Lessons for Africa from 1920s Harlem

This week I revisit one of my favourite eras of history, The Jazz Age, 1920s America. The era that produced that profound piece of literature, The Great Gatsby, by a literary giant, F. Scott Fitzgerald. In the midst of this period of immense historical significance emerged a movement within the confines of Harlem, New York City that was to impact America and shape history in a manner that had multi-generational implications. This movement was initially titled the “New Negro Movement” but eventually became popularised under the label, Harlem Renaissance. This movement holds certain core lessons that are relevant to contemporary Africa in its quest to come out of the doldrums and play a key part in the development of the human race in the twenty first century.

The Harlem Renaissance was a cultural movement amongst African-Americans which emerged in the 1920s in Harlem, a poor neighbourhood of New York City. This movement lasted for a short period of time between the 1920s and 1930s but the ideas that emerged from it were to live for much longer and impact successive generations of African Americans, American society and even more significantly the “Black” world at large.

The Harlem Renaissance was driven primarily by African-Americans, with the support of African American patrons, businesses and publications. Even though it was located in Harlem, New York City it impacted black scholars and intellectuals from Francophone Africa, France itself, the Caribbean colonies and the English speaking colonies of Africa. It was a literary and intellectual awakening that promoted and fostered a new black cultural identity that was rooted in the philosophical concept of “The New Negro.” It was believed that this “New Negro”, could through intellect and the production of works of art, music, literature etc. challenge existing stereotypes and promote a progressive political agenda and social integration. In this period African-American owned literature and publications flourished, freeing African Americans from the control of mainstream America, which just so happened to be white. Publications such as W.E.B Du Bois’s journal, the Crisis led the way and launched the literary careers of such luminaries as: Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen etc. The Harlem Renaissance consisted of various innovations and inventions, with new literary styles, new forms of jazz poetry and new ideologies such as Garveyism emerging.

New intellectuals such as: W.E.B Du Bois, Charles Spurgeon Johnson, William Stanley Braithwaite, Booker T. Washington, Marcus Garvey etc. emerged and it produced great dramatists, novelists, poets, visual artists, musicians, composers and entertainers. Eminent poets such as: Langston Hughes, Clarissa Scott Delany, Lillian Byrnes, Lewis Alexander etc. also emerged during this period of unprecedented cultural awakening. Famous authors such as: Alain Locke, Claude Mckay etc. came out of this period and great literary works such as Langston Hughes’s, Not Without Laughter and Jean Toomer’s Cane were written during this period. Ideologies such as Pan Africanism flourished and became increasingly prominent during this period and this inspired the “Back to Africa” movement and even the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s could trace its origins to the Harlem Renaissance. It was a period of increased self-determination, group expression and personal pride for African-Americans.

The Renaissance was however, more than just a literary or artistic movement. It contained within itself the seed of sociological development for the African-American.  It redefined the concept of “Blackness” and changed how Americans and the rest of the world looked at African-Americans. It produced a greater social consciousness in the African-American population and led to African Americans becoming players on the global stage. It led to the intellectual and social development of the African-American.

So apart from debunking the myth that Maths and Science are the key academic disciplines that are imperative for Africa’s development and that the humanities are at best peripheral and at worst insignificant in Africa’s quest for development, what relevance, you may ask does this Renaissance hold for contemporary Africa? Firstly it holds significance for us in its focus on redefinition. We need to redefine the concept of “Africanness” in a manner that is inclusive, conciliatory and free of the racial and colonial baggage of the past. Just like the Harlem Renaissance was founded on the concept of the “New Negro” we need to ground our quest for development and progress as Africans on the concept of the “New African.” This should not be equated to Nietzsche’s “Ubermensch” or Che Guevara’s impractical “New Socialist Man” ideology. The “New African” philosophy which should undergird our developmental efforts simply implies an African who is: intellectually astute, a pioneer, an innovator, an initiator, confident, forward-looking, unshackled from constant reference to-and focus on his colonial past, rooted in his cultural heritage without letting that heritage become a stumbling block to his progress, an ideological leader and a focal point of global civilisation and human progress and development.

Secondly the Harlem Renaissance holds lessons for contemporary Africa in that it was a cultural awakening that was futuristic, innovative and progressive. It wasn’t intensely focussed on re-capturing the negro’s past heritage as much as it was in redefining, repositioning and reworking the negro’s culture and re-interpreting it in a modern context. Too often in Africa when we think of cultural awakening, we aim to recapture and relive the culture of our ancestors and predecessors instead of looking to re-interpret that culture with a view to modernising it and moving forward. This is an important aspect to consider when looking at cultural awakening, because culture by its nature is progressive, not static. It is constantly evolving and changing. Our focus on cultural awakening should profit from our rich past but invest in the present and the future. We should look to move our cultures forward as Africans, instead of holding on to out-dated cultural expressions and norms just for the sake of keeping our “group pride.”

Thirdly the Harlem Renaissance holds lessons for Africa in its focus on self-determination and ownership. The Harlem Renaissance was driven by African-Americans for African-Americans. It was sponsored and supported by African-American patrons. This is a key lesson for Africa as we pursue the twin goals of growth and development. The developmental agenda for Africa should not be driven by the IMF, the World Bank, The UN or any other external organisations. It should be driven by Africans for Africans. It should primarily be financed by African finance and financiers before it is financed by the Chinese or any other external sources and where external funding is an imperative we should ensure that the agenda being pushed and promoted in the deals being concluded is primarily an Afro-centric agenda. Africans need to become owners and not just middle-men as we embark on developmental projects on the continent, even where external funding is sourced. This needs to be one of the core conditions that are attached to any financing deals struck with those who come from outside the continent.

Finally the Harlem Renaissance holds lessons for Africa in its focus on innovation, creativity and pioneering. During the period of the Harlem Renaissance new literary forms emerged, new forms of jazz and poetry emerged, a new breed of intellectual emerged. Africa needs to become the focal point in the battle for ideas in the twenty first century. New paradigms need to emerge from Africa, new economic systems, new ideas on how to organise and structure society politically, new intellectuals need to emerge who are not bound by the limitations of colonialism and who aren’t focussed on apportioning blame for Africa’s woes, but rather coming up with fresh, innovative, relevant solutions for the continent’s multi-faceted problems. Creative business ideas and solutions need to emerge in order to solve the unemployment problem that pervades the entire continent.  Africa needs new strategies, philosophies, cultural expressions, policies and ideologies to emerge that will not only put the continent on the front-foot but will leave a multi-generational legacy that will impact future generations in a positive manner, as the Harlem Renaissance did when it influenced the Civil Rights generation in America all the way to present-day America where the sitting president is a direct beneficiary of this rich legacy. The Harlem Renaissance also holds lessons for contemporary Africa in the way it embraced modernity and used the benefits of modernity to work at improving the plight of the African American. Instead of looking at modernity as a “European” concept and a threat to Africa’s rich cultural heritage, contemporary Africa needs to embrace modernity and use its many developments and benefits to improve the plight of the African peoples.

I end off with the poignant words of one Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, uttered in a speech he gave in his final year as a student at Fort Hare University, “The old order is changing, ushering in a new order. The great revolution has started and Africa is the field of operation. We have made our choice and have chosen African Nationalism because of its deep human significance; because of its inevitability and necessity to world progress…. It is necessary for human progress that Africa be fully developed and only the African can do so. We want to build a New Africa and only we can build it. The opponents of African Nationalism, therefore, are hampering the progress and development not only of Africa, but of the whole world.” It really is, “time for Africa.”

Mugabe Ratshikuni

introverted, shy, nothing to write home about

2 thoughts on “Lessons for Africa from 1920s Harlem

  • November 4, 2010 at 11:50 am

    I am not the person I was 15minutes prior to writing this comment…I have learnt so much and want every young African to be enlightened. So fascinating and insightful..more more more!

  • November 5, 2010 at 4:28 pm

    I am glad u enjoyed the article and took something out of it.Will endeavour to keep producing quality,insightful writing for readers such as you.Kind Regards.


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