The Harlem Renaissance Harlem is viciousModernism. BangClash.Vicious the way it's made,Can you stand such beauty.So violent and transforming. - Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones)
The term “Harlem Renaissance” was coined in 1925, though the movement unofficially began in about 1919 (just after WWI) and continued until about the mid 1930s. Over the course of the movement, which was centered in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City, significant contributions were made in the areas of literature, drama, music, visual art, dance, sociology, historiography, and philosophy.
African American literature and arts had already begun a steady development just before the turn of the century. In the performing arts, black musical theater featured such accomplished artists as songwriter Bob Cole and composer J. Rosamond Johnson, brother of writer James Weldon Johnson. Jazz and blues music moved with black populations from the South and Midwest into the bars and cabarets of Harlem. In literature, the poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar and the fiction of Charles Chesnutt in the late 1890s were among the earliest works of African Americans to receive national recognition. By the end of World War I the fiction of James Weldon Johnson and the poetry of Claude McKay anticipated the literature that would follow in the 1920s by describing the reality of black life in America and the struggle for racial identity.
Cultural Context for the Harlem Renaissance: • Abolition of Slavery • Following the American Civil War (1860-1865), significant changes began to take place in the black community, particularly in the form of social and intellectual transformation. • A black middle class had developed by the turn of the century, fostered by increased education and employment opportunities.
World War I • WWI accelerated the changes within the black community. In particular, the war contributed to the expansion of industrialization and the emergence of a new mass culture. Moreover, a spirit of self-determination was alive and well following WWI. The Harlem Renaissance partook of this spirit.
Black Political Movements • During the 1910s a new political agenda advocating racial equality arose in the African American community, particularly in its growing middle class. Championing the agenda were black historian and sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which was founded in 1909 to advance the rights of blacks. This agenda was also reflected in the efforts of Jamaican-born black nationalist Marcus Garvey, whose “Back to Africa” movement inspired racial pride among blacks in the United States.
The Great Migration • During a phenomenon known as the Great Migration (1916-1930), hundreds of thousands of black Americans moved from an economically depressed rural South to industrial cities of the North to take advantage of the employment opportunities created by World War I.
Harlem • As more and more educated and socially conscious blacks settled in New York’s neighborhood of Harlem, it developed into the political and cultural center of black America. Harlem became a crossroads where African-Americans interacted with and expanded their contacts internationally.
The artists and intellectuals of the Harlem Renaissance found new ways to explore the historical experiences of black America and the contemporary experiences of black life in the urban North. African-American artists and intellectuals rejected merely imitating the styles of Europeans and white Americans and instead celebrated black creativity.
However, as Ezra Pound notes, “the first step of a renaissance, or awakening, is the importation of models for painting, sculpture, or writing.” We might go even further and suggest that the first step of a renaissance is the importation of models for conceiving and creating. A renaissance doesn’t happen in a vacuum. The Harlem Renaissance echoed American progressivism in its faith in democratic reform, in its belief in art and literature as agents of change, and in its almost uncritical belief in itself and its future. Moreover, the literary Renaissance was undoubtedly impacted by the work engaged in by American and European modernist authors.
Characteristics of the Harlem Renaissance: • No common literary style or political ideology defined the Harlem Renaissance. What united participants was their sense of taking part in a common endeavor and their commitment to giving artistic expression to the African American experience. Some common themes existed, such as an interest in the roots of the 20th-century African American experience in Africa and the American South, and a strong sense of racial pride and desire for social and political equality. But the most characteristic aspect of the Harlem Renaissance was the diversity of its expression.
The diverse literary expression of the Harlem Renaissance ranged from Langston Hughes’s weaving of the rhythms of African American music into his poems of ghetto life, as in The Weary Blues (1926), to Claude McKay’s use of the sonnet form as the vehicle for his impassioned poems attacking racial violence, as in “If We Must Die” (1919). McKay also presented glimpses of the glamour and the grit of Harlem life in Harlem Shadows. Countee Cullen used both African and European images to explore the African roots of black American life. In the poem “Heritage” (1925), for example, Cullen discusses being both a Christian and an African, yet not belonging fully to either tradition. Quicksand (1928), by novelist Nella Larsen, offered a powerful psychological study of an African American woman’s loss of identity, while Zora Neale Hurston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) used folk life of the black rural south to create a brilliant study of race and gender in which a woman finds her true identity.
Diversity and experimentation also flourished in the performing arts and were reflected in the blues singing of Bessie Smith and in jazz music. Jazz ranged from the marriage of blues and ragtime by pianist Jelly Roll Morton to the instrumentation of bandleader Louis Armstrong and the orchestration of composer Duke Ellington. Artist Aaron Douglas adopted a deliberately “primitive” style and incorporated African images in his paintings and illustrations.
The Harlem Renaissance appealed to a mixed audience. The literature appealed to the African American middle class and to the white book-buying public. Such magazines as The Crisis, a monthly journal of the NAACP, and Opportunity, an official publication of the Urban League, employed Harlem Renaissance writers on their editorial staff; published poetry and short stories by black writers; and promoted African American literature through articles, reviews, and annual literary prizes. As important as these literary outlets were, however, the Renaissance relied heavily on white publishing houses and white-owned magazines. In fact, a major accomplishment of the Renaissance was to push open the door to mainstream white periodicals and publishing houses, although the relationship between the Renaissance writers and white publishers and audiences created some controversy. While most African American critics strongly supported the relationship, Du Bois and others were sharply critical and accused Renaissance writers of reinforcing negative African American stereotypes. Langston Hughes spoke for most of the writers and artists when he wrote in his essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” (1926) that black artists intended to express themselves freely, no matter what the black public or white public thought.
African American musicians and other performers also played to mixed audiences. Harlem’s cabarets attracted both Harlem residents and white New Yorkers seeking out Harlem nightlife. Harlem’s famous Cotton Club carried this to an extreme, by providing black entertainment for exclusively white audiences. Ultimately, the more successful black musicians and entertainers, who appealed to a mainstream audience, moved their performances downtown.
Criticism: Schuyler Argues against “Black Art” • Vigorous debate characterized the Harlem Renaissance. Rejecting stereotypical depictions of African-American life that had dominated all the arts, Alain Locke urged black artists to incorporate the themes and styles of African art into sophisticated, genteel, modern works. But journalist George Schuyler denied that there was such a thing as “black art” or a black sensibility. In his1926 article, “The Negro Art Hokum,” Schuyler argued that black artists in America were equally as diverse as white artists, and that to expect a uniform style or subject matter was as insulting as the stereotypes that were being rejected. In a scathing response, Langston Hughes argued that for black artists to paint anything but images of African Americans was tantamount to wanting to be white.
Countee Cullen Cullen was the leading writer of the Harlem Renaissance. A dedicated craftsman, Cullen was criticized for being conventional, for using the British romantic poets as his models, and for insisting that poetry in general should be free of racial and political matters. But in his finest poem, "Heritage," he demonstrates a clear relationship to Africa. Primary Works: Color, 1925; Copper Sun, 1927; The Ballad of the Brown Girl, 1927; The Black Christ, 1929.
W.E.B. Du Bois Described variously as the "most outspoken civil rights activist in America," "the undisputed intellectual leader of a new generation of African- American, and "the central authorizing figure for twentieth-century African-American thought." As a co-founder of the NAACP and the long-time editor of its magazine The Crisis, Du Bois nurtured and promoted many young and talented African-Americans. Underlying his controversial notion of "the talented tenth," was his belief that true integration will happen when selected blacks excel in the literature and the fine arts. Primary Works : The Souls of Black Folk, 1903; Darkwater, 1920; The Gift ofthe Negro, 1924; Dark Princess: Voices from within the Veil, 1928.
Jessie Fauset Named one of the “midwives” of the Harlem Renaissance by poet Langston Hughes, Jessie Fauset began her life outside of Harlem in small, suburban middle-class community near New Jersey. An editor, poet, essayist and novelist. She was the most prolific African American novelist of the Harlem Renaissance. Primary Works: There is Confusion, 1924; Plum Bun, 1928; The Chinaberry Tree; 1931; Comedy, American Style, 1933.
Rudolph Fisher An American novelist, essayist, critic, dramatist, conversationalist, music arranger, short story writer, civic leader and volunteer Rudolph Fisher. Amazing accomplishments for a man who only wrote part-time, while maintaining his job as a doctor of roentgenology (the diagnostic and therapeutic uses of x-rays). By many accounts, Fisher may be the most gifted member of the Harlem Renaissance. Primary Works: The Walls of Jericho, 1928; The Conjure Man Dies: A Mystery Tale of Dark Harlem, 1932.
Marcus Garvey Marcus Garvey was a publisher, journalist, entrepreneur, Black nationalist, orator, and founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League (UNIA-ACL). Garvey was unique in advancing a Pan-African philosophy to inspire a global mass movement focusing on Africa known as Garveyism. Promoted by the UNIA as a movement of African redemption, Garveyism would eventually inspire others, ranging from the Nation of Islam, to the Rastafari movement. Primary Works: Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey, and Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey: Or Africa for the Africans; The Tragedy of White Injustice and Selections from the Poetic Meditations of Marcus Garvey.
Langston Hughes Hughes was the first African American author to support himself through his writing; he produced more than sixty books. He earned critical attention for his portrayal of realistic black characters and he became one of the dominant voices speaking out on issues concerning black culture. He wrote in many genres; starting and continuing with poetry, he turned to fiction, autobiographies, and children's books. Primary Works: The Weary Blues, 1926; Fine Cloths to the Jew, 1927; Four Negro Poets, 1927; The Ways of White Folks, 1934; The Big Sea, 1940.
Nella Larsen Larsen's importance as a writer is based upon her two novels; she was unable to complete a third one. She spent her last thirty years as a supervising nurse at a Brooklyn hospital. Both Quicksand and Passing are admired for their use of irony and symbolism dealing in themes of identity, passing, marginality, race consciousness, sexuality, and class distinction. Larsen became the first black woman to receive a Guggenheim fellowship for creative writing. Her novels place her as one of the best fiction writers of the 1920s. Primary Works: Quicksand, 1928; Passing, 1929; "Sanctuary,” 1930.
Alain Locke With the publication of The New Negro, Locke became the leading theoretician and strategist of the New Negro Movement. Due to the publication of this anthology, critics were forced to take black writing seriously, and it served to unite struggling black authors of that period. Locke was a self-confessed "philosophical midwife" to a generation of black artists and writers. Locke was also a leading figure in the adult education movement of the 1930s. Primary Works: The Problem of Classification in Theory Value, 1918; The New Negro: An Interpretation, 1925; The Negro in America, 1933; Negro and His Music [and]Negro Art: Past and Present, 1936.
Claude McKay A Jamaica-born writer and poet, McKay evinced an interest in communism in his early life, but after a visit to Russia, he decided that communism was too disciplined and confining. McKay’s work demonstrates a particular concern with the issues of class and of sexuality. McKay’s poetic call-to-arms, “If We Must Die,” is often viewed as an inaugural address of the Harlem Renaissance. Primary Works: Songs of Jamaica, 1911; Harlem Shadows, 1922; Home to Harlem, 1927; Banjo, 1929; Banana Bottom, 1933; Harlem: Negro Metropolis, 1940.
Jean ToomeR For many, the literary renaissance in Harlem began in 1923 with the publication of Toomer'sCane. It was hailed as a masterpiece, as a fresh voice from a very promising young writer. This publication also brought Toomer in contact with other black intellectuals. However, his spiritual quest took him away from race issues; he studied and converted to the spiritual thought of the Russian mystic GeorgiGurdjieff and spent his time lecturing on mystical doctrines. His racial ambivalence and involvement with mysticism are often understood as factors in his inability to recapture the promise of Cane. Primary Works: Cane, 1923; Essentials, 1931.
Carl Van Vechten Vechten was writer and photographer who was also a patron of the Harlem Renaissance. He authored a work of fiction born out of his experiences in Harlem entitled Nigger Heaven. As the title might suggest, the book had a complicated reception by both the black and white communities. Primary Works: Nigger Heaven; 1926.
Chronology of Important Events and Publications*: • *This is by no means an exhaustive list, but is instead intended to give you a sense of the political and cultural climate during the period of the Harlem Renaissance.
1919 • First Pan-African Congress organized by W.E.B. Du Bois; Paris, February. • Race riots in Washington, D.C.; Chicago; Charleston; Knoxville; Omaha; etc.; June to September. • Marcus Garvey founded the Black Star Shipping Line. • The Negro in Literature and Art in the United States, Benjamin Brawley
1920 • Universal Negro Improvement Association Convention; Madison Square Garden, August. • James Weldon Johnson appointed secretary of the NAACP. • Spring in New Hampshire, Claude McKay. • Darkwater, W.E.B. Du Bois. • The Emperor Jones, Eugene O’Neill. (Charles Gilpin, performer.)
1921 • Marcus Garvey founds African Orthodox Church; September. • Second Pan-African Congress. • Shuffle Along, Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake. This was the first musical revue written and performed by African Americans. Cast members included Josephine Baker and Florence Mills. Broadway’s David Belasco Theater, May 22.
1922 • Anti-lynching legislation approved by the U.S. House of Representatives. • Harlem Shadows, Claude McKay. • The Book of American Negro Poetry, James Weldon Johnson.
1923 • The National Urban League founds Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life; Charles S. Johnson, editor. • The Cotton Club opens. • Marcus Garvey arrested for mail fraud and sentenced to five years prison. • Cane, Jean Toomer. • Philosophy and Opinion of Marcus Garvey, Marcus Garvey.
1924 • The Gift of Black Folk, W. E. B. Du Bois. • There is Confusion, Jessie Fauset. • Aims and Objects for a Solution of the Negro Problem Outlined, Marcus Garvey. • All God’s Chillun Got Wings, Eugene O’Neill. (Paul Robeson, performer.)
1925 • “Harlem: Mecca of the New Negro” issue of Survey Graphic published; Alain Locke and Charles Johnson, editors. The issue is devoted entirely to black arts and letters. • Color, Countee Cullen. • Porgy, Du Bose Heyward. • The Book of American Negro Spirituals, James Weldon Johnson and J. Rosamond Johnson. • The New Negro, Alain Locke.
1926 • Savoy Ballroom opens in Harlem. • Fire!!, Wallace Thurman. • The Weary Blues, Langston Hughes. • Nigger Heaven, Carl Van Vechten. • Blues: An Anthology, W. C. Handy.
1927 • Marcus Garvey deported. • Louis Armstrong begins his career in Chicago; Duke Ellington begins his in New York. • Negro Drawings, Miguel Covarrubias. • God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse, James Weldon Johnson.
1928 • The Dark Princess, W.E.B. Du Bois • Quicksand, Nella Larson. • Plum Bun, Jessie Fauset. • Home to Harlem. Claude McKay.
1929 • Black Thursday: Stock Exchange crash. • The Black Christ and Other Poems, Countee Cullen. • Banjo, Claude McKay. • Passing, Nella Larson. • The Blacker the Berry, Wallace Thurman.
1930 • The Negro in American Civilization: A Study of Negro Life and Race Relations, Charles S. Johnson. • Black Manhattan, James Weldon Johnson. • Not Without Laughter, Langston Hughes.
1931 • The Chinaberry Tree, Jessie Fauset. • Dear Lovely Death, Langston Hughes. • Black No More, George S. Schuyler.
1932 • One Way to Heaven, Countee Cullen. • The Conjure Man Dies, Rudolph Fisher. • The Dream Keeper, Langston Hughes.
1933 • Comedy, American Style, Jessie Fauset. • Along This Way, James Weldon Johnson. • Banana Bottom, Claude McKay.
1934 • The Ways of White Folks, Langston Hughes. • Jonah’s Gourd Vine, Zora Neale Hurston.
1935 • Harlem Race Riot. • 50% of Harlem’s families are unemployed. • The Medea and Other Poems, Countee Cullen. • Mules and Men, Zora Neale Hurston.
The Decline of the Harlem Renaissance: • A number of factors contributed to the decline of the Harlem Renaissance in the mid-1930s. The Great Depression of the 1930s increased the economic pressure on all sectors of life. Organizations such as the NAACP and Urban League, which had actively promoted the Renaissance in the 1920s, shifted their interests to economic and social issues in the 1930s. Many influential black writers and literary promoters, including Hughes, James Weldon Johnson, Charles S. Johnson, and Du Bois, left New York City in the early 1930s. Finally, a riot in Harlem in 1935—set off in part by the growing economic hardship of the Depression and mounting tension between the black community and the white shop-owners in Harlem who profited from that community—shattered the notion of Harlem as the “Mecca” of the New Negro. In spite of these problems the Renaissance did not disappear overnight. Almost one-third of the books published during the Renaissance appeared after 1929. In the last analysis, the Harlem Renaissance ended when most of those associated with it left Harlem or stopped writing, while new young artists who appeared in the 1930s and 1940s never associated with the movement.
Influence and Impact: • The Harlem Renaissance changed forever the dynamics of African American arts and literature in the United States. The writers that followed in the 1930s and 1940s found that publishers and the public were more open to African American literature than they had been at the beginning of the century. Furthermore, the existence of the body of African American literature from the Renaissance inspired writers such as Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright to pursue literary careers in the late 1930s and the 1940s. The outpouring of African American literature of the 1980s and 1990s by such writers as Alice Walker and Toni Morrison also had its roots in the writing of the Harlem Renaissance. For thousands of blacks around the world, the Harlem Renaissance was proof that the white race did not hold a monopoly on literature and culture.