Exploring the Theme of Racial Uplift in the “New Negro” and “Black Moses”

Left to Right: Alain Locke and Marcus Garvey
Left to Right: Alain Locke and Marcus Garvey

The “New Negro” cultural renaissance of the 1920’s was as much a social consciousness as it was a literary and artistic movement. Writing about this sensibility among Blacks, Alain Locke characterized it as being race-conscious, assertive and uplifting.[1] Of course, such sentiments appeared in black literature prior to the 1920s; Nineteenth Century writers like Frances Ellen Watkins Harper and George Moses Horton for example, captured similar themes in their writing. Several socio-economic factors facilitated the New Negro cultural renaissance, and explain its appearance during the 1920s: the depression of cotton-based southern agriculture due to the boll weevil; blacks’ large-scale migration from the brutality and wage exploitation of whites in the south; increased racial hostilities which culminated in race riots throughout the country and the “Red Summer” of lynching in 1919; and finally, World War I black soldiers’ disillusionment upon returning home to face racist brutality and job discrimination, even after courageous service to their country.[2] The New Negro Movement was far more than a period of prolific literature; it represented the mass cultivation of black consciousness and racial uplift. Critics might argue that the movement was ineffective. It produced no significant anti-Jim Crow or lynching legislation, nor did it improve wage earnings or economic mobility for black people. Yet, this article argues that the New Negro cultural renaissance, including the Garvey movement, cannot be measured in terms of such benchmarks. The movement’s greatest accomplishment was its push for racial solidarity and race pride among blacks, who historically were stigmatized and degraded by years of revisionist history and racist propaganda promoting their alleged inferiority and lack of accomplishment. Two books, Alain Locke’s The New Negro: An Interpretation, and E. David Cronon’s Black Moses: The story of Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association, support this premise. In his important compilation The New Negro: An Interpretation, Alain Locke suggests that the “Old Negro” was treated as an object of history, and a stigmatizednew negro book one at that. In contrast, the New Negro would no longer “see himself in the distorted perspective of a social problem,” but articulate his own feelings and concerns through creative and literary expression.[3] In short, Locke viewed self-expression and artistic autonomy as key components of the New Negro movement. He emphasizes this point, and the centrality of Harlem as a New Negro center, when he writes, “In Harlem, Negro life is seizing upon its first chances for group expression and self-determination.”[4] Locke himself defines the New Negro Movement largely in psychological terms, as an attitude or sensibility.[5] In this sense, he seems to agree with his contemporary James Weldon Johnson who writes, “The final measure of the greatness of all people is the amount and standard of the literature and art they have produced.”[6] Referring to whites’ racist beliefs about black ability, Johnson adds, “nothing will do more to change that mental attitude and raise his status than a demonstration of intellectual parity by the Negro through the production of literature and art.”[7] Both Johnson’s and Locke’s approach to black literature within the New Negro Movement was understandably vindicationist. Locke aimed to debunk the myth of black inferiority.  The way to achieve this in the 1920s was to expose the world to a diverse array of talented black essayists, novelists, and poets that unquestionably mastered conventional literary styles. Toward this end, both Locke and Johnson compiled and edited books with works by such writers. Yet, the intent of this approach was not simply to secure white validation, but also to instill pride and a sense of accomplishment among the black community.[8] Locke insinuates this tendency in his essay “Negro Youth Speaks,” for example, when he produces a virtual “roll-call” of prominent black writers, poets, sculptors and musicians.[9] Locke sometimes sends seemingly contradictory messages in The New Negro, praising black writers for race-conscious expressions, and then applauding them for their “detached artistic vision,” and for not producing “racially representative work.”[10] Perhaps Locke is not ambivalent here. We might argue that Locke’s assessment of the New Negro Movement mirrored the dual consciousness described by DuBois – a yearning to be seen as American while arguing the existence of a distinctly black cultural apparatus. E. David Cronon, in his Garvey biography Black Moses, situated the Garvey movement within the larger context of the New Negro movement, arguing that black mosesGarvey’s vision in fact, helped to create the “New Negro.”[11] In one of the first books to explore Garvey’s activities in detail, Black Moses details the trajectory of Garvey’s rise, the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) philosophy and agenda, the strengths and weaknesses of the movement, and factors leading to Garvey’s downfall. Cronon then proceeds to chronicle Garvey’s activities within the UNIA, including his dramatic rise and fall. Nevertheless, Garvey, like Locke and his fellow proponents of the New Negro Movement, had a tremendous influence on race pride and solidarity amongst black people. Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association clearly articulated these themes in its manifesto. According to this document, the UNIA would promote race pride, assist the needy, and establish schools for black students and develop businesses serving the black community.[12] Garvey’s intentions were not fully realized. By 1923, Garvey  unfairly received a five year prison sentence for using the mail fraud concerning the advertisement and sale of stocks in his struggling Black Star Line shipping fleet (We later learned that Garvey was set up by a government informer whose only “proof” was an empty envelope.) In 1927 the United States deported Garvey to Jamaica, and both he and his organization faltered. Garvey’s attempts at commercial enterprise, the creation of schools, and repatriation back to Africa failed. He exercised poor judgment in meeting with the Ku Klux Klan in 1923, and his later references to “African Imperialism” confused his general message. His attempts to resuscitate the UNIA in Jamaica and later London both failed, and Garvey died without seeing his ambitious goals come to fruition. With these issues in mind, Cronon asserts that, “This latter-day Moses achieved little in the way of permanent improvement for his people.”[13] It is questionable whether any leader or organization can affect “permanent improvement” for their followers, as social conditions, financial circumstances, and collective consciousness are dynamic rather than static. Yet, Garvey’s impact cannot be denied. Cronon himself was moved to write of Garvey: “His peculiar gift of oratory, a combination of bombast and stirring heroics, awakened fires of Negro nationalism that have yet to be extinguished.”[14]  We might argue that Garvey’s greatest contribution to the spirit of the New Negro Movement was not tangible legislation, institutions, or industry, or material progress for black people, but an attitude of black pride and solidarity, an attitude that was consistent with, and a complement to, the New Negro Movement of the 1920s. Cronon would admit, “Marcus Garvey’s success in capturing the imagination of the black masses cannot be ignored by the thoughtful student of history. The enthusiastic response to Garvey’s persuasive program of black nationalism shows beyond all question that the Negro masses can be reached through an emotional appeal based on race pride.”[15] In comparison, New Negro sculpture, poetry, and novels did not produce many tangible gains either. What they did do was provide black people with a counter aesthetic, and a sense of purpose, history and destiny. Similarly, Garvey’s flamboyant parades, ambitious projects, and Pan African Nationalist rhetoric (all promoted internationally via his Negro World newspaper) helped to create a foundation that later organizations built upon. While his actual UNIA membership is difficult to determine,[16] there is evidence that Garvey’s ideas influenced the African independence movement of the 50s,[17] the development of Black theology, later Black Nationalist organizations, and the Rastafarian movement. Alain Locke and E. David Cronon’s books are instructive. They demonstrate that in regards to the movement for black liberation, racial consciousness and uplift are just as important as more tangible gains. Moreover, the cultivation of this consciousness is a prerequisite for any sustained and successful liberation movement.

[1] Alain Locke, The New Negro, ed. (New York: Arno Press, 1968), 10-12.
[2] E. David Cronon, Black Moses: The Story of Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association, (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1955), 21-33.
[3] Locke, 3-5
[4] Locke, 7
[5] Ibid.
[6] James Weldon Johnson, ed. The Book of American Negro Poetry. (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1922),
[7] Ibid.
[8] Locke, Forward.
[9] Locke, 49.
[10] Locke, 50.
[11] Cronon, 71.
[12] Cronon, 17
[13] Cronon, 4.
[14]Cronon, 4.
[15] Cronon, 203.
[16] Cronon, 205-206.
[17] Cronon, 216.
Agyei Tyehimba is a former NYC public schoolteacher, co-founder of KAPPA Middle School 215 in the Bronx, NY, and co-author of the Essence Bestselling book, Game Over: The Rise and Transformation of a Harlem Hustler, published in 2007 by Simon & Schuster. Agyei has appeared on C-SpanNY1 News, and most recently on the A&E documentary, The Mayor of Harlem: Alberto ‘Alpo’ Martinez.” Mr. Tyehimba is a professional consultant and public speaker providing political advice and direction for Black college student organizations, community activist groups, and nonprofit organizations. If you are interested in bringing Agyei to speak or provide consultation for your organization, please contact him at truself143@gmail.com.

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