Cultural Appropriation During The Harlem Renaissance 

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The Roaring 20’s is trademarked for its cultural advancement and flashy lifestyle; however, frequently overlooked are the dark spots of this time period. Dictionary.com defines cultural appropriation as, “the act of adopting elements of an outside, often minority, culture without understanding or respecting the original culture and context.” The problem with cultural appropriation is that the offending individual reaps the benefit of desirable aspects within a minority culture without having to experience the hardships that the people of that culture have to endure. The Harlem Renaissance was initiated by the Great Migration, which was the move of thousands of African Americans from the Jim Crow south to the north, more specifically Harlem, New York (Harlem Renaissance). Its significance in history is tagged to the “New Negro,” which was a metaphor for the abandonment of the old ideologies of blacks, and the transition into independence and self-expression through the arts (Gates). The whites of the Harlem Renaissance very openly accepted the culture of the “New Negro,” but did not as strong advocate for those same black individuals that brought about the literary, musical, and artistic contributions to society (Price). Although blacks escaped the extremely racist south, life in the north was not as promising as portrayed.

The sudden shift of race relations in the Roaring ’20s is not as dramatic as historians emphasize it to be. Whites still held a paternalistic viewpoint on blacks and often marginalized them all while indulging in the African American culture. In a time where blacks were making social breakthroughs, whites ensured that they remained inferior in the societal ranks. Every part of the New Negro’s culture was accepted except for the New Negro himself. The white people of the Harlem Renaissance appropriated the newly emerging black culture during this time period.

The blacks of the Harlem Renaissance made contributions to literature, music, art, and even stage performance, and great ones at that. Before the Great Migration, African Americans were not recognized for their creative or artistic abilities. However, post-migration these black writers, artists, and musicians were renowned for their contributions not just to Harlem, but the whole world (Harlem Renaissance). The recognition of the creative abilities was not a testament to much other than the white prior ignorance to black capabilities other than those that were physical. Blacks were categorized for their physical traits; their height, their strength, and as sickly as it is, even their genetics as if they were genetically modified cattle. The white people of this time period, whether intentional or not, were mentally trained to look at a black person for their face value. Black people were looked at as a body, not a mind and a soul with extraordinary capabilities, which is why it took so long for African Americans to be recognized for their contributions to society.

Nothing changed within black culture as a result of the Harlem Renaissance; music was still jazz, authors were producing the same content, and artists stayed true to their beginnings. Jazz and blues were being composed by African Americans in the 1800s (Hall). William Henry Johnson was one of the Harlem Renaissance’s most important artists; in his art were depictions of landscapes and daily life (Sullivan), a style which can be dated all the way back to the 12th century. Langston Hughes produced over 30 literary works (Biography.com), but among his most famous is “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” and which was published in 1921, the beginning years of the renaissance. The most significant factor in the recognition of black abilities was that their talents were now being showcased, and there was no denying how talented they truly were. The sudden popularity of black works supports the claim that appreciation was simply a fad. The white community did not respect the culture, rather they realized the popularity and capitalized on it.

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One may argue that blacks were now receiving an extensive amount of recognition and that is to be an accomplishment in itself. It could also be acknowledged that blacks seized the opportunistic social and economic freedom of Harlem (Locke 6). However, if these same people were of white heritage, these would not be accomplishments; they would just be the norm of a talented entertainer. “For the first time African Americans [s]…were renown for their contributions…” (History.com) It is to be emphasized that black were not being credited more than ever, they were being credited for the first time. Whether one receives recognition for their greatness or not should be dependant on race; it should be a discussion of that person’s talent. It is utterly disrespectful to act as though giving credit where it is due is a privilege simply because the individual of talent is a minority. The recognition of black excellence is not to be treated as though it is a handout or favor, and in that idea, the paternalistic perspective that plagued the Harlem Renaissance is exposed.

As deeply as white people enjoyed the black culture, what was even deeper was their discontent with black people. At the start of the Great Migration, the white community of Harlem did everything they could to stop blacks from moving into their neighborhoods. They tried, eventually failed, and because they couldn’t stop the African Americans from moving in, they just moved out (History.com) It is quite ironic that upon the arrival of the blacks, their artistic abilities were cherished in great numbers by the community. However, what is even more ironic is that the same people that previously created a wake of fear were eventually the main source of entertainment and joy within a community that tried to deter them.

The predominantly white community of Harlem and its surrounding area heavily indulged in Jazz music. Jazz was the focal point of black culture. It is a genre of spontaneity and adaptation. One that is all about having moments to shine, yet remaining the same to create a finished and exceptionally great product. It was the epitome of what it meant to be black; a symbolic sense of identity. However, whites did not take its significance into the mind and made Jazz performed by blacks a form of capital. The prime example of black exploitation was the Cotton Club. As if the name was not derogatory enough, this club was one in which blacks performed for exclusively white audiences (Wintz). Dorsey also described it as, “a form of entertainment for whites.” He also says, “White downtowners would flock to Harlem to experience the primitive without having to go to Africa.” The servers of the club were also black. The only positions that black people held were those of service, emphasizing white superiority. Blacks were escaping slavery in the south just to come to the north and become servants. Whites exploited black culture and used it for capital even though they had little to no understanding of it.

The opposition may state that whites did not completely capitalize upon blacks, they also funded them. Among citable information are the works of white patrons who were catalysts for black success financially, such as W.E.B. Du Bois (Price). Although some actually did help fund black success, the majority of the population did the opposite; they acquired wealth from the success of blacks. The reality of the situation is that so few people legitimately and unselfishly helped black people succeed in this time, anyone who did so went down in history as a virtuous hero who propelled the Harlem Renaissance to wonderful heights. Black people were put down and patronized by whites, and they made sure that blacks could do as well for themselves as they wanted as long as it was not better than the white man.

Cultural appropriation was undeniably demonstrated in Harlem, New York. Whites indulged in the culture they had minimal understanding of and no respect for. This research exposes refined racism, and on a larger scale, it is intended to educate the reader on overlooked history. Though circumstances change, history repeats itself and society must be informed on topics that could very well reoccur. The appropriation of culture is not specific to that of whites against blacks. It is a term relevant to all ethnicities and cultures. What is most important is that society learns to love others for their difference in background, however, appreciates that culture without appropriating it. One’s heritage is not a fad or something “cool” to partake in for enjoyment. It holds a long line of tradition and meaning that is is hard to truly understand unless one is educated and surrounded by it. Society will experience racial coherence when all of the individuals within it learn to respect others’ culture without feeling as though they have to become a part of it. Cultural appreciation is the counter to appropriation and truly appreciating one’s culture will be the basis on which respect and understanding of all the world’s people will be accomplished. 

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