When I think of all the groundbreaking works that have come from artists of black descent over the past decade, it reminds me deeply of the Harlem Renaissance. It was a period spanning the 1920s during which the most soon-to-be-prolific writers, musicians and artists created social, political and intellectual work that was central to the black experience. In the words of Alain Locke, the first African-American Rhodes Scholar, it was “a spiritual coming of age” when these artists utilized their “first chances for group expression and self-determination.”
The era produced so many of the famed artists we look up to today. Literature bloomed because of Langston Hughes, Claude Mckay and Zora Neale Hurston. A love for jazz was felt all over Harlem and across the United States due to the successes of the sounds provided by Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, Adelaide Hall and Ethel Waters. Painters such as Aaron Douglas and intellectuals such as Marcus Garvey were also fixtures of this time period. It was really the era of the “new negro,” a time that caused a revolution when black creatives took control of their narratives and celebrated their stories.
It’s not far-fetched to say that we are in the middle of a black renaissance today. There is a prominence of black art, black culture and black power. Whether it’s TV shows, theater or Billboard charts, the work of black people is being seen, shown and highlighted. Various popular series and movies center around characters who are black, including Shonda Rhimes’ “Scandal,” ABC’s “Blackish,” the popular “Black Panther,” Donald Glover’s “Atlanta” and Issa Rae’s “Insecure.” Musical projects by black artists are getting love too, as evidenced by the critical acclaim of Beyonce’s “Homecoming” album and Netflix documentary, the nominations and wins of black artists at award shows and multiple number one album debuts. And groundbreaking writers Edwidge Danticat and Warsan Shire should not be forgotten either.
But with public demonstrations of culture comes the possibility of appropriation and even pandering. The act of televising— also meant to mean publicizing or making accessible— can have negative implications and seems to be the fate of all black liberation movements. The Harlem Renaissance had critics too; there was pressure within certain groups at the time to conform to their white and conservative audience in order to be accepted into the mainstream. Even some of the most popular nightclubs such as the Cotton Club, which hosted black musicians such as Duke Ellington, had a whites-only audience even though it was still heralded in the black community.
Today, we can still see the same manifestations of televising. Though black characters have been central to many of Hollywood’s most acclaimed films, including “The Help” and “Django Unchained,” many viewers have complained that the most awarded movies portray black people as lesser than their white counterparts. Because our culture and heritage is revered in our music and social media presences, our likeness is constantly being sought after, whether it is stealing ideas and content from black creators, donning black hairstyles and receiving credit for them or just simply “blackfishing,” a contemporary term for when people darken their skin and amplify their features to appear black. Non-black people have been feeding off the energy of the new black renaissance, and we must take note.
In the midst of the violence that black bodies face at the hands of law enforcement and the political turmoil of a country divided, more than ever black folks need to continue our artistic expressions. This artistry is our source of pride and honor, but we must remember that it is ours and no one else’s, and that it’s our duty to act fiercely to protect it.
Kay-Ann Henry is a junior majoring in journalism and minoring in creative writing and sociology.