February being African-American history month, I’m sharing some of my research on representations of African-American culture in twentieth-century American music. This series consists of short installments from my research as an undergraduate at Kenyon College.
The Harlem Renaissance and the “New Negro”
One of the most significant intellectual and artistic trends of twentieth-century American history, the Harlem Renaissance impacted art, literature, and music in a manner that forever changed the American cultural landscape. The Harlem Renaissance was a movement in the 1920’s in which African-American writers, artists, musicians, and thinkers sought to elevate the status of black culture through embracing their heritage and presenting it on a more sophisticated level than that of “folk” culture. This shift towards a more politically assertive and self-confident conception of identity and racial pride led to the establishment of the concept of the “New Negro.” Notable writers such as Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, the painter Aaron Douglas, and the composer William Grant Still were some of the early artists to espouse the concept of the “New Negro,” which greatly altered the perceptions of Africans and African-Americans in American society.
In describing the “New Negro,” author Alain Locke refers to a renewed intellectual curiosity in the study of black culture and history among the African-American population. This evaluation of identity required an honest representation of the African-American experience. The adoption of serious portrayals of black American life in art, as opposed to the caricatures provided through minstrelsy and vaudeville, was a necessary step in the cultivation of the ideal of the “New Negro.” To Locke, the black artist’s objective was to “repair a damaged group psychology and reshape a warped social perspective” (1968:10). Locke maintained that these goals were most immediately attainable through the “revaluation by white and black alike of the Negro in terms of his artistic endowments and cultural contributions, past and prospective”(ibid.:15). For the thinkers and artists of the Harlem Renaissance, the way to achieve this revaluation was through incorporating themes of black identity and history into their works.
The perception of Africans and African-Americans as essential cultural contributors became significant in the social struggle faced by blacks in the early twentieth-century. Using the concept of the “New Negro,” artists of the Harlem Renaissance and beyond sought to bring black culture from the status of folk-art to a position of sophistication and dignity.
William Grant Still, the most prominent African-American art music composer of the time, was greatly influenced by the concept of the “New Negro”, a theme that is frequently evident in his concert works. Duke Ellington, a renowned jazz artist, began to reflect the “New Negro” in his music, particularly in the jazz suite Black, Brown, and Beige. The Harlem Renaissance prompted a renewed interest in black culture which was even reflected in the work of white artists; the most well-known example is George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. The changing perception of black culture in America in the decades following the Harlem Renaissance is clearly evident in a comparison of the use of elements of black music in the works of Still, Ellington, and Gershwin. Through applying the concept of the “New Negro,” the depiction of African-Americans in American art music shifted from a misrepresented stereotype to a depiction of people of African descent as significant contributors to the American cultural landscape.
Locke, Alain. “The New Negro,” in The New Negro: An Interpretation. Edited by Alain Locke. New York: Arno Press, 1968.