Historical Figures

Who were the political stand-outs of the Harlem Renaissance?
Answered by Lu Fong
  • Lu Fong

    Lu Fong

  1. The Harlem Renaissance -- originally named the New Negro Movement -- spanned the 1920s and 30s and represented a budding of black intellectualism and culture that has intensely impacted African American identity in the years since and helped lay the groundwork for future generations from the Civil Rights movement to the Black Arts movement. 

    If the political spectrum of the time were painted in gradients, then it would run white at Booker T. Washington, grey for W.E.B Dubois, and black for Marcus Garvey. Though all three strived for equality between the races, their methodologies ranged from the reserved to the extreme. Washington, one of the most recognized intellectuals from the movement, was the least confrontational. A teacher and former slave, Washington believed that the road to equality was as simple as accommodating discrimination for now, and focusing on elevating the black race via self-help. By seeking an education, being industrious, and prospering in society, he reasoned that African Americans would eventually prove themselves worthy of acceptance and assimilation into white society [source: PBS].

    Though Washington’s accommodating attitude landed him a trip to the White House (and a lot of white support), many of his contemporaries viewed his ideas as ineffective and naive. Among these contenders was W.E.B. Dubois, a Harvard educated political activist who respected Washington as a person, but differed greatly in his proposed approach. Instead, Dubois supported an aggressive political fight for equal rights. His work included organizing an open discussion between black and white civil rights workers, which ultimately resulted in the creation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People [source: Biography.com].  As Dubois has said in a retrospective interview with The Atlantic:

     “I never thought Washington was a bad man. I believed him to be sincere, though wrong … As I came to see it, Washington bartered away much that was not his to barter. Certainly I did not believe that the skills of an artisan bricklayer, plasterer, or shoemaker, and the good farmer would cause the white South, grimly busy with disfranchisement and separation, to change the direction of things.” [Source: McGill].

    If Dubois was skeptical of Washington’s approach, however, then Marcus Garvey was in absolute opposition. Garvey, a Jamaican born journalist and gifted orator, supported a complete separation from non-black culture. His Pan-Africanism or “back to Africa” movement aimed to bring African-American culture back to its geographic roots, empowering many to reject collaboration of any sort [source: Hill]. His philosophy helped spur a range of cultural movements from the Nation of Islam to the Rastafari movement. (The latter actually cites him as their prophet [source: Martin].)

    These three figures only represent the most wide-sweeping political figures of the Harlem Renaissance. Artists, musicians and writers were all having parallel breakthroughs, resulting in some of our most treasured art and literature. From poet Langston Hughes to the ineffable singer, Ella Fitzgerald, to author Ralph Ellison … all these cultural giants were influenced by the tenor of the time, helping mold a black identity in America that still holds up in modern day.

    Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King with daughter Yolanda
    The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife, Coretta Scott King, pose with their daughter Yolanda at home in Montgomery, Ala., in 1956. King was a champion of the civil rights movement, and his wife, a trained singer, supported his activism. (Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

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