What are the causes, events, and changes that brought along the Harlem Renaissance? Discuss its Master Narrative and how it affects all of our lives?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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The ability to see what can be from what is becomes one of the most dominant metanarratives within the Harlem Renaissance.  While there is much within it that is contextual, the master narrative that emerges is one of change and fluidity between static and transformational conditions.  Being able to see works like The Bluest Eye within this context heightens the universality of the Harlem Renaissance.

One of the most significant causes of the Harlem Renaissance was the Great Migration.  The movement of African- Americans from the South to the North helped to initiate the Harlem Renaissance.  As Isabel Wilkerson notes, "six million black Southerners [moving] out of the terror of Jim Crow to an uncertain existence in the North and Midwest," helped to provide the transformation that underscored the Harlem Renaissance.  These individuals sought to change their own lives from what is into what can be. This basis becomes integral to the identify of the Harlem Renaissance.  The concentration of African- Americans into cities such as Harlem in New York initiated the process of defining cultural identity.  The emergence of an intellectual voice that asserted a sense of pride in being a person of color was one of the most defining traits of the movement.

Harlem Renaissance artists, literary figures, and thinkers began to probe into the complex issue of race. The Harlem Renaissance represented the first time in which the racial "other" was articulated on a large scale.  These figures were able to conceptualize race and ethnicity in a much different regard than previously understood. Racial identity was probed, and the results were complex and intricate modes of analysis. From defiance to sadness to reclamation, the voice of "the other" took on different forms. Advancing this cause, periodicals like the Crisis, published by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and Opportunity featured the works of thinkers such as  Countee Cullen, Claude McKay Langston Hughes, Nella Larsen, and Zora Neale Hurston.

Generations of African- Americans had internalized the dominant culture's degradation.  This self- hate was something that Harlem Renaissance thinkers sought to stop.  In raising voice against this and articulating what it means to be "the other," the Harlem Renaissance demonstrates a very human master narrative in the need to transform what is into what can be. The emergence of jazz and the blues became part of the Harlem Renaissance.  These events were able to trigger a new consciousness within the African- American community. In the face of national constructions of segregation, people of color began to think in terms that defied the oppressive binary dualism of racist attitudes and structures.  The demand for social equality and advocacy of creativity in art became critical events within the Harlem Renaissance and also elements of change brought about because of it.  This becomes one of the lasting legacies of the Harlem Renaissance.  Artistic creativity became an active vehicle towards social and psychological change.  The Harlem Renaissance demonstrated that art and artists can change the world and the individual's view of it.  The continuation below features an examination of the master narrative's connection to life after the Harlem Renaissance and its relevance to all of our lives.

The master narrative of the Harlem Renaissance is one of transformation and change.  The concept of the Master Narrative criticized by postmodern thinkers like Lyotard was in its infancy for Harlem Renassiance thinkers.  The idea of the master narrative's "great hero, its great dangers, its great voyages, its great goal," was being realized on a social and psychological level by African- Americans during the Harlem Renaissance. It had not been experienced as a unifying and totalizing experience for African- Americans prior to the Harlem Renaissance. It was not being phased out because African- Americans had never experienced a real opportunity to phase it in. The Harlem Renaissance was the first time in which change and facilitating a transformative intellectual and social consciousness could be realized.  African- Americans articulated a master narrative in which individuals did not have to be defined by the external.  As "the other," they could define themselves.  

This becomes a lasting master narrative, something that has defined consciousness in different contexts since. Toni Morrison activates this idea in The Bluest Eye.  Pecola is that very audience to whom the Harlem Renaissance speaks. Pecola, who sits at the table and repeatedly drinks milk out of the Shirley Temple glass so she could be as pretty as the White screen icon, is someone who needed to hear the message that comes out of the Harlem Renaissance.  Being the embodiment of what it means to be a victim of psychological cruelty and social marginalization, Pecola represents the relevance of the Harlem Renaissance. The need to no longer be ashamed of one's identity is an integral part of both the Harlem Renaissance and Pecola's predicament in Morrison's work.  The way in which the movement's master narrative applies to Pecola is one of the reasons why it affects all of our lives as it reminds us of what can be from what is.  In the final analysis, this master narrative of seeing what is and striving for it to become what can be is a critical element to human identity.  It is this very lesson that represents how the Harlem Renaissance's legacy impacts all of our lives. 

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