Saturday, 23 October 2010

Occidental, Oriental, Accidental, Culture Building...

Recently, I been thinking about African American artists and specifically the success of the Harlem Renaissance. This is an American Art Movement, which was created in 1920's to 1930's and was the precursor to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950's and 1960's.

An artist from the early days was the Jazz singer Ethel Waters

The Movement stretched across numerous areas of the arts including painting, music, dance and literature.

Initially, we should try to understand the philosophy behind the Movement, which outlined a clear mission statement and has become what we now know as, professional Africana philosophy. This philosophy had its roots in the search for identity. Black writers of the late 1800s and early 1900s intellectually shaped the emergence of the civil rights movement, which sought to remedy the evils of social segregation; political disfranchisement; economic exploitation and cultural discrimination of the black people of America and Africa. In his Race and Study (Freetown, 1895), Edward Wilmot Blyden defined and described the objectives of the black personality movement.

"For each one of you -for each one of us- there is a special duty to accomplish; a terribly necessary and important job; a job for the race to which we belong ... there is a responsibility that our personality, our belonging to this race, presupposes.... The duty of every individual and every race is to struggle for its own individuality, to maintain it and develop it.... Therefore honour and love your race for yourselves ... if you are for yourselves, for if you abdicate your personality, you will not have left anything to give to the world. Neither will you be happy nor of any use, and you will have nothing to attract and fascinate other people because with the suppression of your individuality you will also lose your distinctive character. You will also realize then that having abdicated your personality you will also have lost the special duty and glory to which you are called. In truth you will be denying the divine ideal-god and sacrificing the divine individuality; this is the worst type of suicide."

On an artistic level a growing literary circle had formed whose aims were, in the words of the Kenyan philosopher D. A. Masolo, "to rehabilitate the image of the black man wherever he was through the expression of black personality…(D. A. Masolo, African Philosophy in Search of Identity. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994, p. 10)

Here is a poem by the poet, Langston Hughes whose poetry really defined the Movement.

Langston Hughes (1902-1967): The Philosopher and Poet
The poem that redefined the black race attitude | The Nation, June 23, 1926

We, the creators of the new black generation,
want to express our black personality
without shame or fear
If this will please the whites, much the better
If not, it does not matter
We know ourselves to be beautiful
And also ugly
The drums cry
The drums laugh
If this will please the whites, much the better
If not, it does not matter
It is for tomorrow that we are building our temples
Solid temples as we will ourselves know how to
construct them.
And we will keep ourselves straight
On top of the mountain
Free in ourselves.


The Harlem Renaissance was a flowering of African-American social thought that was expressed through the visual arts, as well as through the music of Louis Armstrong, Eubie Blake, Fats Waller and Billie Holiday and in writing of Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and W.E.B. DuBois. In theater Paul Robeson and in dance Josephine Baker. Centred in the Harlem district of New York City, the Movement had a profound influence across the United States and the world.

The intellectual and social freedom of the era attracted many Black Americans from the rural south to the industrial centres of the north. Artists at the core of the Harlem Renaissance movement included William H. Johnson, Lois Mailou Jones and the sculptor and printmaker Sargent Claude Johnson. Other prominent artists included Jacob Lawrence, Archibald Motley and Romare Bearden. Later artists such as Charles Sebree, Hale Woodruff, Beauford Delaney, John Biggers, Ernie Barnes and Charles White also joined the struggle.

One of the most interesting aspects of the Movement was education and the thoughts of W.E.B DuBois, who advocated the idea of racial pluralism in virtue of which, "each race must be free to strive, in its own way, to develop for civilization, its particular message, its particular ideal, which shall help guide the world nearer and nearer that perfection of human life, for which we all long, that ‘one far off Divine event’” (From “The Conservation of Races”).

In The Souls of Black Folk, DuBois is even more emphatic about the peculiarity of the “double-consciousness” situation of the black people in America. He explains:

“The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife,--this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He would not Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He would not bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that the Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of opportunity closed roughly in his face” (From The Souls of Black Folk, A. C. McClurg, 1903).


The issue of Independence is at the forefront of many African thinkers, especially within those countries celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Independence, this year. Elements within this Movement should be echoed throughout the countries of Africa at a time when many artists and intellectuals are looking back and questioning the successes of the cultural development that have occurred within the past half century.

Take a look at this video. It blow me away as it blended so many aspects of what is important for now.

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