The Harlem Renaissance

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What was the theme of the Harlem Renaissance?

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There were numerous themes that the authors and poets of the Harlem Renaissance wished to bring to light.

One theme of the movement was slavery. For decades, black writers were dismissed because of the history of their race. Given that many of them were descendants of slaves, they wished to illuminate what life as a slave or after slavery looked like. White authors and poets were unable to provide real-life accounts; the accounts provided by black authors and poets were honest and real.

Another theme of this movement was black identity. Again, it was important for blacks to define, for themselves, who they were. They were tired of being defined by whites. This movement allowed for poets, authors, and playwrights to show who they really were, through their own lenses with their own dialogue. They were also able to show that their voices would no longer be silenced by the whites and the whites' stereotypes of blacks. For too long, whites had defined who blacks were through their (whites') own writings.

Another theme present in the Harlem Renaissance was self-acceptance. For decades, blacks had been dehumanized, oppressed, and ignored. The Harlem Renaissance was a time for them to accept who they were. There needed to be a new black identity, one different than what had been placed upon them. They, now, needed to define for themselves who they were and come to terms with their own lives and stories. This self-acceptance was necessary for them to find their own voices in a white majority.

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If the Harlem Renaissance, an artistic movement of the early twentieth century in New York City, had a singular theme, it could be African American self-expression. In the pre- and post-World War I period, writers of prose and poetry, visual artists, composers, and other stage performers produced art that celebrated the culture of African Americans.

Themes found in Harlem Renaissance works include the impact or legacy of slavery on African Americans, the quest for equal rights and protest against racism, race's impact on identity, and the birth of the musical genres of jazz and blues that found their roots in African American experience. Many topics and themes found in work of this period were progressive and challenged disparaging myths and stereotypes about African Americans, but not all works were necessarily political in nature.

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Along with feelings of black pride and pride in all types of black art (singing, dancing, painting, writing, etc.), a common theme and debate during the Harlem Renaissance was how black artists should represent themselves.

Black authors and artists at this time were enjoying increased visibility and publication. However, that increased visibility often came at a price. To begin with, many black artists had their efforts financed by white patrons. This meant that in order to survive they had to keep pleasing their white patrons, and what white people wanted to hear was often at odds with how black people wanted to express themselves. Additionally, since this new art and literature being produced might be the first or only black art that many Americans had encountered, there was an ongoing debate about how black people should be represented in black art. Should writers represent only the best of their race, or should they represent what was true and natural, whether it was flattering or not?

W.E.B. Dubois championed the idea that black art should be propaganda, and should only represent black people in a positive light. Meanwhile, artists like Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston believed that artists should portray people as they really are and not worry about what others might think.

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To the extent that historical events and eras have themes, the theme of the Harlem Renaissance was a sort of black nationalism and black pride.

The Harlem Renaissance was the time of the "new Negro."  This was a time when African Americans were starting to feel that (at least in some places) it was safe for them to openly take pride in their race and their culture.  This new pride (or this new feeling that it was safe to express that pride) showed itself in the fact that African and African American themes informed so much of the work of the artists and authors of the Harlem Renaissance.  This was not a case where African Americans were copying white styles or trying to play to white audiences.  It was a case when they were producing art that was by African Americans and for African Americans.

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