Harlem Renaissance Biography

Introduction

The Harlem Renaissance was a period between World War I and the Great Depression when black artists and writers flourished in the United States. Critics and historians have assigned varying dates to the movement’s beginning and end, but most tend to agree that by 1917 there were signs of increased cultural activity among black artists in the Harlem section of New York City and that by the mid-1930s the movement had lost much of its original vigor. While Harlem was the definite epicenter of black culture during this period, and home to more blacks than any other urban area in the nation in the years after World War I, other cities, such as Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia, also fostered similar but smaller communities of black artists.

The movement came about for a number of reasons. Between 1890 and 1920, the near collapse of the southern agricultural economy, coupled with a labor shortage in the north, prompted about two million blacks to migrate to northern cities in search of work. In addition, World War I had left an entire generation of African Americans asking why, when they had fought and many had died for their country, they were still afforded second-class status. By the end of the war, many northern American cities, such as Harlem, had large numbers of African Americans emboldened by new experiences and better paychecks, energized by the possibility of change. A number of black intellectuals, such as W. E. B. Du Bois and Alain Locke, were making it clear that the time had come for white America to take notice of the achievements of African-American artists and thinkers. The idea that whites might come to accept blacks if they were exposed to their artistic endeavors became a popular one.

To this end, magazines such as the Crisis, published by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and Opportunity featured the prose and poetry of Harlem Renaissance stars Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, Nella Larsen, and Zora Neale Hurston. Major New York-based publishing houses began to search for new black voices and print their poems, short stories, and novels. White intellectual society embraced these writers and supported— financially and through social contacts—their efforts to educate Americans about their race, culture, and heritage through their art. Ultimately, however, the financial backing began to run dry in the early 1930s with the collapse of the New York stock market and the ensuing worldwide economic depression. The Renaissance had run its course.

Harlem Renaissance Representative Authors

Countee Cullen (1903–1946)
Born May 30, 1903, in Louisville, Kentucky (although a few accounts claim Baltimore or New York City), Countee Cullen is believed to have been reared by his paternal grandmother, who died when he was fifteen. He was then adopted by the Reverend Frederick Cullen, later the head of the Harlem chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and introduced to the lively intellectual and cultural life of New York. He received an undergraduate degree from New York University and a master’s degree from Harvard University.

Cullen, a writer of both poetry and prose, believed that art should be where whites and blacks find common ground. In 1925, his most wellknown work, Color, was published to nearly universal praise. In the 1930s, he turned to teaching and eventually began producing his plays. Cullen received numerous awards for his work, including a Guggenheim fellowship in 1928. He died of uremic poisoning January 9, 1946, in New York City.

W. E. B. Du Bois (1868–1963)
William Edgar Burghardt Du Bois, or, as he is more commonly known, W. E. B. Du Bois, was born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, February 23, 1868. Trained as a sociologist, Du Bois received his bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees from Harvard University. He condemned racism in America and was one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He wrote numerous books on race issues and worked as a university professor.

In addition to his support of young writers during the Harlem Renaissance, Du Bois’s 1903 sociological examination of African Americans, The Souls of Black Folk, helped create the atmosphere in which many of the Renaissance writers and artists could flourish. He coined the phrase “talented tenth” to denote the group of highly educated, culturally adept, and politically astute blacks who would lead the rest of the race into better lives. By the early 1930s, Du Bois became disillusioned about life in America, and his political beliefs forced him to resign from his NAACP position. His politics led to membership in the Socialist Party, and he experienced confrontations with the U.S. government on several occasions. After joining the Communist Party in 1960, Du Bois moved to Ghana, where he died on August 27, 1963.

Jessie Redmon Fauset (1882–1961)
Jessie Redmon Fauset was born in Snow Hill, New Jersey, April 27, 1884, the daughter of a minister. She was the first black woman to graduate from Cornell University, received a master’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania, and studied at the Sorbonne in Paris. In addition to writing novels, poetry, short stories, and essays, Fauset taught French in the Washington, D.C., schools and worked as the literary editor for the Crisis. It was in this last capacity that she encouraged many of the more wellknown writers of the Harlem Renaissance.

While her reputation as an editor of other writers’ works has tended to outshine her reputation as a fiction writer, many critics consider the novel Plum Bun Fauset’s strongest work. In it, she tells the story of a young black girl who could pass for white but ultimately claims her racial identity and pride. She wrote three other novels, with mixed reviews, but most readers of that period’s writings believe that Fauset’s strengths lay in nonfiction. Fauset died of heart disease April 30, 1961, in Philadelphia.

Langston Hughes (1902–1967)
James Langston Hughes, or just Langston Hughes as he was commonly known, was a writer of poetry, short stories, novels, plays, song lyrics, and essays. His frank portrayals of the black community around him often provoked sharp comments from African-American literary critics. Hughes’s retort, that he was simply depicting life as he saw it, did not impress the critics who believed that he should present black life in the best possible light to help improve the plight of African Americans.

Hughes was born in Joplin, Missouri, on February 1, 1902 to a father who was a rancher, a businessman, and a lawyer, and a mother who worked as a teacher. Hughes’s background was varied and colorful: by the time his first poetry book, The...

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