14 December 2007

The new Black Women during the Harlem Reanissance

The Harlem Renaissance was an intellectual, social, and political movement of African Americans during the early twentieth century. During this time in history, blacks embarked upon a journey of self discovery and an effort to remakes their collective image. Black men actively sought to define the New Negro; some of the most famous were Alan Locke, W.E.B Du Bois, and Langston Hughes. A significant number of Black women involved in this movement seldom received as much acclaim; however middle class everyday and ordinary Black women helped shape the identity of the New Negro within their own neighborhoods. The stories told by Black female writers of the Harlem Renaissance were of the everyday reality and struggles that these average black women endured and conquered. It is through their efforts to persist and overcome the unacceptable (past) image of the black individual that enables them to redefine themselves as a person without the stigma of gender or race.

Black women wanted to move away from the “Old Negro” ideas; that were preciously instilled within the black community by past generations of white and Black. For instance, the well-known image of the mammy, a large strongly built black woman, whose purpose and function was to cater to the needs of the white master and his family. Instinctively, she would appear when needed knowing how to tend to each hurt as well as celebrate every achievement met by the children of the “main house”. The mammy of the household provided the much required nurturing maternal care for the white family. Her presence, indeed, her very existence was a necessity for it provided the opportunity for the southern white woman to sit pretty living in a luxury and ease without a care or concern.

Another stereotypical role for the Black woman during their captivity was that of Jezebel. This role presented as a young black tempest that lured innocent unknowing white men into inappropriate sexual activities. These young Black women were portrayed as women of loose moral and insatiable sexual appetite. This particular role/image was one of fiction created to justify the existence of the sexual relationships between the white male (master) and the black women (slaves). It was a method used within polite white society aiding them to close their eyes to the immoral, abusive and unjust treatment of the Black woman.

Remaking Black women’s image in accordance with the perception of the New Negro meant challenging the way Black women physically perceived themselves, their political and social comfort zones and their stereotypical gender roles established first by the white community later reinforced by the Black male population. Black female writers discussed domesticity, political issues, social status and their lack of control of their lives. Even once recognized as a contributing member of the black community cause for definition of self the black female had to contend with the misconceptions of this acknowledgement. The negative responses were based on the fears of the black male, who felt a lack of control and/or ability to compete, and the older generation of black females, who were comfort within their stereotypical roles.

During Harlem Renaissance the black individual’s image went through an immense reconstruction. Since the end of World War I, there was an active movement for the contemporary Black individual to identifying with Africa and “home grown” black folk. The black individual’s focus on self identity overthrew the past generation’s concern about the expectations and perceptions of the white population. A main goal of the “New Negro” to redefine what it meant to be black; to separate him from the negative image of the past.

There were two different perceptive regarding the New Black Woman. Margarita Murray Washington felt that the principle function of the New Black Woman should be to maintain the home, establishing a “bourgeois class”. Others, like Pauline Hopkins, felt that the New Black woman should focus on individual accomplishments and freedoms. Washington was a black woman with light coloring and fine features, physical attributes that enabled her to further her agenda for the New Black Woman. As an educator and essayist, she strives for the status of a middle-class Black woman by setting herself up as a Gibson Girl. The image of a Gibson Girl was an unattractive female who inspired no sexual interest from the male population of the times.

A Gibson girl believed to be unattractive having had more manlike characteristics such as intellectual and independence; not fitting the image of women whether white of black. This struggle of identity existed among all women whether white or black with similar concerns and difficulties. The New Black woman strived towards improvement and advance through education, political involvement, and social economic status. The New Black woman differed from the New Negro in their shared pursuit with their white counterparts. The Black woman became politically involved seeking women’s rights under the law; while the New Negro is more interested in his competitive race to catch up with his white counterpart.

Before the Harlem Renaissance, black women often tried to mimic the traditional image and role created by the white community. Elite black women, especially, were taught to appear “white” by employing makeup to seem physically lighter. There were constant reminders of this image in the work place, newspapers, women’s magazines, and everywhere in their daily live’s. African Americans had felt pressure to act and look “white” since the end of slavery. During the Reconstruction, when they finally had some freedom to choose for themselves, some blacks adapted the model of the white world and white standards of beauty. Many black women in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century dressed in the style preferred by white women, from their hair down to their petticoats. Many female black leaders felt that to become successful, one had to exude “whiteness”. They thought that in the long run, achieving recognition in white power structure would better the black community and help other black women improve their status.

Informing the general black public of existing opportunities and options and those that could be created gave the New Black Woman the power to advance and develop the self. Hopkin stressed the need to remove the emphasis on self interested objectives and sexual practices which were being cited to justify Jim Crow laws. She felt black women’s energy should be directed towards political gains that would be beneficial to all. Pauline Hopkins felt that blackness was beautiful. She believed that blacks should not change themselves to fit the white image of beauty.

During the Harlem Renaissance, the black women gave their domesticity an advantageous twist by reshaping that traditional role to fit the new ideals of the twentieth century. From within the home black women could provide a strong, nurturing home as well as emotional support during a challenging time. This was particularly important as African Americans began to migrate to the north and west seeking greater opportunities of self growth and survival. The Black individual of the south perceived the industrial movement in the north as an employment; while the open space of the west offered a sense of independence and freedom. Through the writings of black female such as Pauline Hopkins, Jessie Redman Fauset and Marita Bonner one can see that the movement was a vessel lending to writing of future dreams, preserving the past, and recording the current conditions. The movement gave the black women, particularly the black female writers, purpose and an individualized focus.

For example one can see in the writings of Pauline Hopkins, who educated the black community with tales involving characters from sources such as the Bible, African mythology, and the works of George William to name a few. In addition, she wrote several short stories on contemporary and controversial topics, both fictional and a few non-fictional. Her voice was temporarily silenced when the “Colored American” changed hands and focus from literature and culture to agriculture and business. Hopkins continued to write for other publications when the focus of the “Colored American” changed. It should be noted that the change was due to Booker T. Washington’s purchase of the paper; whose ideals of the New Negro differed. Booker T. Washington was not a supporter of the “New Negro”. There were debates between Web Du Bosis and Booker T. Washington that were noted to be heated on their difference of what the Black man’s objective should be. This well known depute emphasis the struggle of an identification and definition to New Negro that existed within the black community.

Later writers, such as Jessie Redman Fauset published in magazines like the Crisis. Her articles emphasized the need for educational reform. Fauset created a magazine for young blacks and contributed text concerning the cultural and political life of the American. After World War I, she directed her focus toward the social position of women. For instance, Fauset examined the parallel between gender and class arguing that the black men’s control over black women stemmed in past from their economic status. This control stifled the freedom and creativity of the black woman.

Fauset addressed new ideas on the meaning of marriage discussing the notion of love and romance; which are interwoven and unproductive. Marriage was based on outdated Victorian status which enslaved the black woman into the same role of subservient only difference is the color of skin of the new master. This type of marriage created an environment that would not support or encourage any creativity or individuality. She questioned the definition of an American while noting that the limitation of the Black woman were due to accepted racial myths. Fauset realized that the black woman was restricted by her lack of education, demands and responsibility of home, husband and children and her lack of employment opportunities. Breaking those long established myths of being a mammy to her own children limited her hiring out. Through her writing she gave voice to black women and tried to offer solutions to black women’s problems. She encouraged the contemporary black woman to focus on the economic concerns of the black worker and to the advancement of the race.

Black female writers such as Marita Bonner addressed situations that were unfair and unjust to black women. Her character, Lizabeth, in her story “The Whipping” was persecuted for killing her son, which was an accident. As the story unfolded the injustice of the system which became clear. Bonner illuminated the issues facing many Black women of poor housing conditions, poverty, and lack of employment opportunities. She wrote with passion and conviction of the disaster and heartbreak that result from such disadvantages. She felt it was important to record such events so that other black women might learn from the story of Lizabeth’s contribution and to keep the unfortunate circumstances facing many black women before the public eye.

Bonner’s writing also creates awareness about the pressure put on black women by urbanization, segregation and inflexible, outdated gender role. Bonner pointedly challenged the mammy and Jezebel stereotypes. She also condemned the role that the court system, prisons, and economic injustice generally played in limiting black women’s advancement. These issues continue to follow the Black woman for generations. The battle and challenges are compounded by the negative responses within it own community. The disadvantages to being a New Black Woman was the backlash received once she became an acknowledged and recognized figure. Gwendolyn Brook was the recipient of negative encounters once she won the Pulitzer Prize for her poem Annie Allen in 1950. Her family and friends felt put upon by the attention she received and negligent by her. The community, particularly those threatened by her ability and achievement, questioned her capability to be a “proper” wife and mother.

The convergence of the New Negro and the New Black Woman made a lasting impact on the black community and the nation as a whole. Black Women involved in these political, social, and intellectual movements insisted on defining themselves both in terms of gender and race. Zora Neale Hurston makes an interest observation on the thought process of the black community of the time. It appeared that the black individual thinks in functional terms creating a mental picture of ideas before any develop of oral/written language emerged. This hieroglyphic thinking process fulfills the need to illustrate. This unique cognitive process may be the result of natural intelligence developing in spite of the lack of formal education. This thought process is evident as one reads the various writing of Black female writers of the Harlem Renaissance to contemporary writers; whose words create a vivid image of the subject matter.

Examine the works of Fauset whose description of family differed greatly with the norm structure of father, mother, children and an assortment of extended family members. In her story, The Chinaberry Tree, she defines family as three generations of women living under one roof working together to survive. As in many other of her writings the family is defined as an unit that function under a structure that was usually based on gender based work. She observed in her writing that the Black Women were required to be employed in menial positions while maintaining the household and contributing to community organizations such as the church, clubs/lodges and NAACP.

Where Fauset words provide clear mental images Pauline Hopkins would provide illustrations to emphasize her point. By providing illustrations of stereotypical Black men and women she was giving an accurate, truthful, and justification of these distinguished individuals. It was a means to offer strong visual evident of the good and bad bring the images out into the open. Previously, there was black and white concrete evident of the Black Americans history. Many of her stories are based on historical events that were adapted for the Black community’s perspective. The characteristics of biblical figures such as Moses were commonly seen in her writing for Hopkins felt that there was a magical mystery about history.

Contemporary Black female writers and artist evolve the image of the New Black woman with the reexamination the mulatta icon as an ideal New Black woman. There are quilts on exhibition offering the perception of Willa Marie Simone and Jazz written by Morrison offering a tragic epic of a mulatto woman. Both these artist offered the mulatto as the ideal icon for the New Negro woman, who was alien, estranged, and totally elegant. This icon of the New Negro Woman was seen as having a voice through these unique art forms.

An analysis on the maternal role of the New Black Woman shows its evolution. During and after the Civil War the maternal role of the Black woman

Changes focus from the needs of the master’s children or that of the community to their individual children. The result/answer to this observation varied on who was conducting it. The White theorist claimed that the inadequateness of the Black mother a direct cause of the “degeneration” of the race. Whereas Black intellectuals viewed the maternal role of the Black Woman a direct asset in the

progress of the race. Hopkins introduced the issue of mix blood and how it affected those who could pass as white. In the story Sappho Grace was claimed as property, beaten in front of her child and laid at the feet of her tormentors. She is forced to enter into the world of the Black Woman without any refers yet understanding that her bloodline was contaminated. This story

gives vivid image and understanding of the lack of control Black women had and the consequence of it.The definition of the New Black woman was a long difficult process that has had to overcome many obstacles from external and internal sources. The image of the New Black woman was a living breathing icon which evolved over time. Each group of black/white men or women who prodded, examined, and identified with it as it developed into a icon of Black Woman, strong to keep the past as a precious treasure to past on, intelligent to strive for the future of her children, wise in taking time to understand and observe the world as it is and can be.

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