Harlem Stomp! A Cultural History of the Harlem Renaissance
The African American Century
By Laban Carrick Hill
Imagine an America without African American music. Without hip hop. Without even Justin Timberlake since not only Timberlake’s influences are deeply rooted in black culture, but also his record producers and songwriters are African American. An America without blacks is a place without Rock and Roll. Without Jazz. Without essentially any truly American music.
Now, imagine a sports world without African Americans. Without Michael Jordan. Without Barry Bonds. Without Michael Vick. Without Jesse Owens. Without Jackie Robinson. Without Mohamed Ali. Without “Float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.” How about movies without Spike Lee, Denzel Washington, Chris Rock, and Sidney Poitier. Theater without August Wilson. And Politics without Martin Luther King, Jr., Jesse Jackson, Thurgood Marshall, Malcolm X…even Al Sharpton.
The writer Ralph Ellison wrote in his essay “What America Would be Like Without Blacks” that “…whatever else the true American is, he is also somehow black.” Try to imagine the 20th Century without African Americans. Scholars Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Cornell West have gone so far as to call the 20th Century the African American Century.
American life is inconceivable without its black presence. And if Gates and West are right and the 20th Century IS the Black Century, then the 1920s is the coming age for African Americans in that century. In the 1920s Harlem was hoppin’ and stompin’. The poet Arna Bontemps described the feeling, “In Harlem, it was like a foretaste of paradise. A blue haze descended at night and with it strings of fairy lights on the broad avenues.” The poet Countee Cullen characterized the spirit of the era in his poem “Harlem Wine.”
This is not water running here,
These thick rebellious streams
That hurtle flesh and bone past fear
Down alleyways of dreams.
This is a wine that must flow on
Not caring how or where,
So it has ways to flow upon
Where song is in the air.
So it can woo an artful flute
With loose, elastic lips,
Its measurements of joy compute
With blithe, ecstatic hips.
The energy, writing, music and dance of the Harlem Renaissance are like no other period in American history. It celebrates not only a race, but all of America.
--George C. Wolfe, writer, director, and producer of the Public Theater, NYC
--from the Introduction
4. Middle Grade Series