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Teaching the American Twenties: Exploring the Decade through Literature and Art


Harlem Renaissance

Leadership

W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois, a founder of the N.A.A.C.P. and a longtime editor of its publication, The Crisis, had worked since before the war to publish literary works by black authors and to promote racial pride. Du Bois believed that the most "talented tenth" of the race should help uplift the African-American masses. He encouraged the scholars, writers, and artists in the forefront of the "New Negro" movement, a term which utilized the preferred racial designation of the day and countered negative racial epithets.

Just as Emerson and Whitman had called for and developed a distinctly American literature based largely on the experience of pioneering expansion across the majestic continent, Du Bois initiated an African-American aesthetic. And just as Emerson's and Whitman's American sublime was to be judged by American and not European standards, Du Bois's black aesthetic was to conform to black and not white artistic values. This independent stance opened the door for poetry and fiction influenced by Negro spirituals, blues compositions, jazz, and African-American folklore, all cultural forms born out of a history of oppression and cultural marginalization.

Marcus Garvey

Inspired by Booker T. Washington's life and work at the Tuskegee Institute, Marcus Garvey established the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) on his native island of Jamaica in 1914. Washington died before the two men could meet, but Garvey persisted in his vision for an organization that would unite and uplift peoples of African descent throughout the world.

In 1916, Garvey moved to Harlem and shifted the headquarters of the UNIA as well. That same year, he solicited the cooperation and support of W. E. B. Du Bois. Du Bois, however, was uninterested and the two ultimately became foes, squaring off at each other from the pages of their respective publications.

Garvey's message of racial pride and autonomy found a willing membership among Harlem's citizens, and the UNIA hosted a mass meeting in 1920, bringing together thousands of delegates from the UNIA's many branches in the U.S. and abroad.

Garvey and his followers, often attired in military dress, planned a return to Africa and professed African nationalism. Drafted in 1920, the "Declaration of Rights of the Negro Peoples of the World" proclaimed, "We believe in the freedom of Africa for the Negro people of the world, and by the principle of Europe for the Europeans and Asia for the Asiatics; we also demand Africa for the Africans at home and abroad."

J. Edgar Hoover distrusted Garvey and actively pursued him, eventually charging him with mail fraud. Following his trial, imprisonment, and 1927 deportation, Garvey's support declined significantly. The UNIA continued to exist, but did not command the attention it did during the first half of the decade.

Click Image to Get a Closer Look
Photograph of W. E. B. Du Bois from <em>Black Manhattan</em>
Photograph of W. E. B. Du Bois from Black Manhattan

Du Bois's portrait from the 2nd printing of Black Manhattan, named the "W. E. Du Bois Prize Edition."

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