January 28, 2022

The Harlem Renaissance: Rebirth of the Cool

I Dream a World Festival

The New World Symphony presents I Dream a World: The Harlem Renaissance and BeyondFebruary 1 through 5 at the New World Center. The festival explores and celebrates the history and influence of the Harlem Renaissance and the epicenters of Black excellence that thrived across the nation during the 1920s.

Discover the Renaissance’s music, poetry, visual art, songs and impact with MTT, NWS Fellows and guests Kevin Young (Andrew W. Mellon Director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture and Poetry Editor for The New Yorker), musicologist Dr. Tammy Kernodle, conductor Thomas Wilkins, pianist Michelle Cann, soprano Michelle Bradley and the Ambassador Chorale of Florida Memorial University.

I Dream a World: The Harlem Renaissance and Beyond is made possible with support from the NWS Collaborations Fund, the NWS Fund for New Ventures, Dr. Matthew Budd and Ms. Rosalind E. Gorin, The Robert and Jane Toll Foundation, Keith and Renata Ward Family Fund at The Miami Foundation, and Bank of America.

Click here for tickets.

This guest essay was commissioned for the I Dream a World festival.

The Harlem Renaissance: Rebirth of the Cool

On April 29, 1923 noise bombs fell upon the Harlem neighborhood of northern Manhattan. The stunned residents shot their heads skyward and were treated to a peculiar, futuristic (and possibly terrifying) sight: A man, decked out in a brilliant flight suit, leaping from an airplane before deploying a parachute and floating to the top of an apartment building on West 140th Street. The Black Eagle—Hubert Fauntleroy Julian—had landed.

This was not the first jump for the Trinidadian-born aviator; he had completed several stunts before of equal or greater spectacle, including a descent to earth while playing “Running Wild” on a saxophone. Julian's 1920s were spent, among other things, preaching the wonders of aviation and leaping out of planes. Thinking about these feats today, Julian's jumps seem surreal—the idea of civilians parachuting into densely populated neighborhoods seems bizarre, if not impossible. But in the context of 1920s Black America, Hubert Julian's stunts were far from out of place. They were a testament to the boundless sea of New Negro expression.

“The New Negro Movement”—later referred to as the Harlem Renaissance—wasn't a renaissance at all, but something greater. It was forward-thinking. Some writers, musicians, philosophers and artists might have argued that equality could be achieved through artistic advancement, and while this belief was flawed in retrospect, it doubled down on and ultimately proved the argument that Black America was America, that its aesthetic and academic output was integral to the cultural and political fabric of the country.

Naissance is the French word for birth; so, when affixed with the prefix “re,” the word becomes rebirth. “Renaissance” is historically used to describe a born-again European identity; it unambiguously describes an artistic flourishing across the continent that radiated outward from the Central Italian Republic of Florence. In this context, “Renaissance” connotes not innovation, but rediscovery; its usage implies passage out of the so-called Dark and Middle Ages of Europe and the embrace of secular themes and techniques like linear perspective and polyphony. Sculptors gazed in awe of the “lost” artistic creations of Hellenistic and Roman artists and were eager to replicate those styles in the 15th and 16th centuries. Considering this, “renaissance” can just as easily mean “recovery of cultural heritage that was lost.” It’s productivity whose success is predicated on the fixation and recovery of the past.

But Black Americans didn't lose or forget anything. Those artists and philosophers and poets and novelists; musicians and filmmakers and photographers; choreographers and historians; fashionistas and designers; chefs and inventors—and, yes, aviators—they stood, at last, acutely aware of the experiences and histories of generations out of the gloomy past. That memory was carried into the 20th century, and these creatives built on that memory and traditions. Repeatedly. For a concentrated period from the waning days of the First World War to the dawn of the Great Depression and beyond, Black America experienced a cultural supernova; a stellar explosion that didn't signal the death or even rediscovery of anything, but instead a furious effort to creatively be unabashedly—and as W. E. B. Dubois would say, unforgivably—Black.

The definitions of that Blackness then, as now, were varied. It was represented by the separatism of Garveyites. It was represented by those who turned the artistic disciplines born of a White Europe back on itself, determined to beat White America at its own ancestral game. It was present in those who argued such obsessions were assimilationist and ignored Blacks of lower-class status. 

A redundancy: art does not make equal. This is self-evident; if it were the case, the Harlem Renaissance would have drenched the White House in melanin long before 2008 or served as a harbinger for reparations. But, good art does often thrive in spite of deep inequality. Take for example The Crisis (and its offshoot, The Brownies' Book), the films of Oscar Micheaux and the music of Bessie Smith: all existed and thrived in the negative space created by a cold Whiteness. The Harlem Renaissance as a movement, along with the art that came out of it, was effortlessly (and, to outsiders, puzzlingly) cool.

There's a Yoruba word for an aesthetic concept that describes the self-assured, vaguely aloof countenance so prevalent in the sculpture and masks of that culture: Itutu. It means “cool.” The Harlem Renaissance carried on with that aesthetic, and that cool persisted well beyond the 1930s.

It isn't an exaggeration to say White America has long had an obsession with Black culture; nor is it an exaggeration to argue that violent reactions to it are a direct result of conflicting feelings about that obsession, that the so-called “inferior” race is cooler than the socially dominant Whites. Blackness is cool. Jazz is cool. Hip-Hop is cool. Dance that couples with these idioms is cool. Black art molded with casts created in Old World Europe carrying Black memory of Old World Africa— that's cool. The food of Black America is cool, and it’s delicious. If none of these things were true, they wouldn't be the object of endless scrutiny and attempted emulation. Something is cool precisely because it isn't mainstream; so as long as “White” occupies that default, that cool is an inherent impossibility. And so we see non-Black patrons of the Black arts for as long as Black America can remember, whether it was Whites gathering curiously on the edges of New Orleans's Congo Square, or White hipsters of the 1940s emulating the unholy habits of bebop’s patron saints. Zora Neale Hurston understood this phenomenon, dubbing White patrons of Black creatives “Negrotarians.” Black created, White consumed; commensalism that, without good-faith dialogue and proper context, can easily slip into parasitism. The Harlem Renaissance was but one complication in America's cultural timepiece, but it proved a salient point: American culture does not exist without Blackness. And more times than not, it needs an electric, aviary daredevil to hold gravity in contempt and give the people something at which to marvel.

James Bennett

James Bennett is a full-time reporter and some-time critic who lives and works full-time in Boston and some-time in Brooklyn. Music and food are most important to him. At any given point in time, you can find him frantically catching up on book-club reading, sacrificing to the zeitgeist, cataloging records, or thinking about the next time he'll eat pâté.

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