The New Negro of the Harlem Renaissance in the poems of Claude McKay

Term Paper 2011 22 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature


Table of contents:

1 Introduction

2 The Harlem Renaissance – history of origins
2.1 Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois about the New Negro
2.2 Alain Locke about the New Negro

3 The New Negro in the poems written by Claude McKay
3.1 The militant New Negro
3.2 McKay’s universal opinion about the color problem
3.3 The return to African traditions
3.4 Between the identities

4 Conclusion

5 Bibliography
primary literature
secondary literature
Internet sources

6 Poems used in the Term Paper

1 Introduction

At the beginning of the 20th century, the black population had to assess that they became the plaything of history and they did not have a bearing on their position in society. First of all, the African-Americans had to change their self-conception and their self-perception to achieve a special position in society as an individual. In these years, the black intellectuals were profoundly convinced that the new awareness of the Negro would mark a Renaissance in the history of the African-Americans.

The discovery respectively the awareness about personal values, the newfound self-confidence on the one hand and the search for respect and appreciativeness on the other hand formed the base to create a new identity of the black population. Associated processes in politics, arts and especially in literature mobilized the creative strengths of many artists who lived primarily in Harlem at that time.

At the beginning of this work, I want to look at theories about the term of the New Negro written by Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois and Alain Locke. After that I want to illustrate the changed awareness and the soul of the New Negro with the help of selected poems written by Claude McKay. By doing so I want to show and highlight different aspects that the New Negro of the Harlem Renaissance embodied. The poems of Claude McKay, which were published in 1917, already dealt with the topic of the New Negro and therefore Claude McKay was believed to be a forerunner and the new voice of the Negro literature before the Harlem Renaissance had begun. The new self-image of the African-Americans, which was based on the pride of the own race, was not protected against the permanent discriminations initiated by the white population in America. None other could embody and process the ambivalence between the ideal and the reality in the United States as good as Claude McKay.

2 The Harlem Renaissance – history of origins

“The Harlem Renaissance was basically a psychology -- a state of mind or an attitude -- shared by a number of black writers and intellectuals who centered their activities around Harlem in the late 1920s and early 1930s.“[1]

According to this quotation from Cary D. Wintz, the Harlem Renaissance was more a mental construct that ruled in the heads of these who participated on it, than a coherent movement. Neither a general political ideology, nor common experiences, a common past, a coherent literarily philosophy unified all representatives. A common aim of movement evoked a communal spirit: the equality of races.[2]

The group of the Harlem Renaissance formed itself around a circle of intellectuals (for example James Weldon Johnson, Alain Locke, W.E.B. Du Bois) who belonged to the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), to the Urban League or they were in contact with magazines of Blacks or universities. These intellectuals operated as critics or advisers of young writers of the Harlem Renaissance, they also supported the advancement of these writers while making contact with white publishers and potential sponsors.

The so-called awakening of the black culture, which has been reflected in plenty of black literature, art and music, was concentrated at the district Harlem in New York. That is why the movement is called “Harlem Renaissance“. In the years between 1915 and 1920 the amount of the black population ran up to 250% in New York. The wave of migration to the industrial cities in the North was caused by the bad economic situation in the South after a destroyed cotton harvest in 1915 and flooding in 1916. Moreover the newspapers allured with advertisements that promised better jobs and higher fees for the black population.

Other more decisive reasons for the migration northward were the steadily

worsening conditions of the black population in the South among others through the doctrine Seperate but Equal and the associated apartheid in public buildings.[3]

Because of this boom of migration to Harlem, with his high amount of black population, became the centre of the Harlem Renaissance. The ordinary life in the district Harlem was grabbed in the works of a lot of artists, who got their inspiration from the setting and the characters of the streets in Harlem. Consequently, the misery and poverty was reflected in their artnappings. Harlem became a symbol for that, what the African-Americans experienced in the 20s.[4]

The beginning of the Harlem Renaissance and the associated changed awareness of the black population is related to two important incidents: the end of the World War II and the Race Riots which reached their climax in 1919.

With his appeal “We must make the world safe for democracy“[5] Wilson responded to all people in the United States including the minorities. A lot of intellectuals as well as W.E.B. Du Bois invoked the black population to unite with the Whites for the period of war and to support the land unified.[6] Although the black population was proud of their accomplished deeds at war and their achieved invigorated self-confidence, they did not receive credit. Although they had fought for democracy in other countries, the homecomers asserted that the privilege of democracy was withhold from themself in their own country. They came back with great expectations and insisted on the treatment as equivalent citizens.[7]

The phase of the Red Scare in 1919 was characterized by the attempt to revert to American normality of the prewar period. For the black population, this year stood for bloody riots and violent encroachments by the white population.[8] In 1919 there were so-called Race Riots in about 20 cities in the North as well as in the South whereby a lot of people were killed. In contrast to the prewar period the black population was no longer ready to accept the aggressiveness or to wait for police protection, they struggled and countered violence with violence.[9]

2.1 Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois about the New Negro

After World War II the representatives of radical views proclaimed that the New Negro would be more aggressive than the Old Negro. The newspaper Messenger adhered to the fact that the New Negro should not be any longer modest and unassuming and he should not anymore adjust himself. The New Negro should educate himself and he should reach the absolute equality of races.[10]

However, the term New Negro did not arise from the Harlem Renaissance because the term adopted concepts and ideologies that were characterized by intellectuals like Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois since the end of the 19th century.[11] In his speech “Atlanta Compromise”, held on 18th of September 1895, Booker T. Washington invoked the black population to make use of their chance in the South and to become independent from the white population. Washington, who became the speaker of the black population, demanded that the Blacks should assert themselves through the profitability, frugality and Christian moral. This way they should reach the constitutional rights.

The concepts of economic self-help and industrial apprenticeship should be the first priority and the abolition of apartheid and the franchise faded into the background at that moment. The black population should receive credit by learning practical know-how and by creating own economic and social institutions.

Washington’s contemporary W.E.B. Du Bois was satisfied that the intellectual education of the black population should not only narrow down to economic aspects but rather to the academic studies of a black intellectual elite who could help to receive credit. This way the black population could counter racialism which was fixed firmly in the heads of the Whites.

Du Bois criticized Washington because he would maintain the inferiority of the Blacks while putting attention to the economic success of Blacks instead of their intellectual education. He also did not hold Washington’s opinion that protests and racial movements were ineffectual but he attached importance to protest as a medium to achieve political rights.[12]


[1] Wintz (1988), page 2

[2] Wintz (1988), page 2f.

[3] Wintz (1988), page 14f.

[4] Wintz (1988), page 3

[5] Tolson (2001), page 44

[6] Tillery (1992), page 37

[7] Huggins (1973), page 54

[8] “Claude McKay“, http://www.english.uiuc.edu/Maps/poets/m_r/mckay/cooper.htmhttp://www.english.uiuc.edu/Maps/poets/m_r/mckay/cooper.htm (07.03.2011)

[9] Wintz (1988), page 13

[10] Huggins (1973), page 53

[11] Wintz (1988), page 47

[12] Wintz (1988), page 42f.


ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
519 KB
Catalog Number
Institution / College
University of Potsdam
negro harlem renaissance claude mckay




Title: The New Negro of the Harlem Renaissance in the poems of Claude McKay