The Next Harlem Renaissance Is Happening Online
By Cameron Glover
Like many Black artists and creators, I use my work to seek community and identity. Through art, I can forge a connection to people like me, and satisfy my need for a sense of belonging. Some of my creative heroes, like Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes, looked for that self-discovery by spending time in other countries; they needed to travel far from their hometowns to find the freedom their stories needed to be told. Part of me wants to do the same. But part of me wonders: Do Black artists still need to leave our community in order to find it?
Artists across various mediums — writing, visual arts, acting, and the like — have longed to find themselves through their art. But for marginalized artists, and especially artists of color, there’s a particular drive for finding identity through their work. Access and privilege allowing, travel has been a way for many artists of color to find themselves in their work, by seeking refuge in places beyond their homeland.
For me, it’s impossible for me to separate my identity as a Black woman from the work that I create. In writing, I find myself and my voice; I imagine worlds yet to manifest and the connection that I may be lacking in my everyday life. In writing, I am free beyond restrictions and apology. Rediscovering the work of authors like Hurston and Hughes has been like uncovering the hidden words of my own spirit; reading their words is a feeling of both seeing my reflection and finding my way home. For them, travel was crucial for their own journey to self-discovery. I sense in myself that same longing to experience sights and sounds that differ wildly from the ones I know best. This juxtaposition may help me to uncover a deeper sense of myself as a Black American, the way it helped Hurston and Hughes. But I’m also apprehensive.
Do I truly need to travel to the farthest reaches of the world to write my story when I could very well do so from my own desk?
Langston Hughes once said, “There’s a certain amount of traveling in a dream deferred.” Like many prominent artists and writers of the Harlem Renaissance — that period in the 1920s and 1930s when Black artists were enthusiastically celebrating Black identity through the arts and reclaiming our own spaces — Hughes spent time living in Paris. For them, this was the ultimate rebellion. Living in the epicenter of Eurocentric sophistication and rising beyond it to secure a place for themselves in the arts was not for the faint of heart. It was a means to escape to magical realism in the flesh — not in the hopes of escaping racism and discrimination, but for the possibility of experiencing something more significant. There was little hope to be able to accomplish this back in the United States, and so packing their bags wasn’t as hard as it once seemed.
The Harlem Renaissance was one of the first times where Black identity was celebrated rather than shunned. In this newfound freedom, artists were able to explore intersections of class, sex, and fiction that couldn’t have been done without this unique safe space they brought forth. For Black creatives, several things have not changed since that time. We still seek Black identity through our art, and Blackness is still an important factor to connect with the work we produce.
But Black creatives of today have an additional network that the artists of the Renaissance did not have: We are connected to each other virtually. The power of social media and blogging platforms has shifted how we view our work; no longer a single entity, it can exist in a world beyond our own and in concert with narratives of others as a virtual conversation. Though travel is still valuable for those with the privilege to do so, it’s no longer required for Black creatives to physically immerse themselves in cultures outside of their own for their work to be celebrated on a larger community scale.
Paris, in particular, has lost some of its luster for artists. From the continent’s economic issues to the very violent attacks on Parisian citizens, Paris has since ceased being a place where creatives long to walk its streets to be inspired.
And yet . . . the longing to travel still exists.
I believe that this longing will always be there, in some manifestation. This isn’t because we wish for the financial and leisure privilege that makes travel easy and enriching. Instead, it’s because creativity and community are intertwined. Community is necessary for our work to have life beyond our own pages or computer screens. We need others to celebrate and consume our work. It’s that longing for community that birthed the Harlem Renaissance itself, and continues to inspire movements across art and activism today.
Racism and discrimination exist in both worlds, but Black art was never about centralizing our stories within white gazes. It was about reclamation, and discovering a world where creativity and perseverance reigned rather than ignorance. There is a pressure now for Black creatives to embody worldliness and wisdom without necessarily having the scope of travel to shape that viewpoint. And that pressure stems from ugly discrimination which, at its core, is set on having us remain shackled to its system. But we are more than that. In choosing creativity, we’ve already taken the first steps toward transcending to something beyond the smallness of our lives. And that’s without the need to take a step anywhere on the outside.
For many creatives of color, community and family are paramount connections that we can never hope to shake. They are just as important to us as our individual identities. And our communities go beyond the borders of any one country; stories by Black creatives aren’t limited to the tragedies on American soil.
In today’s artistic climate, however, we have a new outlet for these restrictions. Social media gives us hyperawareness of global issues, yet it’s easy for those in the Western world to remain closed off from our connection to the rest of the world. And with this hyperawareness of tragedy across foreign regions, is it even possible for Black creatives to find solace in a physical place like the artists of the past did in Paris?
The idea of a central, physical landmark to continue where the Harlem Renaissance left off — a new Paris for today’s Black artists — is inspiring. But I think in contemporary society, we have transcended past a physical place. The world has changed — even these places once seen as utopian retreats can fall victim to tragedy. However, by evolving our connections to utilize the tools we have at our disposal, we can begin to shift it in ways that creatives who came before us wouldn’t have imagined.
In short, the contemporary Black creative finds their community in the web connected digitally, not physically. And that in itself is a radical act.