"Harlem as a site of the black cultural sublime was invented by writers and artists determined to transform the stereotypical image of Negro Americans at the turn of the century away from their popular image as ex-slaves, as members of a race inherently inferior inferior - biologically and environmentally unfitted for mechanized modernity and its cosmopolitan forms of fluid identity - into an image of a race of cultural bearers. To effect this transformation, a 'New Negro' was called for - quite urgently, many black intellectuals felt- and this New Negro would need a nation over which to preside. And that nation's capital would be Harlem, that realm north of Central Park, centered between 130th Street and 145th."
"In a 1925 essay entitled 'The New Negro', Howard University Professor
of Philosophy Alain Locke described this transformation as not relying on
older time-worn models but, rather, embracing a 'new psychology' and 'new
sprit'. Central to Locke's prescription was the mandate that the 'New Negro'
had to 'smash' all of the racial, social and psychological impediments that
had long obstructed black achievement. Six years prior to Locke's essay,
the pioneering black film maker Oscar Micheaux called for similar changes.
In his film Within our Gates, Micheaux represented a virtual cornucopia
of 'New Negro' types: from the educated and entrepreneurial 'race' man and
woman to the incorrigible Negro hustler, from the liberal white philanthropist
to the hard core white racist. Micheaux created a complex, melodramatic
narrative around these types in order to develop a morality tale of pride,
prejudice, misanthropy and progressivism that would be revisited by Locke
"This New Negro movement, which took at least three forms before Alain Locke enshrined it in the Harlem Renaissance in 1925, took its artistic inspiration from citizens across the Atlantic in Europe. First, in the early 1890s, Dvorák declared the spirituals to be America's first authentic contribution to world culture and urged classical composers to draw upon them to create sui generis symphonies. A decade later Pablo Picasso stumbled onto 'dusky Manikins' at an an ethnographic museum and forever transformed European art, as well as Europe's official appreciation of the art from the African continent. Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon - the signature painting in the creation of Cubism - stands as a testament to the shaping influence of African sculpture and to the central role that African art played in the creation of modernism. The Cubist mask of modernism covers a black Bantu face. African art -ugly,primitive, debased in 1900; sublime, complex, valorized by 1910 - was transformed so dramatically in the cultural imagination of the West, in such an astonishingly short period, that potential for the political use of black art and literature in America could not escape the notice of African American intellectuals, especially Du Bois, himself himself educated in Europe and cosmopolitan to the core, and Alain Locke, Harvard-trained, a Rhodes scholar at Oxford in 1906 and thereafter a student of aesthetics in Germany in the heady years of the modernist explosion. If European modernism was truly a mulatto, the argument went, then Africans Americans would save themselves politically through the creation of the arts. The Harlem Renaissance, in so many ways, owes its birth to Euro-African modernism in the visual arts. This Renaissance, the second in black history, would fully liberated the Negro - at least its advance guard."
Extracts from 'Harlem on our Minds' by Henry Louis Gates
Background image of 'Les Fetiches' by Loïs Mailou Jones 1938