“It was the period when the Negro was in vogue,” writes Langston Hughes in his 1940 autobiography The Big Sea about the period commonly known as the New Negro Movement or Harlem Renaissance. In this sentence, Hughes captures two key characteristics of the New Negro Movement. First, it was a period during which blackness, writ large – “The Negro” – even more than black art per se, was in fashion. In addition, the word “vogue” in this sentence is instructive. Hughes reminds us that fads are temporary, and every vogue must die; identities perish, too. New ones are born, of course, and the New Negro Movement was as much concerned with the creation of a fresh African American identity as it was with the demise of the old. “Progress” was the watchword of this movement, but every step forward demanded a look behind. More than progress, the theme of the New Negro Movement is contradiction.
In historical terms, the enormous step forward represented by the New Negro Movement cannot be overstated. The Harlem Renaissance was occasioned by the Great Migration. At the turn of the twentieth century, African Americans found themselves grappling with a host of factors that were pushing them out of the South and pulling them toward the North. The “push” factors in the South included an increasing degree of racist violence and repression; natural disasters (both a boll-weevil infestation and a drought); and a lack of viable job opportunities.