Why was the Harlem Renaissance important?
The Harlem Renaissance was important because, aside from the limited role that a few prominent individuals occupied in public life, the voices of African Americans were largely absent from the cultural and political life of America. Writers like Alain Locke maintained that it was necessary for African Americans to demonstrate through their artistic endeavors a shared human experience that transcended racial boundaries. In the 1920s and 30s, America remained a deeply segregated society, even in the more urbanized areas of the Northeast.
It is important to note that although the right to vote was granted to African Americans through the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870, in the South and elsewhere, there was still widespread violence and intimidation which was aimed at disenfranchising black voters. Arguably the political consequences of the Harlem Renaissance were not even apparent until the emergence of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, which is also when there became a renewed scholarly interest in the works of these authors. It would take many more years for the work of Harlem Renaissance writers to become incorporated into literature courses across the country.
By narrating the experiences of African Americans, and by producing a lively literary and artistic movement, the Harlem Renaissance demonstrated the undeniable role that African Americans have played in the formation of America’s cultural landscape. But most importantly, hearing the voices of black writers is crucial for understanding the truth of their struggle for the fundamental freedoms that presumably define American life. Speaking of the importance of music in expressing the truth of black experiences of oppression, Anthony Pinn claims that “this struggle is known by and through the body, in the ways in which bodies occupy time and space, and chronicled in a variety of forms including musical production.” Moreover, Edward Hirsch suggests that like music, poetry “calls us deeply to each other.” The creative power of the voice contends with dehumanizing power of institutionalized racism and oppression. (1)
Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child
Listen carefully to the emotive quality of the voices singing the spiritual: