“The story of African Americans was crafted anew into a poignant commentary on individual and group progress under great pressure, a story that over time became one of the most compelling of American narratives.” ––Dr. Clement Alexander Price
September 2013 represents the landmark 10th anniversary of the publication of the groundbreaking Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance (Facts on File, 2003) co-authored by educator Sandra L. West and featuring a foreword by Dr. Clement Alexander Price, founder and director of the Institute on Ethnicity, Culture, and the Modern Experience at Rutgers University, Newark Campus, New Jersey. Almost seemingly as if in honor of that event, on August 29 President Barack Obama announced his intent to appoint Dr. Price to the position of Vice Chairman of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation.
While the Harlem Renaissance has long been one of the most studied periods in African-American history, until the publication of Facts on File’s encyclopedia––the first such volume the subject–– most of the focus was on the literature, art, and music of the period. The encyclopedia expanded that focus by placing an equal degree of emphasis on the political and social aspects of the era, which blends seamlessly with the jazz age, modernism, and prohibition timeframe.
In Honor of Ancestors
Among the authors’ achievements with the title was the fact that it allowed them to pay tribute to a number of Harlem Renaissance icons who were still living when it was first published, but who have since passed on. These included the following:
The Harlem Renaissance itself, as Dr. Price notes in his foreword to Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance, marked an extraordinary period of transformation (not wholly unlike that created by the current digital age) fueled largely by the sweeping forces of American and world history, as well as by what the great educator W.E.B. Du Bois referred to as “the talented tenth.” Like the current epoch, it incorporated society-changing technological innovations, major demographic shifts, and a number of political initiatives that tested the definition and application of democracy in the world:
“The coterie of talented blacks in the arts and culture, business, and intellectual life who helped to recast the image of black Americana was actually part of a larger stream of black urbanites whose lives were challenged by the legacies of slavery, its blunt realities found in the 20th-century, when many other ethnic groups in the nation moved forward,” Price notes. “Most blacks during the period lived on the margins of urban America, barred from the best employment, subject to daily racial slights and other manifestations of injustice and the society’s obsession with maintaining their social inferiority.”
The Renaissance as Counter-measure to Guerrilla Decontextualization
Despite the official end of slavery at the conclusion of the United States’ Civil War in 1865, varying degrees of widespread overt social and political oppression based solely on race lasted well into the latter part of the 20th century. A substantial part of what made such heinous practices possible was a form of guerrilla decontextualization that erased the actual histories and realities of people of African descent. Slaves were not recognized or acknowledged as the founders of ancient kingdoms, exceptional artists and warriors, spiritual philosophers whose teachings influenced the Greeks and Romans, or as skilled farmers whose genius for cultivating rice crops made plantation owners in the South wealthy.
These histories were replaced with the kind of deliberate misinformation and distorted facts that make guerrilla decontextualization so damaging in contemporary times (particularly as employed in the realm of digital media). Pseudo-scientific theories such as eugenics touted the inferiority of Blacks, and certain Biblical texts were appropriated to justify and verify such beliefs.
NEXT: Text and Meaning in Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance (part 2 of 3)
author of The Wisdom of W.E.B. Du Bois
and co-author of ELEMENTAL, The Power of Illuminated Love
Celebrating the 10th Anniversary of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance
Supporter of principles advocated by PEN American Center and the Academy of American Poets, Aberjhani is also the Choice Academic Title Award-winning co-author of the world's first Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance.