Toward A New Narrative

The Black Elite’s Efforts at Resistance and Survival


WEB Dubois and The Crisis

Starting in 1892 and running through 1938, the Black educated elite began using the term ‘New Negro’ for itself. It first appeared in the Cleveland Gazette, which, at the same time, stopped referring to itself as a ’Black’ newspaper in favor of ‘African American.’ The ‘New Negro’, in short, represented a departure from the old, subservient stereotype of Black people as docile and content with their oppressed status. Instead, the term emphasized Black pride, self-respect, and the quest for equality and justice.

This emerging outlook also went through the ‘one divides into two’ process. First, Booker T Washington, on the right side, in 1900, published A New Negro for a New Century, a collection of essays promoting his views on economic self-improvement. On the left, two voices emerge. Second, in 1916-1917 on the left, Hubert Harrison founded the New Negro Movement in Harlem, with ‘The Voice’ and ‘The New Negro’ as his publications. Harrison connected the struggle for black emancipation with socialism and strongly opposed U.S. entry into WWI. He also worked with Marcus Garvey’s Pan-Africanist movement. Also on the left was W.E.B. Dubois, who strongly opposed the ‘accommodationist’ views of Booker T. Washington and launched the NAACP, along with its magazine, The Crisis. (DuBois stumbled on the war question, advocating for Black enlistment with the belief that their displays of patriotism and bravery would lead to greater rights on their return. It didn’t happen. In fact, on their return, many Black soldiers saw increased lynching and pogroms by the KKK, sometimes just at the sight of them in uniform. In later years, DuBois expressed his regret for this blunder).

In the 1920s, Alain LeRoy Locke jumped into this intellectual turmoil. He was perhaps the country’s leading Black intellectual, with a Ph.D. from Harvard and the first African-American Rhodes scholar. At Oxford’s Hertford College, he studied classics, got a Ph.D., and went on to the Humboldt University of Berlin, where he studied philosophy. On his return to the U.S., he taught at Howard University for many years.


The Jazz Age

In 1925, Locke was the guest editor of the periodical Survey Graphic, for a special edition titled ‘Harlem, Mecca of the New Negro.’ He expanded the issue into a book, The New Negro, and the broader movement around it emerged as the Harlem Renaissance, which began in 1918 and ran into the late 1930s. The Harlem Renaissance saw an explosion of Black arts, music, literature, and politics. It was the core of ‘the Jazz Age’ of the 1920s. It nourished, along with the ongoing work of DuBois, poets like Langston Hughes and fiction writers like Richard Wright, and musicians such as Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, and Duke Ellington.

In 1917, another ‘New Negro’ publication appeared in Harlem, The Messinger, founded by A Phillip Randolph and Chandler Owen. The magazine was affiliated with the Socialist Party and several young but growing unions. The war and the Russian Revolution saw a division within the left between the Socialists, critical of the Russian Bolsheviks, and a newly emerging set of Communist parties. Randolph joined Debs in opposing the war but did not join the communists. As the Socialists began to fade, he directly joined in several trade union organizing efforts, starting with elevator operators and other jobs where Blacks were concentrated. His greatest success was the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, where he became president in 1925.

All these figures comprised a wide and somewhat conflicted Black intelligentsia. The Harlem Renaissance, then, can best be viewed along Gramscian lines, with both ’organic intellectuals’ like Harrison and Randolph, and ‘traditional intellectuals’ tied to the academy like Alain Locke. WEB Dubois, with his ‘talented tenth’ theory, where the rise of the most advanced would pull up all or most of the rest, was a bit of both. Next Page