In the post World War I era, Harlem became a flourishing centre for creative literary, musical and artistic development. The Harlem Renaissance was a crucial phenomenon that provided musicians, artists, poets and authors of the age an outlet for expressing the miserable plight of African-Americans.
The Harlem Renaissance, also known as the ‘Negro Movement’, commenced in 1920 and was a cultural movement of outstanding literary enthusiasm and creativity which altered the lives and characters of the black race, explored black life and culture and stimulated confidence and racial pride. The period spanned to the middle of the 1930’s Great Depression. In this era of bursting creativity, talented African-American writers and musicians yielded literature and music in prominent genres comprising poetry, drama, fiction and essays and jazz and blues, respectively.
During times of meager economic opportunities and when racism ran rampant, the Harlem Renaissance opened doors for creative expression. It fostered a fresh identity for the black race and opened avenues for opportunities and diversity of talent and profoundly influenced African-Americans. They strived to have their own voices and struggled for equality, prosperity, peace, freedom of expression and civic representation. According to Langston Hughes, the Harlem Renaissance was an “expression of our individual dark-skinned selves.” Alain Locke further described it as a “spiritual coming of age” in which the black community seized its first chances for group expression and self-determination.
One of the most prominent writers was James Baldwin – an African American who grew up in the Harlem and brought out the best works of art. His work dealt with race, family relationships, sexuality, criminal justice and white supremacy. He was a significant literary voice in an era of civil rights activism. One of his remarkable works includes the short story ‘Going to Meet the Man’ – an outstanding display of racism, oppression, injustice and violation of civil rights. It is a reflection of the devastating reality of African-Americans suffering at the hands of the mainstream white society. It brings the everyday reality of the black race into the limelight.
The black community occupied the lowest class in society and had the lowest standards. They were, in utmost unjust and unfair circumstances, a marginalized part of the society. The story highlights the sheer, cold-hearted brutality of the white people towards the black race. We are confronted with the immensely venomous treachery of the black race. The climax draws attention to the worst of mankind – their animosity is highlighted when they cheer at and celebrate the brutal massacre of the black man. Live burning of black people for the purpose of arousing excitement and attracting unusual attention was a custom. It presents a distorted reality concerning violent rapes of black women and relentless mutilation of black men. Such heightened racist violence, in a sorry state of affairs, constituted ethical norms of the white race.
The story, being an example of a gross condescension, entails the idea that white people considered themselves superior to black people – which itself is a manifestation of a prejudiced mentality. A cruel picture is presented of the over-whelming, traumatic life of the black race subject to and enduring excruciating, barbaric and merciless torture at the hands of the white man. Their freedom was forfeited, disallowing them escape from unending days and nights of tyranny. This reflects oppressed humanity, suffering under the yoke of imperialism at the hands of the white race and sums up the miserable plight of African-Americans in a nutshell.
The Harlem Renaissance was an explosion of literary and musical expressions that gave birth to racial awareness and integration. The movement invigorated African-American to produce music, literary works and art pieces to raise racial consciousness. In the events following the Harlem Renaissance, African Americans prospered and were set free from the servitude of stereotypical white society. It contributed to prominent works of art, literature and music, producing timeless classics which depicted slavery and prejudice.