A Dream Renewed? Africans in America and the Obama Phenomenon.
The American Dream and the conundrum of imperialism, oppression, and captivity.
THE NEW NEGRO AND BLACK RENAISSANCE: HARLEM AND THE ROLE OF THE ARTS IN KEEPING THE DREAM ALIVE.
The HARLEM RENAISSANCE
The movement of Southern blacks to Northern cities, the emergence of radical thought, and the publication of black magazines set the stage for the Harlem Renaissance, when black writers produced some of the most profound literary, dramatic and musical works. The Jazz age was a part of this phenomenon and in many ways, Harlem was the place to be. The era presaged hope in spite of racial, class and sex discrimination, prejudice and exclusion. New opportunities emerged and injustices were challenged with renewed vigor, due to the hope that they could be eradicated or reduced. There was an efflorescence of music, fiction, poetry and art, an exploration of the foundations of African American thought, and ethos by African Americans coming from the South in the Great Migration and people of African descent from the Caribbean who flocked into Harlem, Washington, DC, Philadelphia, and Chicago at the turn of the twentieth century.
There was also renewed associational life, some for purely social purposes, and others to serve political ends. Two organizations are indicative of this development. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, (NAACP), and The National League of Black Men and Women, which later became the National Urban League. The NAACP was founded on February 12, 1909 to combat the problems arising from racial hatred, segregation, discrimination by working to accomplish political, social, economic and educational equality in America. The organization’s journal, Crisis, was edited by W. E. B. Du Bois. It engaged in social and political analysis and critiques, and also published literary and artistic works edited by Jessie Fauset. The NAACP thereby influenced the development of a vibrant black intellectual culture. It nurtured a burgeoning race consciousness and the emergence of "The New Negro," deliberately focused on African American expressions and explications of the circumstances of human existence as it directly affected them. The National Urban League was founded on September 29, 1910. Unlike the NAACP, it was not as overtly political but focused on addressing cultural issues. Its journal, Opportunity was published by Charles Johnson, whose secretary was Ethel Ray Nance.
While the men of the Harlem Renaissance are best known, there were also formidable women, including GEORGIA DOUGLAS JOHNSON, (September 10, 1880 - May 14, 1966). She was a poet and writer, as well as frequent contributor to The Crisis, the NAACP journal. Johnson wrote the following poem in 1922:
The right to make my dreams come true
I ask, nay, I demand of life,
Nor shall fate's deadly contraband
Impede my steps, nor countermand.
Too long my heart against the ground
Has beat the dusty years around,
And now, at length, I rise, I wake!
And stride into the morning break![xv]
Johnson affirms the right to make her dreams come true. She presents dreaming as an inspirational process that motivates the dreamer to break through all impediments and aspire, act, accomplish, all fearlessly.
Zora Neale Hurston (January 7, 1903 - January 28, 1960), writer and folklorist said of Dreams:
Arna Bontemps (Oct. 13, 1902, Alexandria, La.-June 4, 1973, Nashville, Tenn.) was an American writer and poet who depicted the lives and struggles of black Americans.[xvii] Bontemps said of dreams: “Let us keep the dance of rain our fathers kept and tread our dreams beneath the jungle sky.”[xviii]
Claude McKay (Sept. 15, 1890, Jamaica, British West Indies—May 22, 1948, Chicago)was a Jamaican writer and poet of the Harlem Renaissance. First Commumist, disillusioned, and then Roman Catholic. He was a quintessential race man who was fiercely committed to racial upliftment for black people, unabashedly proud of his black heritage. In this sense, he evokes Banneker who declared his pride in Black heritage in his letter to Jefferson, and is a precursor to the 60s and 70s Black Power revolution whose motto James Brown popularized in his music: “Say it Loud: I’m Black and Proud!” McKay’s Home to Harlem (1928) was a best seller in his time. The novel however attracted harsh criticism from WEB DuBois as dirty and pitched to the prurient interest in the sexual. DuBois famously said reading the novel made him want to take a bath. McKay had earlier (before coming to the US) written two books “of Jamaican dialect verse, Songs of Jamaica and Constab Ballads (1912).”[xix]
One of McKay’s sayings that could relate to dreams include: “Idealism is like a castle in the air if it is not based on a solid foundation of social and political realism.”[xx] For McKay then, to the extent that ideals are informed by dreams, they can amount to very little if not supported b social and political action.
Langston Hughes, (1902-1967) Harlem Renaissance writer and poet, was one of the more notable writers during this time. Known for his portrayal of black life in his work, Hughes’ success was partly due to his ability to effectively capture the essence of the black experience. One of his most famous sayings on dreams comes from his classic, A Raisin in the Sun: “What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up - like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore - And then run? Does it stink like rotten meat? Or crust and sugar over - like a syrupy sweet? Maybe it just sags - like a heavy lead.” When one delays on the gratification of a dream, the danger is that the dream may never take off. It may rot, ooze like a wound, create a horrible stench, scab over, or weigh one down in perpetuity.
MARY MCLEOD BETHUNE
Mary McLeod Bethune (July 10, 1875 - May 18, 1955) was an educator, racial justice activist and New Deal government official. She was a valiant advocate of better educational opportunities for African Americans. She was the President of the National Association of Colored Women and founder of the National Council of Negro Women. She also founded the Bethune-Cookman College. She was a member of FDR's "black cabinet." According to Bethune: “I do feel, in my dreamings and yearnings, so undiscovered by those who are able to help me.” This statement probably resonates with many African Americans and other marginalized people who over the years, long for social inclusion, racial, economic and political justice, but wait in vain for help from those already within the system, able to help, but unaware of their responsibility to step up to the plate, or unwilling to help. Bethune also said:
“For I am my mother's daughter, and the drums of Africa still beat in my heart. They will not let me rest while there is a single Negro boy or girl without a chance to prove his worth.” This quote does not overtly express a dream but a restlessness to fulfill an obligation--helping marginalized African American youth to realize their full potential. Bethune’s commitment to African America youth is also expressed in the quotes: “We have a powerful potential in our youth, and we must have the courage to change old ideas and practices so that we may direct their power toward good ends.” And “There is a place in God's sun for the youth "farthest down" who has the vision, the determination, and the courage to reach it.”[xxi] As I see it, there is no point dreaming if one does not believe that the youth is central to the plans to create a better world. Mary McLeod Bethune recognized this and made this an essential part of her life’s work. Her role as an educator is the most consistent expression of this commitment.
The Civil Rights Movement: MLK & his precursors - Standing on the shoulders of the Moses generation
- Individual resistance against Cruel Masters or Overseer
The quintessential Moses-who led Black people out of slavery to freedom through the underground railroad was a woman. Harriet Tubman (1822-1913) who was born into slavery, but escaped and was the foremost guide that led others out of slavery into freedom. Tubman earned the name “Moses” from her contemporaries. She also was a soldier during the American Civil War, a women’s rights activist and manifested an uncompromising thirst for liberty. The American Dream was a dream of Freedom. According to Tubman: “I grew up like a neglected weed -- ignorant of liberty, having no experience of it.” Going from slavery to freedom may not necessarily yield immediate gratification. In Tubman’s words, she had to grapple with the un-familiar as a free woman, and thus, said: “I had crossed the line. I was free; but there was no one to welcome me to the land of freedom. I was a stranger in a strange land.” But in she also said: “I had reasoned this out in my mind, there was one of two things I had a right to, liberty or death; if I could not have one, I would have the other.” This declared unequivocally, Tubman’s commitment to abolitionism, demonstrated in her aforementioned commitment to the Underground Railroad.
Again, drawing from the MLK speech made for the march on Washington,
THE RADICAL RESPONSE: THE PANTHERS, MALCOLM X
One could see the slave insurrections, revolts and rebellions as precursors of the radical response within the Black freedom movement. The Black Panther Party for Self Defense and the Malcolm X will be taken as exemplifying the radical response in the 20th century. The Black Panther Party was founded in Oakland California, October 1966 by a group of people led by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale. The Panthers’ ideology of militant self-defense against the racist government and institutions of the United States advocated armed struggle, revolutionary socialism, mass organizing and community based programs. While their ideals were not always realized in fact, the Black Panthers were trailblazers who sought economic, political and social equality through positive organized and militant action by the oppressed across racial, ethnic, class and gender lines. [xliv]
Malcolm X too was pursued relentlessly by the US government and its agents, and finally was executed by forces sponsored by the FBI. As with the Black Panthers, Malcolm X would seem to be the last person to conceive as having a dream. He spoke of the need for Black Nationalism, he spoke of the necessity to mobilize an armed military struggle against all forms of oppression, economic, political, and social. He advocated self-help as a corrective to government neglect and hostility. He also advocated freedom of conscience. But he dreamed, and the dream was that through this mobilization, African Americans would be liberated from a racist political system that had also pushed them to the margins and fringes of the economy. For him, all forms of discrimination should be fought at all times until complete freedom was accomplished.
Africans in America and intraracial identity – an evolving story - The Old and New African Diaspora, emphasis on Obama's Kenya origin: continuity and change