Harlem Renaissance: The Garvey Aesthetic

April 17, 2010

The Harlem Renaissance was truly a milestone and high point in African American history. Viewed as a flowering of music, literature, poetry and visual arts, the Renaissance period paralleled and reinforced the emergence of a new African personality, expressed in the “New Negro” anthology, edited by Alain Locke. The impetus for this new personality was driven by the political and cultural awakening of African Americans. The Garvey Movement, led by Marcus Garvey, played a major role in defining the direction and purpose of this awakening.

 As Tony Martin points out in his work, Literary Garveyism, Garvey’s interest in art was frame through a political lens. His view of art in the context of the struggle of blacks during the 1920s is best illustrated in his own words. Garvey postulated: “We must encourage our own black authors who have character, who are loyal to their race, who feel proud to be black, and in every way let them feel that we appreciate their efforts to advance our race through healthy and decent literature.” Garvey’s   aesthetic, defined in racial and cultural terms, rivaled the integrationist view of art and the “art for the sake of art” perspective. At the core of Garvey’s  Black aesthetic was his concern that black people, not those of other races, namely whites,  should decide who its worthy artist were and what standards would African Americans use to judge their art music and literature. “We must”, Garvey wrote, “inspire a literature and promulgate a doctrine of our own, without any apologies to the powers that be.”

Thus, Garvey’s aesthetic was reflected of his political philosophy and opinions of: 1) race first, 2) self-reliance, and 3) nationhood. This philosophy was grounded in the believe and practice that African Americans should aggressively pursue their racial self-interest, should do for themselves rather than becoming dependent on charity, and should strive to govern themselves, with a special focus on Africa.  Literature and art then in turn should seek to promote this political agenda. For black people, who were struggling for their freedom, dignity and humanity, art for the sake or art was a luxury that they could not afford. These ideas and views sum-up the Garvey aesthetic and informed and influence the writing of the Harlem Renaissance.

Two of the most notable literary works which reflected the Garvey aesthetic were Langston Hughes’s essay, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” and Claude McKay’s poems, “If We Must Die” and “White House.” In Hughes’s essay, he castigates a young poet for saying he wanted to be a poet, not a Negro poet. Hughes interpreted the poet’s statement to mean that he wanted to write like a white person. At a deeper level Hughes deconstructed this to mean the young poet actually wanted to be white. Hughes went on to write:

    No great poet has ever been afraid of being himself. And I doubted then that, with his desire to run away spiritually from his race, this boy would ever be a great poet. But this is the mountain standing in the way of any true Negro art in America- This urge within the race toward whiteness, the desire to pour racial individuality into the mold of American standardization, and to be as little Negro and as much American has possible.

Marcus Garvey’s wife, Amy Jacques Garvey responding to Hughes’s essay wrote that she was “delighted with his frank statement” and wondered if he was a “registered member of the Universal Negro Improvement Association.” She went on to say that his essay showed him to be a “keen student of Garveyism.”

“If We Must Die” and “White House,” by Claude McKay are responses to the terrorism directed at blacks during the 1919 race riots and the murder and mass lynching of African Americans by whites across America. This period, coined by James Weldon Johnson, as the “Red Summer,” describes the bloody race riots that occurred during the summer and early autumn of 1919. In most instances, whites attacked African Americans in more than two dozen American cities.  In both poems, McKay attempts to convey the nobility and dignity of blacks.  In “If We Must Die”, he conveys the message that blacks can not be destroyed by violence and that they have a right and responsibility to fight back. In fact fighting back would underscore their humanity and manhood.  The strength of African Americans, therefore, is in their nobility, which in the end, according to the McKay, stands stronger than the surface strength of the oppressor. This is a strength built upon character and history, rather than upon decorations and weapons that money can buy. It is this strength upon which the oppressed poet and his “kinsmen” focus their hope.

In “The White House” the strength of the oppressor in lies in subtle political and social strategies. The oppressor lives in a good, neat neighborhood, and is obviously affluent. In combination with this, derogatory terms such as “savage” are leveled against the oppressed to keep their spirit submissive. The law and politics are then also used for the same purpose. These however are all surface strengths, whereas the strength of the oppressed comes from inner nobility.

 Both of these poems fit neatly into the Garvey aesthetic. As defined in the by his political philosophy reflected below:

    If others laugh at you, return the laughter to them; if they mimic you, return the compliment with equal force. They have not more right to dishonor, disrespect and disregard your feeling and manhood than you have in dealing with them. Honor them when they honor you; disrespect and disregard them when they vilely treat you


In brief, at the dawn of the second of the twentieth century Marcus Garvey set forth an aesthetic that would inform the art music and literature of the Harlem Renaissance. From the start then, Garvey said to blacks, “We must inspire and promulgate a doctrine of our own without any apologies to the powers that be.

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