The late comedian Paul Mooney once said that “The Black man in America is the most copied on this planet, bar none.” “Man” in this sense means Black people in general, but the message is clear. Regardless of what has been inflicted upon the African American community, there has always been a way for us to overcome oppression by turning adversity into strength.
As the 100-year anniversary of the 1925 publication of The New Negro approaches, edited by Father of the Harlem Renaissance and Philadelphia native Alain Leroy Locke, this collection of stories, poems, and thoughts was a generation removed from freed slaves, which were typically characterized by popular culture as being inarticulate, unkept, and unable to comprehend the intellectualism of white people. This collection is an enduring tribute to a simple point: African Americans have moved beyond all of that, so take a look at where we are today and how we have evolved.
Throughout the 1920s, Philadelphia writers and poets like Jessie Redmon Fauset, Angelina Weld Grimke, and Effie Lee Newsome brought the thoughts and reality of Black and Brown Americans to audiences across the world. Artists such as Sam Brown, Allen Freelon, Laura Wheeler Waring, and Aaron Douglas created visual work that ranged from realism to the aftermath of the Red Summer of 1919 when white supremacists terrorized Black communities and race riots ripped through major American cities.
“The New Negro” is a term that was applied to what was later called the Harlem Renaissance. It is a misnomer because this renaissance had been coming for some time and also involved cities like Chicago, Paris, and Philadelphia.
Prior to the 1920s, vaudeville and gross misrepresentations of Black and Brown people in minstrel acts were the norm. Silent film troupes, like The Colored Players based out of Philly, sought to create Black films that brought respect and correct representation through the films The Scar of Shame (1927) and Ten Nights in a Bar (1931).
African American performance venues like the Standard, Lincoln, Royal, and Dunbar Theaters welcomed traveling jazz bands, locals and those coming to the city for their break into the industry. Bessie Smith, clarinetist George Baquet, bandleader Charlie Gaines Johnson, and Frankie Fairfax paved the way for the next generation that included luminaries such as Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Jordan. Those too far away to experience the Philly jazz scene in person could listen in on the radio.
Today, we are experience a new wave of the Black Renaissance. You can hear it in the music and words of local hip hop, jazz, soul, and poets like the Illvibe Collective, Urusla Rucker, Lady Alma, Orrin Evans, Fis Banga, and Gunjin. You can see it in Philly on the small stage through actors like Omar Bullock (To Kill A Mockingbird, Skeleton Crew), Shawneka Ponder (Daphne’s Dive, Pipeline), and Tyler Jones-Palmer (Pygmalion, The Murder Mystery Co.). You feel it through national television shows and movies showcasing a range of characters and screenwriting that has finally moved away from exhausted themes of broken Black homes and violent portrayals of “the Hood” that were highlighted in the 1980s and 1990s. Mathew St. Patrick (Six Feet Under), Eugene Byrd (Bones, Arrow), Monica Calhoun (Cold Case, Everybody Hates Chris, Diary of a Single Mom), Nafessa Williams (Black Lighting, One Life To Live) and ,most recently, Quinta Brunson (Abbott Elementary), who was just honored by the City of Philadelphia for her work, are a few of the Philadelphians featured on television and who helped created a more accurate, well-rounded portrayal of Black and Brown people.
Organizations are recontextualizing both local and national history with the Museum of American Revolution, African American Museum of Philadelphia, Johnson House, Lest We Forget, and Taller Puertorriqueno while also contextualizing neighborhoods that were once the center of Black communities of doctors, abolitionists, artists, and the working class. These days we celebrate a growing number of dynamic, Afrocentric creative spaces like Harriet’s Bookshop, Atomic City Comics, Uncle Bobbie’s Coffee and Books, and Florals and Scrubs. Indeed, African American culture today personifies more than just hip-hop and street culture. It displays the same tenacity that our Black Renaissance elders channeled through conscious thought and a strong appetite for diverse representations of Blackness
African Americans must also continue to nurture connections with other cultures that are undergoing their own new beginnings: the Indigenous who are slowly reclaiming their role as the country’s land protectors, Asian Americans who have become louder and more assertive in demands for equal treatment, and Hispanics who are embracing their multi-ethnic heritage.
As we enter 2022, it is important to remember that this New Black Renaissance is not about forgetting or replacing the past, but building upon it while moving beyond traditional notions of everyday Blackness. We must continue to enlighten ourselves, share what we learn, and understand how the last few years has not only brought a lot to the surface, but how these revelations can move us forward.