musicians, educators, and political activists of the Harlem Renaissance struggled with how
to best reflect, embody, and even create an authentic culture for the African-American
community. One difficulty they faced was how to go about offering literary portraits
of people and their lives without playing into the hands of stereotypical expectations of
their often largely white audience. The following diagram, while deriving from
postcolonial studies, represents some of the factors they faced:
|"Institutional regulators" signifies the
means of cultural education that the dominant oppressor culture has instituted. This
includes schools, churches, clubs and organizations, businesses -- any organization that
teaches what is and is not known, accepted, and understood as cultural givens.
"The semiotic field" signifies methods of cultural
representation -- books, music, portraits, popular images and icons, theatre, etc.
A represents the direct political power and control
a dominant group has over an oppressed group.
B and C represents the way a dominant group shapes
an oppressed group's social standing, intellectual advancement, even self-perception
through a control of what is acceptable knowledge and behavior.
D and E represents how cultural representation also
does this by perpetuating certain behaviors and images of a people.
F represents the reciprocal relationship between
those institutions of cultural education and those expressions of cultural representation.
E.g.'s -- Little Black Sambo, Aunt Jamima, Uncle Tom, Minstrel
shows, studies that try to show the intellectual inferiority of a certain race, barriers
to higher education, expectations that some racial groups are only suited for some jobs,
biased tests for voting or housing, etc. All this tends to mutually reenforce the
What this diagram doesn't express is the ways in which the
colonized, the oppressed, resist this education and representation. These methods
tend to take on three different manifestations: 1) subversion of the existing language and
images by reappropriating them for new purposes; 2) the valorization and/or creation of
alternate indigenous forms intrinsic to that community; and 3) a genuine hybridity of form
that takes aspects of the oppressor's institutions, language, and images and marries them
in new ways with aspects intrinsic to the oppressed's culture.
One of the best examples of this is jazz. Jazz itself is a
form of music that arises out of the mixture of traditional African music, the blues, and
ragtime. It pulls together European instrumentation with African rhythms and
improvisation. Arising as it did in the 20th century, its practitioners have
had to struggle with how to understand its relationship to the black community and to the
larger multi-ethnic experience of the United States. Critics have differed, for
example, over whether Louis Armstrong played to or subverted white audiences' expectations
for the "Uncle Tom" behavior of the black male. The elegance of Duke
Ellington, on the other hand, chose to respond to audience expectations in a completely
different way. Both can be seen as authentic or compromised, depending on the
critic. Ellington's move to larger, more complex compositions (which included the
use of European-style classical borrowings) was also condemned and praised. Some
African-American musicians in jazz sought to create a music that valorizes black
accomplishments and disdains white involvement. Others, such as Thelonious Monk or
Charlie Parker (both strong activists in their own way) incorporated European Modernists
like Stravinsky into their own compositions.
Click here to look at the Yale-New Haven
Teachers Institute site on the Harlem Renaissance.