In The New Negro, three generations of black artists and intellectuals addressed questions raised by Du Bois two decades earlier in The Souls of Black Folk (1903). What does it mean to be both black and American? On what terms can African Americans participate in the making of a common national life in the United States without denying what is distinctive about themselves as members of a particular group? What is the relationship between culture and politics? What is the relationship among history, art, and racial identity?
Locke’s opening essay, “The New Negro,” is of enduring historical significance in this connection. His remarks on the politics of culture and the use of art for social purposes—specifically, on the exploitation of folk themes by middle-class artists as a form of racial lobbying—have stimulated decades of heated discussion and criticism. Responding to the tendency of sociologists to see black Americans primarily in light of the “Negro problem,” Locke insisted instead that “the elements of truest social portraiture are found in artistic self-expression.” So far as African Americans were culturally articulate, they were to speak for themselves.
The flowering of a new race spirit among African Americans was an example of movements of national self-determination around the world. As a large part of the peasant matrix of the American South, black Americans had made that region a gift of their...
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The New Negro represented an African American intervention in debates about ethnicity, racial difference, cultural identity, and normative Americanism that were preoccupying the literate public. These issues shaped discussions of how the United States might deal with a rapidly changing population. In the face of Anglo-Saxon resentment that “model Americans” could not be made of the newer immigrants, social progressives countered that in diversity lay strength. In 1916, essayist and critic Randolph Bourne challenged the melting-pot model of Americanization. He urged that the ideal of a cosmopolitan federation of national cultures take its place. After the war, philosopher Horace Kallen weighed in with an equally cogent discussion of Culture and Democracy in the United States (1924). The emerging liberal consensus was consolidated with the Carnegie Corporation’s monumental ten-volume series of books on “Americanization Studies” published from 1918 to 1924. However, widespread nativist sentiment found political expression in the Immigration Act of 1924, which established entry quotas for less-favored foreign nationals.
Nevertheless, in the course of debating the incorporation of immigrant peoples on culturally equitable terms, a more flexible public language became available. American identity was reconceived as the composite product of multiple ethnic ingredients. Because pluralism was urged as an integral dimension of a...
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