Depictions of the banjo in the visual arts and literature of the Harlem Renaissance are reflective of both the banjo’s painful associations with black-face minstrelsy and its importance as a source of reclaimed heritage for Afro-Americans of the time. The Harlem Renaissance was a rebirth in a literal sense of what Alain Locke called “The New Negro.” This rebirth ushered in a new era of cultural pride and raised complicated questions of identity. Some writers believed that Afro-American folk culture was too closely associated with minstrelsy to be of use, while others like Arthur A. Schomburg believed that “the ambition of the Negro youth can be nourished on its own milk.” Examination of the banjo’s depiction in the literature and art of this era can help uncover attitudes toward these complex questions of identity. Primary source material such as Jim Crow-era minstrel imagery and journals published during the Harlem Renaissance will be the main sources referenced, including work by Claude McKay and Paul Lawrence Dunbar. My research suggests that the literature of the Harlem Renaissance largely treats the banjo with an ambivalence that ultimately left the decision of whether to shun or to embrace the banjo, and by extension folk culture as a whole, up to readers. In a time when most Americans assume that the banjo is a product of European tradition, the issue of reinstating Afro-American culture to its rightful place is still relevant today. There will be a demonstration of the heavily syncopated old-time banjo style.
Sarah Henson, ’09 Atlanta, GA
Sponsors: Leslie Hankins and Christina McOmber