Harlem: The Early Years
by Garth Tate
Harlem was "the" Black Metropolis and during the 1920's, the home of the "New Negro". The "new" Black man and woman exploded on the scene stressing the importance of ethnic identity, heralding a new day when Blacks would have and wield power. This emerging generation of African Americans became the first to repudiate the accommodationist philosophy of Booker T. Washington, and the "heaven in the here-after" ideologues. The New Negro period of history, or the Harlem Renaissance, spanned the decade between 1919 and 1929.
The movement was given its name in 1925 when Rhodes Scholar and Howard University professor Alain Locke published an anthology of poems, essays, stories and illustrations with the title. Contributors to this historic volume included some of the most prominent and renown Black literary and visual arts figures of the period, such as Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Sterling Brown, Eric Walrond and Aaron Douglas. An impressive array of writers, poets and artists contributed to the artistic abundance of the period, and Harlem was home to most of them: Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, Laura Wheeler Waring, Jesse Fauset, Jean Toomer, Edward A. Harleston, Richmond Barthé and Bruce Nugent are among them. These artists and writers looked inward and found strength in African American culture. Representatives of the new spirit of Black American, they reflected the folk culture of Blacks in strong, realistic terms.
Jazz and the Blues also sprang from the Black experience and dazzled the high-lifers in Harlem and beyond. Albertal Hunter, Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters, Josephine Baker, Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington, Edith Wilson and the legendary Louis Armstrong molded Black music into a powerful artistic weapon which shattered the mediocrity of American folk music. Philosophers, scholars, socialites, actors and dancers all contributed to Harlem's throbbing expressions and to the persona of the New Negro.
Under any analysis, Harlem was a complex community in a complex and hostile nation. The most important activity in the community was individual spiritual and economic survival techniques conceived under the pressure of the adverse socio-economic conditions were born with a generous amount of creativity. America had never really come to terms with its schizophrenia regarding Blacks. As a result, the nation developed a sort of loathing dependence upon its Black citizens for much of the art and music that gave the nation its identity. Negative stereotyping of Blacks, economic oppression and brutality reached a high-point in the years immediately preceding the Harlem Renaissance. It was the imposition of these conditions on Blacks that compelled them to reassess and redefine themselves outside the scope of Euro-America perceptions.
"All Coons Look Alike to Me." recognize it? That was the title of one of America's favorite songs in the years just prior to 1919. White America had dragged the "coon" or "darkie" image of Blacks from the wreckage of ante-bellum slavery, and they exploited it to maximum advantage. The coon stereotype, also known as the "Sambo syndrome," characterized Blacks as harmless, asexual, lazy, good-natured, faithful, slow, trifling, stupid, inept and eternally hungry.
New York was a national and international center for arts and, as a result, had an overabundance of typically racist music, visual art, literature, and theater. Blacks in New York, many of whom still lived in the "Tenderloin" district of mid-Manhattan, were faced with the promotion of popular tunes like "Coon, Coon Coon." Although the lyrics to some of these songs were even less imaginative than the titles, America loved them.
On the stage, fare such as "The Coon at the Door", "The Coon and the Chink", and "The Coon Musketeers" were available for public consumption. Blacks were segregated in the theaters at this time and there were many White minstrels who performed in "blackface". Here was a situation where White America got its laughs for the exaggerated portrayal of Black people, yet Blacks were not permitted to act in those productions nor to see them. In Harlem, of course, few people found this Black buffoonery amusing. But it was the events which followed America's entry into World War I that forced Blacks to challenge White assumptions and even become nationalistic in their approach to life in America.
In 1917, President Woodrow Wilson issued a call for all Americans to enter World War I in order to "make the world safe for democracy". Over two hundred thousand Americans went to Europe in support of this cause. Because of the strict segregationist policies of the U.S. Army at the time, many Blacks went to France and joined the French forces. Among them were the men of the 369th Infantry, nicknamed the Harlem Hellfighters, who served with distinction and heroism. Despite much discussion of whether they should participate in a war abroad when they could not exercise their rights at home, many Blacks went to war out of the conviction (and hope) that when the war ended, justice would prevail.
At the end of the war Black soldiers returned home victorious, but they were ill-prepared for the welcome that awaited them. Black soldiers were set upon and beaten by angry, rampaging White mobs. Race riots erupted across the country as armed Whites invaded Black neighborhoods in New York, Washington, D.C., St. Louis and other cities to beat, kill, burn and loot. The postwar betrayal of Black soldiers, the continued lynching and beating of Blacks across the country, the economic oppression based on race, and the hostility of the American government represented by President Wilson combined to elicit a response from the Black community. That response took the form of the New Negro.
The New Negro that emerged in 1919 in Harlem, the intellectual and artistic center of the Black world, no longer was going to take abuse or exploitation. The idea that justice would ultimately be the Black man's in the end was no longer enough. Blacks began to make clear that they were prepared to fight to live and to obtain freedom and self-determination at any cost. Claude McKay, considered the first poet of the New Negro period, spoke to this new defiance and determination in a poem entitled "If We Must Die", published in 1919. McKay eloquently asserts that Blacks, when faced with vicious aggression or exploitation, will "face the murderous cowardly pack/ Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back."
As an indication of the new mood of Blacks in the U.S., the poem was very disconcerting to conservative Whites. Senator Henry Cabot Lodge had it read into the Congressional Record in 1922 as evidence of "unsettling currents" running through the Black population. In Harlem, and across the country, Blacks began arming themselves. Publications such as "The Crisis", "Opportunity", "The Messenger" and "Negro World" increased their circulations significantly during this period. These publications became vehicles of information dissemination for Blacks, and they were read in the Blacks communities in the U.S., the Caribbean, Latin America and in Africa. Published in Harlem, these journals helped to define Black Americans in their own language.
In the late 19th and early twentieth centuries, Harlem was an exclusively White, well-to-do suburb of a growing New York City. By 1914, a few middle-class Blacks had been able to move into the area from the Tenderloin district. As the unemployed flocked to New York and other industrial and commercial centers seeking work, shantytowns sprouted along the fringes of these bustling urban areas, and Harlem was no exception.
In an incredible display of business acumen, astute and aggressive Black businessmen managed to snatch Harlem's newly developed real estate from the hands of White middle-class and, by 1920, Harlem had become the biggest, most elegant Black community the world had ever seen. Blacks owned modern apartments, beautiful houses and there were many churches and fine restaurants. Doctors, lawyers, people of every conceivable profession, business and trade flocked to Harlem. Exclusive communities such as Sugar Hill and Strivers Row were established. Harlem became a diverse,dynamic community with a class strata that stretched from the very wealthy to the very poor. There were church-going citizens and there were bootleggers and drug dealers. The one thing they had in common was an African heritage.
Intellectuals and artists from around the world came to Harlem. The community offered these men and women an opportunity to speak in their own voices, to discover and pursue their interests without racial barriers or fear. They came from Latin America, the Caribbean, Central America and colonial Africa. Harlem meant Black freedom - it was a strong and vibrant symbol of the twentieth century Black American. As the second decade of the century progressed, Harlem became even more diverse and complex as it continued to react to the dynamics of the larger socio-economic environment.
"There are two types of business that employ Blacks in New York," wrote Black scholar E. Franklin Frazier, "those that employ Negroes in menial positions and those that employ no Negroes at all." In the northern cities, where Blacks had flocked during the war for greater job opportunities, they were suddenly unwelcome as employees in the sweatshops, stores, and other businesses. There was no unemployment compensation, social security, or government assistance of any kind at the time, and unemployed Blacks had to depend on their wits to live.
White merchants in Harlem continued to sell to Blacks all of the staples needed for their existence. But when it came to employment, however, Blacks were not permitted to even work where they shopped. As the economic situation of Blacks generally worsened, more and more apartment lessees and house owners began to take in roomers to offset the costs of upkeep of the residences. Low income and unemployed people jumped at the opportunity for low cost shelter, and an increasing number of the destitute and near destitute moved into Harlem. Between 1920 and 1930, 118,792 Whites fled the neighborhood attempting to escape the influx of Blacks. By 1930, approximately 72% of Manhattan's Black population lived in Harlem.
Although Whites left the community, they retained their property there and extracted high rents from apartment and tenement dwellers. The result was severe overcrowding as Harlem residents struggled to maintain themselves in the face of adverse economic conditions and social neglect. The over-crowded condition precipitated environments that were unsafe and unsanitary, and many landlords began to neglect the maintenance of the buildings while continuing to collect rent.
The crowded tenements of Harlem became a breeding ground for crime, aggression and disease. By 1927, the year Charles Lindbergh made his historic flight across the Atlantic, the chairman of a New York City housing reform committee would report, "The State would not allow cows to live in some of these apartments used by colored people. . . in Harlem."
Blacks in Harlem took to creating techniques that helped them survive economically and spiritually. Numbers running, bootlegging, rent parties, church bazaars, church missionary events, prostitution, cocaine, and more created an underground economy which sustained the community. Reports of such illicit activities gave Harlem the reputation of a "wide-open city" where everything that was generally considered taboo was easily available. Consequently, downtown Whites began to perceive the community as a "playground," where they could experience the fantastic, sensual, and sensational.
Some of the more popular cabarets and clubs in Harlem frequented by Whites were the Cotton Club, Connie's Inn, and Smalls Paradise. Although these clubs features the best in Black entertainment and music, they did not allow Black patrons. Entertainment ran the gamut but generally revolved around jazz bands, dancing girls, and singers. Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters and Lena Horne sang in the Harlem cabarets. At the Clamhouse, openly Lesbian Gladys Bentley, accompanying herself on piano, sang some of the most risqué and provocative songs of the decade. Bentley performed in men's attire and was very popular with White voyeurs from downtown. There was also a male performer named "Gloria Swanson". To many of the cosmopolites, Harlem was similar to Berlin, only Blacker and far more exotic.
In political and other forms of intellectual life, Harlem was the most militant and radical community in the Black world. Black nationalists, Black socialists, and Black radicals regularly climbed the soapbox at Lenox Avenue and 135th Streets to pronounce their ideologies. Marcus Garvey, A. Philip Randolph and other inspired African Americans to seek alternatives to the oppressive conditions under which they existed.
The ripple effect spread from Harlem to Blacks around the world. Kwame N'krumah, Leopold Senghor, Leon Damas, Miguel Covarrubias, and a host of political and philosophical leaders were influenced by the activities that occurred in Harlem. And jazz, without a doubt, conquered the world. This was the Harlem of the Renaissance period. A complex, cosmopolitan, strong and vibrant community weathering the storms of economic and racist adversity. This is the Harlem where, in 1926, an investigator found 140 churches in a 150 block area; where speakeasies and after-hours clubs abounded; and where an unprecedented number of poems, stories and works of art by Black Americans were produced.
America was a nation with a fundamentally unsound economy, unhealthy corporate and banking structures, unsound foreign trade policies, a poor distribution of income, and social and occupational violence against its people. Blacks were being lynched, denied employment, segregated, ridiculed and exploited while the rest of the country was on a spending spree. But it was Harlem that took these conditions and synthesized them into what was to become the beginning of a true American culture and identity. The writers, artists, intellectuals and people of the Black community initiated a revolt which embodied the rejection of White values, definitions and culture. Although this movement was to essentially become coopted and commercialized by White America, it initially posed a very disturbing challenge to traditional American assumptions.
It was the age of the New Negro and African Americans moved collectively beyond mere survival under hostile conditions to intellectual and creative genius. The final analysis is quite clear, the early years of Harlem still lives in today's society. Gimme a pigfoot and a bottle of beer.