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How Imagery and Religious Verses Contributed to African American Literature in the Harlem Renaissance

Feb 23, 2023 | 0 comments

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Feb 23, 2023 | Essays | 0 comments

Harlem Renaissance was an African-American cultural movement that took place in the early 1920s and 1930s centered in Harlem locality of New York City. Harlem Renaissance refers to the name given to the time from the end of World War I through mid-1930s depression. By then, it was known as “New Negro Movement”, and incorporated a group of writers alongside highbrows associated with Harlem during the migration of African-Americans from other parts of United States. This period of unprecedented black creative activity offered a platform of expressing cultural identity issues and social and political segregations (Carroll 57). Various artists published works of writers including drama, poems, and music. This essay discusses the use of imagery and religious verses during the Harlem Renaissance as well as their various contributions in African American literature.

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First published in 1903, “The Souls of Black Folk” remains a landmark highlighting the life of African Americans and their spiritual nature. Written by William Edward Burghardt DuBois, this essay collection portrays the sensitivity of pathos and ethos concentrating on the spiritual conditions and religious life of Black Americans. In the introduction of the book, the author shows that “no other text, save possibly the King James Bible, has experienced more fundamental impact on shaping the literary tradition of Afro-Americans (Carl Van 89). This religious verse transformed the official organ of political lobbying group into the main outlet for African American political opinion and world literature. Secondly, Black Religion and Black Radicalism, by Gayraud Wilmore explore African religious history. The author uses the term radicalism that African religion has had a paradoxical and vacillating relationship over the past. The use of the term serves to express the insistent theme within the African church history that white Christianity and society were sick into death and that sickness could be cured by a radical metanoia (Carl Van 102). Symbolically, Wilmore’s use of religion gives special insights regarding the state of Black church in the 1920s and 1930s alongside the factors that lead to deradicalization.

As a group, writers such as Columbus Sally and Ronald Behm in their book “What Color Is Your God? Black Consciousness and the Christian Faith” uses religious views to affirm genuine Christianity as a Black self-image and struggle of the Black against White oppression. Meanwhile, Albert Cleage used the verse of “Black Messiah” to assist the Black church in the liberalization of its people. As such, he used a poem authored by Countee Cullen during the “Negro Renaissance” to offer an example of the challenges Black people had worshiping a White Christ. Likewise, James Cone, in the 1960s, expanded the centuries-old theme, “God is a Negro” into a symbolic theology of Black people liberalization (Woodson 17).

In spite of its size, arts infrastructure, and literacy, the nature of Harlem alongside its association to the Renaissance evoked the strong and conflicting use of imagery representing the African Americans. The image of Harlem was used to represent the cultural, political, Negro Metropolis, spiritual center, and black Manhattan of African Americans. However, the image of Harlem, for some people, was personal. For instance, King Solomon Gillis, the main character in “The City of Refuge” by Rudolph Fisher was one of the people that sought refuge in Harlem after fleeing from North Carolina after shooting a white man. In Harlem, the policeman was black and at the end of the story, this changes his fate as the black policeman drags Gillis away in handcuffs (Rudolph 12). The use of Harlem imagery reflects the day to day realities that most of the Harlemites experienced differently. In short, it represented self-confidence, pride of New Negro and demand for equality, militancy, and it portrayed the aspirations and creative genius of talented young generations of the Harlem Renaissance together with the economic aspirations of the Black migrants in search of a better life in a foreign land.

Meanwhile, the Harlem Race Riot provides a strong imagery of Harlem. In 1935, a young Puerto Rican boy was found stealing a ten-cent pocketknife from a counter. The boy was arrested, and rumors spread that the police had beaten him to death, which made a large crowd gather shouting racial discrimination and police brutality. The riot was investigated, and it was reported that it resulted from racial discrimination, poverty, and general frustration. In the New Negro, Alain Locke discusses the imagery appearance of the new Negro (Chasar 59). This was because the Old Negro looked inferior because it had lived under the shadow of stereotypes and clichés. The use of demeaning images to the New Negro symbolized that the New Negro came into contact with other blacks from various parts of the world and earned him a new sense of self-respect. Secondly, the image symbolized the city life that brought the Negroes closer to contact with each other, hence fostering racial pride.

In conclusion, the Harlem Renaissance legacy has provided a platform for modern African American writers. Particularly, the renaissance has provided a new dimension for Black Americans and brought equality. Overall, the Harlem Renaissance differs from other African American literature. This is because it reflects the general fascination with the ancient African history. Also, it provides the diversity using several themes emerging with the characters of Harlem Renaissance. The use of imagery and religious verses captures the African American past alongside its rural southern roots, urban experience, and African heritage that most African American literature have not considered.

Work Cited

Carl Van Doren, “The Younger Generation of Negro Writers,” Opportunity 2 (1924): 144–45. Van Doren’s Civic Club Dinner address was reprinted in Opportunity.
Carroll, Anne. “Art, Literature, And The Harlem Renaissance: The Messages Of God’s Trombones.” College Literature 29.3 (2002): 57. Academic Search Complete. Web. 16 May 2013.
Chasar, Mike. “The Sounds Of Black Laughter And The Harlem Renaissance: Claude Mckay, Sterling Brown, Langston Hughes.” American Literature 80.1 (2008): 57-81. Academic Search Complete. Web. 6 May 2013.
Rudolph Fisher, “The City of Refuge,” in The New Negro, 57–8. The City of Refuge was first published in The Atlantic Monthly, February 1925.
Woodson, Carter G. The History of the Negro Church. 1921. 3d ed. Washington, DC: The Associated Publishers, Inc., 1992.

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