The Emergence of the Newer Negro

aaron douglas art work

Well, I lied.

I said I was going to wait until after August 16th to drop a post, but I lied.  Circumstances dictated otherwise.

My heart was ceremoniously grieved and broken when a couple of weeks ago Fly With Bats had posted something a new single called “Whip It Like A Slave.”  And of course it gave me pause.  I was glad to see that FreshXpress Blog had a repost of an article originally on about the “crisis of coonery” surrounding this new single.

I mean, it’s official that we’ve taken this to another level.  I guess bitches and hoes weren’t enough.  I guess it wasn’t enough having lyrics ever seeking revenge through a .9mm.  I guess talking about how good the pussy and the dick were wasn’t enough.  I guess talking about the Chevy that’s “clean on the inside and cream on the outside” was enough.  I guess it wasn’t enough to just “hop out the bed and turn my swag on.”  I guess it just wasn’t enough.  No, we have to now, “whip it like a slave.”

This is some official fried chicken and watermelon ish!

I could go on and on and on and on about where the hell we have come, but that would be beating a dead horse–or whipping a slave–just totally redundant.  Instead, I’m interested in the emergence of the Newer Negro.

The New NegroIn 1925 when Alain Locke published The New Negro half essay of the same title and half anthology of poems and other essays and fiction writing, most historians realised that something new had emerged.  There was a collective uprising, in the era of culture within the black community.  For the first time, blacks were merging the African with the American in a tangible way on all levels of culture that for the first time drew the interest of white Americans.  Of course even in the antebellum period there was always a culture associated with blacks, but from approximately 1920 through the end of World War II, there was a concentrated effort pouring from northern African Americans in the various fields of literature, drama, music, visual art, dance, philosophy, history and sociology.  As a result, we have what we commonly recognize as the Harlem Renaissance.

It was an inward turn to our own communities for guidance and leadership.  We took our cultural cues from a non-commercialized source.  In the 1920s, 30s and 40s, blacks owned our own grocery stores, banks, clothing stores, mercantiles, meat markets–you name it, we owned it.  We had our own publishing companies, magazines, we did it big and we did it bad.  We turned over our money in our own community.  Media that we received was disseminated by us and for our community.  Just think about the plethora of black owned newspapers in the country in circulation in the 1920s.  Not to mention the number of magazines that began publishing essays and poems and short stories outside the purview of white conglomerates.  We did so because we had to.  No white media outlet was giving blacks en masse the time of day.  To the large white community we were still a novelty, and for some an aberration.  The only way to create the Harlem Renaissance was from within.

Lift Every Voice and SingAs a result we did well and produced works too many to name for the sake of this blog and we produced the greats like Zora Neale Hurston, Josephine Baker, Ella Fitzgerald, Claude McKay, Langston Hughes, Duke Ellington, Alain Locke, E. Franklin Frazier, James Weldon Johnson just to name the big timers, and not to mention largely unheard people like Arna Bontemps, Sterling Brown, or Aaron Douglas.  What makes me swell with pride is that although some of the work of these people got national platforms from the ever benevolent white person to open doors for them like Carl Van Vechten, they still did it for the sake of wider community.  Their work was meant to speak to a larger mass of coloreds just like them.  Yes, while some of them did it for the sake of proving to whites that we were indeed human and a part of the “native land” of America just as much as they were, there still was some of their work that pointed back to the community while looking forward into the future.

But with the emergence of the newer Negro, we have art work that tells me to “whip it like a slave.”

I mean, damn.

That’s just demoralizing on a level that I can’t even wrap my mind around.  Is this what we fought for?  Is this what it has all amounted to?  And for the record, I’m taking the side of black conservative John McWhorter on this one that clearly, if this is what hip hop is producing for mass consumption, there’s no way in hell a revolution is going to be started and by all accounts hip hop will not be saving black Americans any time soon!

The newer Negro is not like the New Negro.  You see Newer Negro stands on the side of history with integration and unbridled capitalism.  In 2009, it’s all about how you look.  Just like that old commercial with the guy riding around on his lawn mower telling all about his trappings of success and he finally says “and I’m up to my eyeballs in debt.”  These young people are all about appearance and no substance.  Don’t get me wrong, in the 1920s, it was very much about going out to the clubs and wearing the latest zoot suit and what young woman had on a low cut dress and the hem line being above the knee, but all of that operated in tandem with those that were producing great cultural icons and contributing to the forward movement of a generation.

omar tyree urban novelNowadays, your average 18-30 year old in black America would be hard pressed to name contemporary greats in a roll call fashion like you could in the Harlem Renaissance.  And the 18 and under demographic–you can forget it on all accounts.  Hell, even this uppity Negro of this blog couldn’t readily rattle off the names of contemporary black dancers, or poets or most certainly not visual artists.  One glimmer of hope, and I believe it’s merely a glimmer, is that I personally do celebrate the black urban literature in the form of an Omar Tyree, E. Lynn Harris or Sister Souljah and who could forget Eric Jerome Dickey and even Terry McMillan.  I’m pretty sure if you interviewed these people you wouldn’t hear much in the idea of community uplift.  Their comments, I would assume, would be along the lines of “you don’t hear about blacks in this ________ situation, and I wanted to be the voice that spoke for the black community on such slice of life issues as this.”

Meh, not the end of the world, but the one’s I listed are among the ones I’d be much more ready to consider substantive literature.  I mean walk into your local Borders or Barnes and Nobles and you can see Ernest GainesA Lesson Before Dying next to some book entitled Thug Lovin’ that looks like it got printed in someone’s basement printing press.  To which I say, come on y’all.

david talbertAnother glimmer is this era of gospel plays.  While many people are criticizing the likes of Tyler Perry or David Talbert, I must applaud them for their effort.  Generally it’s easy to see some overarching theme of uplift throughout the play.  Usually these productions appeal to the sense of family and community to pull through whatever the problem presented in the play.  And I rather like that.  Interestingly enough, the audience knows what’s right, they always clap after some sappy line that’s supposed to provide the epiphany for the antagonist of the play or sometimes for the protagonist.

All of that being said, I don’t think the New Negro would be pleased at their progeny of the Newer Negro.  And frankly, neither am I!

Some will say it’s because we don’t live in an era that’s ripe for a movement or revolution of the same caliber as in the 1960s and that’s most certainly the truth and indisputable in my opinion.  However, even if we live in this rarefied era, a time and space that isn’t where the action takes place, let’s remember that civil rights in this country had been going on in this country since the 1600s and the first Africans brought to this country realized they were slaves and did what they could to get out of it.  The modern decades of the 1950s and 1960s was just a mere culmination of a series of events that had been in place for nearly 350 years.  So as the epoch goes through the process of rarefaction yet again let us realize that we, this generation and every successive one afterwards is laying the foundation and the groundwork for yet another some sort of civil reckoning at some point in our existence.

Will it be like it was in the 1960s?  I hope not.  We were fighting a horse of an entirely different color.  The issues that face black Americans today may have their roots in the social thought and consciousness of the 1960s but today’s problems, some of which weren’t even remotely an issue (think HIV/AIDS), must be attacked differently than that of Jim Crow and blatant segregation.  For me that means that much of our message needs to change.

It goes without saying that the lyrics of pop-Hip Hop, or the ring tone friendly hooks are simply atrocious, but even that of what’s considered “conscious” hip hop maybe needs to be re-evaluated.  Also, the traditional thought to approach civil rights issues per the NAACP and most certainly from the Concerned Clergy of ________ (insert any metropolitan city in this country) and the fact that they generally only trot out when it’s time to be in front of the camera–that’s fine, but they do no footwork when the camera is off.

The message needs to change.

I think the Harlem Renaissance is a workable model however.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we had enclaves where young blacks could go off and be around each other and engage in cultural activities like they did in the Harlem Renaissance?  Where you could go away from some people peering over your shoulder and hone your skills and your craft and have somewhere where there were resources at your disposal to—

Oh wait, it’s called HBCUs.

I digress, we’ve just got to do better.  I’m sick and damn tired of us losing at every turn.  It pains me literally to hear about this latest delve into sheer coonery.  Our ancestors wouldn’t be pleased, and dammit, I’m not either.

What do you think should happen concerning a resurgence of young black social consciousness?  Has Lil’ Wayne lost it completely or was this some high-powered execs idea of a cruel joke with Wayne lookin’ a fool?!?

Keep it uppity and keep it truthfully radical, JLL

7 thoughts on “The Emergence of the Newer Negro

  1. Good post.

    Thanks for reminding us of where we’ve been and how we got there. Progress is a wonderful though some of us, maybe unconsciously, choose to allow ourselves to be exploited for explicit ‘bling’. It is encouraging to be reflective about our past. Survival during the ‘bad old days’ is a good way to educate and reinforce the fact that we owe each other the respect that we want from others. Choose respect.

    This is why it is imperative that each of us strives mightily to ‘present’ each time we are given the opportunity to do so. All is not lost when we fail along the way. The way is long and usually allows the chance to correct along the way. That is what IMO we are required to do for others and ourselves.

    Because our exterior visible self opens or closes the venue of opportunity to ‘present’, we must not allow our truly personal wants to interfere with the work that we have to do. The stories of Black men proudly dressing up in white shirt and tie to go to work even when the jobs job was considered menial clearly reinforces that perception becomes reality when we believe that we can make a difference. The old adage of being the ‘best street sweeper’ made sense as did having to work twice as hard and/or be twice as smart to get half as far still makes sense.

    It seems that the need to overcome, on some level, has petered out to be not so much to ‘fight the power’ but to fight whoever does not agree with me in whatever capacity I find myself. In other words, IMO, we practice fighting each other and expending a great deal of creative energy with mediocre differences rather than coalescing around the bigger collective issues that need addressing in our communities.

    The way we speak, the way we respond, or fail to, reflect the way we have turned to the ‘me’ rather than the ‘we.’ The old ‘crabs in a barrel’ syndrome is alive, and still a bad way to deal with our individual and collective responsibility to each other.

    If we want our young people to act appropriately and we do not model appropriate speech, dress, behavior among our own peers and elders, whom should we hold accountable? We are all flawed individuals, and in far too many situations, we expect others to do as we say do rather than doing what needs to be done ourselves for those who do not know what to do.

    Uppity is a state of mind that drives us to do what is appropriate to do, even when it is hard to do so.

    Keep being Uppity.

  2. I had to verbally undress a student yesterday for his repeated use of the n-word; “I was only singing a song?” First, he was Latino, but his primary audience was Black. While 98% of the class by now had gotten hip to my language expectation, this young man didn’t seem to get it. Of course he is one who’s always late, comes to school with nothing, and hasn’t a clue about what we do each day, but that’s another story for another time (but fits with his lazy, limited vocabulary). This is a fight that’s gotten worse since my early teaching days in the mid 90’s. What I find myself saying more regularly is “I apologize for those adults in your life who’ve led you to believe that language is acceptable.” This is as polite as I can be in calling their parents/family/neighborhood BAD EXAMPLES.

    When you experience young mothers using this language both around their children and TO their children you should not be surprised by the DEVOLUTION that’s occurred among our deep urban-core Blacks. We can build a myspace page but cannot research an essay or historical event; we can text on a Sidekick but couldn’t find a-s-d-f j-k-l-; on a keyboard if the keys bit our fingers. Math? I’ve often told my students I would love own a Mom&Pop grocery where you live, ’cause I’d take yo’ money every day and you wouldn’t know it!

    I’ve posited for many years part of the solution would be a ‘reverse migration’ of striving, educated Blacks into the ‘hood, reconstructing that Harlem-Renaissance community in all our urban cities. Courageous may not be strong enough a word because in many ways they’d suffer the same battles that their parents and grandparents did integrating neighborhoods and schools during the onset of the 50’s-60’s civil rights era. This is an epic challenge that is part of the core, defining challenge our community faces.

  3. I rather enjoyed your post, particularly the New Negro vs. Newer Negro distinction.

    I’ll try to keep it brief but what find interesting about The New Negro publication that you mentioned in your post is that the editor Alaine Locke, being the intellectual elitist that he was, consciously chose not to include certain elements of black culture that he viewed as not highlighting the best of black culture. As a result, the blues, early rock and roll, and some forms of Jazz were left out of the collection, leaving the voice of more sensual and risqué black expressions in the cold. Locke’s thinking was that this collection needed to convince White people of the equality of black cultural work with white ones. However, the exclusion of music that highlighted or told the truth about everyday Black Love sent a negative message about black love relations etc. This has subsequently become a major critique of the work,

    My point is simply that even the Harlem Renaissance had trouble understanding how to engage popular black culture or the world of everyday, ordinary black people. One of the victories of contemporary black intellectual life is its willingness to take popular, dare I say low cultural expressions like Hip Hop seriously, and not write it off as the buffoonery of the masses. Whether we like it or not, the stories tell a story of how urban life is and worst, what urban aspirations are. And if I’m honest this discourages me and causes me to wonder about the future. However, I realize all the stories need to be told, for better or worse and I as concerned individual need to do a better job making the message of social uplift more accessible and sexy to all who will listen.

    So as we attempt to save the Newer Negro whose mind is lost in the ditch of despair and destruction, let us be mindful that we are throwing down a rope and not a shovel.

    Please keep up the Good Work!

    1. @ The Critical Cleric

      As always. The sign of a true uppity Negro and not an elitist one is the ability to lend a hand up.

  4. Uppity, I like your response:

    ‘The sign of a true uppity Negro and not an elitist one is the ability to lend a hand up.’

    Ergo, Jesus is a true uppity Negro!

    Stay uppity, use a ladders (ropes make me think of nooses) and not shovels. We’ve been dumped on enough while doing too much of the dumping.

  5. Great post. I’m in one of those young age demographics that you bemoan, I see examples of this “ghetto foolishness” all the time. And it’s not always from black folks. Other races have taken to imitating what they “think” is “acting black,” merely because it is the stereotype. Growing up I attended predominantly white high schools, and I found that the most jacked up kids, the ones talking the most trash, and just overall acting a fool, were white. Straight from the suburbs. Meanwhile, the few black kids we had were the brainiacs. I thought it was an interesting trend.

    I can’t believe people who call themselves “musicians” would release something like that. Who told them it was okay to do this? Although I wouldn’t actually be surprised if the single “took off” and BET put it on heavy rotation but beeped out the “slave.” So the song would just be “Whip It Like A.” And everyone would be running around singing along, not knowing or caring that there was an omitted word.

    Yet another reason why I don’t listen to this garbage.

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