suggests that these are images of blacks from which America needs to migrate in order to achieve uplift of the race and accurate representation of Negro life.

As discussed earlier, this notion is effectively a bourgeois intellectual project and corresponds with the essence of Dubois's notion of a "talented tenth" whose job it is to work for the uplift of the remaining elements of the race. This observation is more significant because the notion that the talented need to "advance" the untalented is also the project of the NAACP. The very language used in the organization's title draws class distinctions. For all these reasons, Johnson is representative of the ideals and mission of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

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Locke and The New Negro Set the Stage: The Advent of Black Harlem Buckets or Books: Washington-Dubois Debate Jazz or Junk: Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes NAACP or UNIA: Garvey and Johnson Responsibility and Discernment: Religion in Harlem Finale! Curtain Call
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New Negro | Set The Stage | Buckets or Books? | Jazz or Junk? | NAACP or UNIA? | Church Leaders | Finale! | Curtain Call