The term New Negro was often used by whites in the colonial period to designate newly enslaved Africans. Ironically, that same term began to be used at the end of the nineteenth century to measure and represent the distance that African Americans had come from the institution of slavery. Throughout the first three decades of the twentieth century, articles and books discussing the New Negro were commonplace. African-American leaders, journalists, artists, and some white Americans used the phrase to refer to a general sense of racial renewal among blacks that was characterized by a spirit of racial pride, cultural and eco self-assertion, and political militancy. William Pickens, for example, proclaimed the transformation of the "patient, unquestioning devoted semi-slave" into "the self-conscious, aspiring, proud young man" (Pickens, 1916, p. 236). While the notion of a New Negro was variously defined, it typically referred to the passing of an "old Negro," the "Uncle Tom" of racial stereotypes, and the emergence of an educated, politically and culturally aware generation of blacks.
A New Negro for a New Century (1900), a volume of historical and social essays, with chapters by Booker T. Washington and other prominent blacks, was one of the earliest of several books that sought to define the new racial personality. In subsequent decades many African Americans referred to Washington's political leadership and educational philosophy as symbolic of an accommodation that marked the "old Negro"; yet Washington's chapter, "Afro-American Education," stressed the role of education, "the grand army of school children" (p. 84), in remaking African-American consciousness. Fannie B. Williams's "Club Movement Among Colored Women in America" drew attention to the role of African-American women in the development of the "womanhood of a great nation and a great civilization," and she praised their organizations as the "beginning of self-respect and the respect" for the race (p. 404).
During the 1920s the idea of the New Negro became an important symbol of racial progress, and different political groups vied with each other over who more properly represented the new racial consciousness. Most agreed that impact of black military service during World War I, the migration of blacks to the North, and the example of blacks fighting against racial violence during the race riots of 1919 provided clear evidence of a reinvigorated African-American sense of self. Political organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the National Urban League, and the Universal Negro Improvement Association of Marcus Garvey each felt that it represented an unquenchable political and racial militancy. The group of socialist and political radicals including A. Philip Randolph and Chandler Owen, who were identified with the monthly journal Messenger and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, consistently argued that they represented the political ideas as the ideal of the New Negro.
In 1925 Alain L. Locke, a philosophy professor at Howard University and a leading promoter of black writers and artists, published an anthology The New Negro, An Interpretation. That volume proposed African-American creative artists as contenders with political spokesmen for the title of New Negro. The anthology contained contributions from such leading political leaders as W. E. B. Du Bois, Jessie Fauset, James Weldon Johnson, and Walter White of the NAACP, and Charles H. Johnson of the National Urban League, yet Locke's essays, "Enter the New Negro" and "Negro Youth Speaks," focused exclusively on a group of young writers and artists: "Youth speaks and the voice of the New Negro is heard" (Locke, 1925, p. 47). Locke offered the drawings, poetry, and prose of Aaron Douglas, Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Claude McKay, and Jean Toomer, artists who drew inspiration from the vernacular—blues, jazz, spirituals, and the folktale—as the voice of a vibrant "new psychology" (p. 3). Locke's anthology, and the subsequent work of the young artists included in it, tied the notion of the New Negro to the work of African-American artists and firmly bound the image of the New Negro to the artistic products of the Harlem Renaissance.
After the 1920s the expression New Negro passed out of fashion, largely because the spirit that it referred to was taken for granted. Subsequent generations of scholars, however, still debate which of the various political and artistic philosophies best represented the ideal of the New Negro.
Foley, Barbara. Spectres of 1919: Class and Nation in the Making of the New Negro. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003.
Locke, Alain L., ed. The New Negro, An Interpretation. New York: A. and C. Boni, 1925.
Pickens, William. The New Negro: His Political, Civil, and Mental Status, and Related Essays. New York: Neale, 1916.
Washington, Booker T., et al. A New Negro for a New Century. Chicago: American Publishing, 1900.
george p. cunningham (1996)