The Harlem Renaissance and The Question of Cultural Representation

Authors, artists, 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:

postcoldiagram.jpg (27517 bytes)

"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 rest.

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.

"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding