Here's the difference this time around. It's not that there are black artists and intellectuals who matter; it's that so many of the artists and intellectuals who matter are black. It's not that the cultural cutting edge has been influenced by black creativity; it's that black creativity, it so often seems today, is the cultural cutting edge. But be advised: the idea of a black American renaissance has a long and curious history, having been declared at least three times before in this century.
Writing in 1901, the distinguished black critic and poet William Stanley Braithwaite argued, "We are at the commencement of a 'negroid' renaissance," one that "will have as much importance in literary history as the much- spoken-of and much-praised Celtic and Canadian renaissance." Others came to share his optimism. Just three years later, a critic declared the birth of the "New Negro Literary Movement." At the time, after all, the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, the novelists Pauline Hopkins and Charles Chesnutt, and the essayists W.E.B. DuBois and Anna Julia Cooper were at the height of their creative powers. So this was no reckless appraisal.
A couple of decades later, it was the "Harlem Renaissance" that would lay the best-publicized claim to the word. This highly self-conscious movement was born largely through the midwifery of Alain Locke, the first black Rhodes scholar. Writers such as Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, Countee Cullen, Jessie Fauset and Zora Neale Hurston -- the fundaments of the black literary canon today -- came of age at this time, leading the New York Herald Tribune to announce in 1925 that America was "on the edge, if not already in the midst, of what might not improperly be called a Negro renaissance."
For Locke and his fellow authors, the point of a cultural renaissance was inherently political; it was thought that the production of great art by sufficient numbers of blacks would lead to the Negro's "re-evaluation by white and black alike." This re-evaluation would, in turn, facilitate the Negro's demand for civil rights and for social and economic equality. But the Harlem Renaissance was heavily dependent upon white patronage; after the stock market crash of 1929, it never regained its footing. Besides, the writers of the movement were really a tiny group, numbering perhaps 50, who, in Locke's view, represented "the Negro's cultural adolescence." Not only were their dreams of political advancement to remain unfulfilled, but in terms of formal literary achievement, they mostly failed to raise their art to its adulthood.
The third renaissance was the Black Arts Movement, which extended from the mid-'60s to the early '70s. Defining itself against the Harlem Renaissance and deeply rooted in black cultural nationalism, the Black Arts writers imagined themselves as the artistic wing of the Black Power movement. Amiri Baraka, Larry Neal and Sonia Sanchez viewed black art as a matter less of aesthetics than of protest; its function was to serve the political liberation of black people from white racism. Erected on a shifting foundation of revolutionary politics, this "renaissance" was the most short-lived of all. By 1975, with the Black Arts Movement dead, black culture seemed to be undergoing a profound identity crisis.