Capital of Black America

The most tragic example, however, of the incorporation of countercultures by the dominant culture in the 1920s may not have been the experience of literary expatriates or even the fate of feminist cultural anthropology. Rather, the most tragic example of what Cowley was arguing may have been the fate of the Harlem Renaissance in that decade.

Black intellectuals believed that cultural renewal would pave the way for future political advances.

In the early decades of the century, Harlem, in northern Manhattan, had emerged as the center of black culture in the United States. African Americans who began the Great Migration from the South to other parts of the United States in search of employment found in Harlem relatively cheap housing and a preexisting set of African American cultural and religious institutions, but they also came to see Harlem as more than just another black community. It was to be the capital of black America—the intellectual, artistic, and political capital of the "New Negro," as philosopher Alain Locke would call him. The New Negro was to be self-confident and self-determined, freed of the constraints of the Jim Crow South, freed of the traits of servility and obedience that had marked African American culture since slavery.

A Harlem parade organized by the University Negro Improvement Association (1924).Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The New York Public Library
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A Harlem parade organized by the Universal Negro Improvement Association (1924).
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The New York Public Library

The African Americans who made their way to Harlem during and after the First World War found a political and intellectual leader in W. E. B. Du Bois, who advocated a forceful, militant approach to the struggle for black self-determination. Unfortunately, the war closed down possibilities for the sort of militancy and activism that Du Bois represented. Du Bois had called on blacks to serve loyally in the war, with the expectation that they would be rewarded for their heroism. That expectation was dashed by the events surrounding the end of the war. One could argue that political possibilities for African Americans were more limited immediately after the First World War than they had been before. Denied the achievement of full political equality, many Harlemites devoted their energies to cultural expression, creating what would be known as the Harlem Renaissance.

At the same time as these writers and artists launched the Harlem Renaissance, Harlem was full of other important political and cultural activities. Marcus Garvey emerged as the leader of a Back to Africa, black nationalist movement centered in Harlem. This movement won the admiration of African Americans throughout the country who had essentially given up on the possibility of winning full citizenship and equality in the United States. Meanwhile, in popular music, Harlem emerged as the center for new developments in jazz and blues. Jazz itself, formerly a music limited to an African American audience, became the dominant popular music of the 1920s, reaching a diverse audience that included a good many urban—and, for that matter, even rural—white Americans.

"The New Negro" by Alain Locke