The Factors and Historical Context of the New Negro Movement
Rising up from the oppression, discrimination, violence, and lynching that was the Nadir, African Americans rose up and adopted new values that gave way to a concept known as the “New Negro” during the early third of the 20th century. African Americans of this era were idealistic after experiencing war and risking their lives for their country. They developed a new attitude that exhibited the attributes of fighting back against the oppressive violence and the old slavery era and Jim Crow era’s stereotypes and beliefs of both blacks and whites. They gave meaning to a “new” Negro by fighting back rather than adopting a submissive stance in order to tear down incorrect beliefs of inferiority. They fought back against the belief that it was shameful and wrong to be black and instead celebrated their African heritage and history with pride. A new kind of African American arose right after WWI ended and from the mass exodus of blacks leaving the South to the urban cities where there were less racism and violence, more jobs from the advent of World War I, and the opportunity and potential to prove themselves and fight back against the culture that looked down on people of African descent. The New Negro is then defined not by blacks who adopted the old belief system of tolerating and becoming something pleasing to white standards, but by a new generation of African Americans, who resented the constant discrimination and left the South, and who had created their own standards and fought back socially, politically, and artistically, in order to achieve the goals of freedom to advance in a white dominated society, and of freedom to express their various identities unfiltered by thoughts of inferiority.
Alain Locke defined the New Negro as a group in the offensive attacking position and Old generation as defensive in his essay “The New Negro.” In it he wrote, “The intelligent Negro of to-day is resolved not to make discrimination an extenuation for his shortcomings in performance, individual or collective; he is trying to hold himself at par neither inflated by sentimental allowances nor depreciated by current social discounts. Locke also pointed how the New Negro’s objective lay in his own control of her or his “inner life” which “are yet in process of formation” and is “an attempt to repair a damaged group psychology and reshape a warped social perspective.” Locke explained above that the Negro was a movement to empower oneself without the need for help based on “sentiment.” Basically the New Negro called for the values of society to be changed and appreciated so that he or she can be judged through merit. When faced with discrimination, he will no longer just take it at face value or figure out a way to bypass his limitations without confrontations, but instead will fight to somehow change the racist system. Before this, the old generation had to be subservient and give respect even to the most rude or incorrect white man. Locke also described the New Negro as having the “realization that in social effort the co-operative basis must supplant long distance philanthropy, and that the only safeguard for mass relations in the future must be provided in the carefully maintained contacts of the enlightened minorities of both race groups.” The New Negro had to figure out how to work together and unite to ensure a society based that doesn’t discriminate on race. New Negro that represented this new mood is seen in Claude McKay’s “If We Must Die.” The poem included lines such as “If we must die let it not be like hogs / Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot” and “Like men we’ll face the murderous cowardly pack, / Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back. The rhetoric and ideology of black people shifted from appeals to human sympathy to notions of fighting back no matter what the costs because the black race had had enough; African Americans had realized that in order to progress themselves and changed society for the better they had to take the reins of civil rights and activism into their own hands and unique expression, untainted by the history of white notions of what’s best for black people.
The old generation had two idealistic black leaders named Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Dubois who were the precursors to the New Negro attitude but they weren’t quite there yet because their rhetoric either entailed some form of accommodation to white ideology or idealizing only a certain subset of blacks rather than uniting the race for common goals. Alain Locke’s defined the New Negro as “birth of a new racial consciousness and self-conception…frank acceptance of race…lacks apology” and the “wearying appeals to pity, and the conscious philosophy of defense.” Washington on the other hand said that the “wisest among my race understand that the agitation of questions of social equality is the extremist folly, and that progress in the enjoyment in the enjoyment of all the privileges that will come to us must be the result of severe and constant struggle.” Locke would say Washington does not represent the New Negro because Washington is admitting that the Negro needed to prove himself worthy of rights just because their skin is darker. He is apologizing for the race even though they have done nothing wrong. The New Negro instead argued that they should be proud to black, unite against such a system of discrimination, and fight for the opportunity to work based on merit. Dubois although more in tune with the New Negro than Washington, argued that only the talented tenth will save and “may guide the Mass away from the contamination and death of the Worst, in their own and other races” . The New Negro called for the race as a whole to work together to fight back against the bigots. It wasn’t just up to the talented tenth. The masses and common folk had their own important experiences and stories to tell that offered a clearer picture of race relations. Dubois and Washington in this essay will be proven wrong as the following paragraphs will discuss stories and accounts of struggles even among the Negroes who were most respectful to whites and worked to death for greedy white men.
The old generation of African Americans was different from the New Negro because all their identities, hopes, and dreams were crushed by years of bone breaking labor and mind numbing servitude to white superiority and they appealed mainly through sad human stories. This can be seen in the short story “A Summer Tragedy” by Arna Bontemps. Bontemps told a story of an old black couple with the wife Jennie having a “wasted, dead leaf appearance…body scrawny as a string bean.” The husband Jeff who is a “black share farmer” of at least forty years looks no better and is so weak that his fingers are too shaky to put on a bow tie. The story’s most tragic scene was when the couple resigned and accepted suicide as Bontemps pointed out, “All the grief had gone from her face. She sat erect, her unseeing eyes wide open, strained and frightful…Now, having suffered and endured the sadness of tearing herself away from beloved things, she showed no anguish. She was absorbed with her own thoughts” Bontemps, an African American writer from the New Negro, aptly depicted how the old generation differed from the new. Their hopes and dreams are repressed until there is nothing left in their tortured souls but the resolve and relief of death. Their inner lives were never fulfilled as Locke would put it. Langston Hughes wrote poem called “Harlem” that can be related this this old couple’s story. In the poem he wrote “What happens to a dream deferred? / Does it dry up / like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore– / And then run? / …Maybe it just sags / Like a heavy load. / Or does it explode?” The couple in Bontemps short story had had their dreams “deferred” and their unjustly suppressed dreams dried up, festered, and sagged, but it was always there till the end. Their dreams never “exploded” as they committed suicide and tried to remember their lost youth and hopes. Alain Locke would say “With the elder generation…it began and ended in humanitarian and moral appeal…full of pathos and self-pity…but in no very commanding way” The New Negros hopes and dreams would not be tethered like black sharecroppers to the land and instead they will try to take those dried up old dreams and attempt to express their real identity and fight back through militancy, politics, rhetoric, arts, or whatever way possible because they were tired of knowing tragic stories like Jeff and Jennie’s.
Many African Americans had left the harsh South by the end of the 1930s so that “one-fifth of the nation’s nearly twelves million African Americans lived in the North.” They left in the Great Migration to escape harshness and constant fear that entailed living in the South. Mark Robert Schneider wrote that the “most important” reason for this migration was “disgust with the Jim Crow system…Black people had to defer to whites in every interaction with them.” As stated earlier, blacks always had to be mindful of what they said or else the consequences were severe. Schneider again noted that “any showing of resentment against this state of affairs would provoke white violence. An individual could be beaten of killed just for talking back to an insulting white person.” Blacks, who could leave the south, chose to leave because of the whites who out of bigotry refuse to allow blacks any space to succeed in their world.
The baseless hate and racism caused the old blacks to suffer in their inner world and social lives because they in the attempted to reduce white aggression; they tried to put on the act of a stereotypical subservient Negro to whites but the end result was only inner suffering and lack of progress. Evidence of the racist culture and southern society the old Negro experienced that Schneider stated is seen in Richard Wright’s biographical story, “The Ethics of Living in Jim Crow” in which he detailed a one sided situation in favor of Mr. Pease, a white man, who accuses Richard of not using the respectful title “Sir” when addressing him. Richard was doomed no matter what he said because “the worst insult that Negro can utter to a Southern white man” was to say he was wrong. In the end, Richard had to leave his job surrounded by racists who taught him nothing of the trade. Mr. Pease deviously created the unfair situation to intimidate and bully and not give blacks the ability to learn a trade or even keep a job. To live as a black person in the South, Richard’s folks noted, was “to ‘stay in your place’” . Black experience in the South and rural areas entailed a life where no matter how deferential one was to the dominant race, the white man will still find a way to cheat them out of progress and advancement, and yet still blame black failure upon racial inferiority. This old generation had to put on a persona of subservience that drained away potential for inner growth. Paul Dunbar had put this feeling accurately in the poem “We Wear the Mask” when he said, “We wear the mask that grins and lies, / It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes, – / This debt we pay to human guile; / With torn and bleeding hearts we smile / … Why should the world be over-wise, / In counting all our tears and sights? / Nay, let them only see us, while / We wear the mask.” This passage is an example of how the old generation was oppressed psychologically because it shows the ordeals they went through just in order to survive; they wore a mask to hide their suffering while going through the ordeals and obstacles that white people made blacks go through. The old generation could not be outgoing and expressive or proud like the New Negro. Eventually blacks became fed up with this kind of treatment in northern industrial cities and began to the great migration and steps toward a new identity.
The New Negro’s origin came at the end of WWI and at that time and the years afterward, there would be violence and bloodshed as whites felt threatened by the new attitude that came from African Americans who felt bolder to assert how they justly and deservedly had rights and opportunities similar to those of white men. African American veterans of the war were a big factor to the new generation. This is seen in Robert Schneider’s book African Americans in the Jazz Age: A Decade of Struggle and Promise where he stated that veterans
showed that black men had courage, a fact that most white people denied. Almost four hundred thousand black soldiers served, half of them in France and thirty thousand of these had seen battle….Their most famous hero, Sergeant Henry Johnson, killed or captured over twenty Germans. One lesson of the war was that black soldiers could face and kill a white enemy. Black soldiers also learned that not all white people were hostile.
Before the war, a black person that fought courageously on the battlefield or even killing white people was unheard of and crazy. This was an example how deep and ingrained the stereotypes of the old generation ideals were and how they still carried over to the 1920s. Schneider pointed out the “lessons” black people learned: the ability to fight back and even kill white men and that not all whites were racist and violent toward blacks. From this realization they gained confidence and knowledge that the values of the society they lived in and rarely traveled in was not as fixed in stone as it seemed. Consequently, a new attitude came out from this new realization. Black people were angry that African Americans had risked their lives and died for their country yet were still treated with disrespect and hostility.
The most representative man and institution of the New Negro is Marcus Garvey and his United Negro Improvement Association in my opinion. The “New Negro” arose as a response to the still an ingrained culture of racism and of blaming blacks for many things by whites. As Mark Schneider stated,
the rapid changes and conflicts of the year after the war led many white people to look for a scapegoat for their troubles. Capitalists caused the strikes, a virus caused the flu, and stubborn politicians caused the diplomatic chaos. Yet during the Red Summer, white Americans blamed a familiar victim….the New Negro would no longer serve as anybody’s scapegoat.
Even though he was economically and politically a failure, I believe Marcus Garvey best represented the male New Negro. In his “If you believe the Negro has a Soul” speech he stated that “If anything stateworthy is to be done, it must be done through unity, and it is for
that reason that the Universal Negro Improvement Association calls upon every Negro in the United States to rally to this standard. We want to unite the Negro race in this country. We want every Negro to work for one common object.” And Schneider commented that Garvey was great because he “told black people to be proud of themselves and that they should cease copying whites” and he told them to “build their own community institutions and businesses.” (78) He pretty much was the definition of the New Negro. He had his own shipping business which was a failure but most importantly he flaunted himself as being black and proud of it. He didn’t apologize for it and he didn’t care what other people thought about it. Being the New Negro meant to be who you are without being socially restrained by artificial values. This was a problem among early African Americans as seen in the short story “No Day of Triumph” by J. Saunders Redding which told the story of a young black man lost in a world where growing up darker skinned African Americans were meant to feel shame and inferior even by supposedly their “own” people. He stated that “depressingly, and without shock there entered into my consciousness the knowledge that Grandma Conway believed that a black skin was more than a blemish. In her notion it was a taint of flesh and bone and blood, varying in degree with the color of the skin…fixed in blood.” This passage suggested that African Americans had adopted the white belief that being dark was inferior. They had ingrained it into the beliefs and this prevented them from working together to attain betterment for all blacks. Garvey is thus the most important New Negro because by inspiring blacks to be proud and have self-respect, he could have prevented a lot of youths from practicing self-hate and loneliness like the main character in “No Day of Triumph.”
The New Negro had a big cultural impact on American society. As Schneider said, “Their most important contribution to American life was the literature itself. The poems and stories caused thousands of readers to understand their lives mattered”(85). I referenced several stories and poems throughout the essay and the stories of the New Negro writers gave a more three dimensional look into how blacks were forced into the appearance of an inferior position just to survive white abuse.
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