Term Paper: Social Times and the Culture of New

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Social Times and the Culture of New York's: Harlem: From the 'Harlem Renaissance' Period to 1960

Few if any American cities or geographical areas have undergone as many demographic; economic or cultural changes; "reinventions" and metamorphoses as New York's Harlem. Starting in the mid-to-late 17th century, when Harlem acquired its first white Dutch-transplant European settlers, Harlem has changed almost continuously: demographically; economically, culturally, reputation-wise and otherwise. Still, not withstanding the white Dutch settler population of Harlem's earliest days; and then in the 19th century, a period when the name 'Harlem' was "a synonym for elegant living... " (Duberman, 1968). The issues, events, and personalities that have made Harlem one of America's most distinct communities spring from the late 19th-to-early-to-mid 20th century belief in advancement of black Americans through the efforts and actions of blacks themselves, i.e., excluding all white liberals. That exclusivity, combined especially with a distinct African-American nationalism, encouraged and supported key social, political, and cultural African-American voices of change (and changes) in the 20th century up to about 1960.

This essay shall discuss that period in Harlem in particular, then, and key events that occurred within it, as well as some that had earlier created conditions of possibility for that period in Harlem to unfold as it did.

Harlem has had few "constants" except for a largely African-American population; a great deal of poverty among citizens, and (ironically; given those constants) a milieu enormously rich in cultural expression, especially by, for, and about, American blacks and blacks worldwide. Much of the post-Harlem Renaissance period's (i.e., specifically, from around 1918 to about 1960) relatively new, Harlem-born African-American nationalism, which was considered quite radical for its day for its time but is more or less mainstream today, was expressed for the first time ever in writings and sermons of African-American "Harlemites [sic]," but most of all, on the streets of Harlem.

Moreover, while the 1960's was, obviously, the main decade in which the real flowering of the American Civil Rights Movement took place; much of what grew from those myriad Harlem street corner speeches and other Harlem-based efforts toward African-American equality actually began earlier, outside as well as inside Harlem. One such important event took place in 1946.

According to the article "United States Commission on Civil Rights," this committee, appointed by then-President Harry S. Truman:

was charged with: (1) examining the condition of civil rights in the United

States, (2) producing a written report of their findings, and (3) submitting recommendations on improving civil rights in the United States. In December

1947, the committee... proposed to improve the existing civil rights laws; to establish a permanent Civil Rights Commission, Joint Congressional

Committee on Civil Rights, and a Civil Rights Division... To develop federal protection from lynching; to create a Fair Employment Practices Commission

FEPC); to abolish poll taxes; and urged other measures. (Wikipedia, (February 3, 2007).

Further, in 1954, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka ("Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483 (1954)," (Wikipedia), school segregation of black children from white children was outlawed by the United States Supreme Court in 1952.

In addition, the African-American literary and other artistic output, within Harlem and often (especially in terms of various novels; poems, plays, and short stories set in Harlem) about Harlem and its effects, positive or negative, on humanity, offer a window today into the black American experience within Harlem in the 1940's and 1950's, especially. Several novels and short stories written by Harlem-dwelling black writers like James Baldwin; Ralph Ellison; Richard Wright; Jean Toomer; Langston Hughes, and Claude Brown, among others, may shed stark and vivid light, especially through the eyes of these authors' respective black male narrators, on the realities of Harlem, from which these authors' works spring.

One example is the body of work by black American author James Baldwin, whose cannon of works are consistently written and set within the Harlem(s) of the 1930's; 1940's, and 1950's. Much of James Baldwin's work, which includes three novels and numerous short stories and essays, describes conflicts, dilemmas, obstacles, and choices faced by African-Americans living in Harlem in modern-day white-dominated society, and the ways, good and bad, that African-Americans may either surmount or fall victim to racial prejudices, stereotypes, temptations and conflicts: inside as well as outside Harlem. In his now much-anthologized and analyzed short story "Sonny's Blues (1957), Harlem writer James Baldwin's narrator is an unnamed high school algebra teacher who lives in a 1950's vintage Harlem housing project (. Still, this narrator is of Harlem, even if not now in it.

The existence of such public housing projects for blacks outside Harlem, and the fact of Baldwin's unnamed narrator's living there, effectively underscores the 1950's-era (pre-EEO) efforts by the government, (springing themselves from conditions on the Harlem streets) to counteract prejudices against blacks in housing and other areas.

Baldwin's narrator, the guilt-laden older brother of the title character, Sonny, who is an accomplished blues pianist but also a heroin addict, keeps getting pulled back to Harlem himself, though, if not through his own actions and limitations, through those of Sonny. As the story opens, the narrator has learned earlier that morning, from the newspaper, that Sonny was arrested last night for possessing and selling heroin. The news causes the narrator, as he leaves school for the day, to begin to recall his and Sonny's childhoods, teenage years, and young adulthoods, and also vividly reminds him of his own strong feelings, inculcated in him by their late mother, of brotherly responsibility toward Sonny.

By the end of "Sonny's Blues" the narrator resolves, at least to an extent, his conflicts with Sonny when he goes, at Sonny's invitation, to hear Sonny and other musicians play at a Harlem bar, where Sonny himself is most at home but where the narrator himself, who has embraced more of the values of the dominant white society than his musician brother ever could, feels out-of-place and alienated. Clearly, Sonny the now-accomplished jazz pianist has not himself experienced the Harlem Renaissance of about 1918 through about 1930, but the lingering influence of that period, as Baldwin also implies, has helped to allow Sonny himself, with Sonny's having been inspired by older black jazz musician heroes like Charlie "Bird" Parker (Baldwin) to realize his own dream of becoming an accomplished jazz pianist.

Throughout the 1920s in particular and ending at around the time the Great Depression first began, Harlem enjoyed a unique cultural identity as the center of black art and culture, which also gained, at least in many instances, a newfound popularity during that period. This was the period of the Harlem Renaissance. According to the article "Harlem":

The Harlem Renaissance was a time of amazing artistic production, but ironically, blacks were sometimes excluded from viewing what their peers were creating. Some jazz venues, including most famously the Cotton Club, where Duke Ellington played, were restricted to whites only. Others, including the Renaissance Ballroom and the Savoy Ballroom, were integrated.

According to a magazine article written about Harlem conditions ten or so years subsequent to the end of the Harlem Renaissance, in 1940, although the Harlem Renaissance itself has been [and still is] much romanticized as a time of a unique flowering of and appreciation (by whites, especially) of black art, the same Harlem Renaissance period was also one in which Central harlem in particular became a slum ("244,000 Native Sons"). As that article further suggests, some of what occurred during (and in fact, romanticized) the Harlem Renaissance was simply the result of black poverty ("244,000 Native Sons").

One such later-romanticized Harlem phenomenon of that period, for instance, was the frequent giving of "rent parties": social occasions where, quite literally, the month's rent on the host's Harlem apartment was raised by charging an admission fee. In return for that, the host's friends and neighbors could hear music and drink (bootleg; this was also during Prohibition) alcohol ("244,000 Native Sons"). Another practice of the time was the taking in of additional lodgers to help pay the rent.

According to the article "244,000 Native Sons" up to nearly half of all the black families in Harlem, by the year 1940, were taking in lodgers based on financial necessity. As the article further suggests, the lodgers themselves often introduced their own bad habits (e.g., drugs; alcohol, crime) into otherwise respectable African-American households, even if [perhaps, like James Baldwin's young musician character Sonny, in his short story "Sonny's Blues") they also brought their artistry and talents there.

In respect to those same housing problems that typically plagued Harlem residents throughout the "Renaissance" years of the 1920's in particular, the article "Harlem" states:

In 1928, the first effort at housing reform was attempted in Harlem with the construction of the Paul Lawrence Dunbar Houses, backed by John D.

Rockefeller, Jr. These were intended to give people of modest means the opportunity to live in and, over time, purchase houses of their own. The Great Depression hit shortly after the buildings opened, and the experiment… [END OF PREVIEW]

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