Harlem Renaissance Summary

Introduction (Critical Explorations in Poetry)

The Harlem Renaissance, also known as the New Negro movement and dating from approximately 1919 to 1935, is recognized as one of the most important and productive periods in the history of American literature, art, and culture. From the movement came some of the finest music, literature, and art of the twentieth century.

At the end of World War I, black veterans returning to their southern homelands found little change. Despite having served their country, they were afforded no special recognition for their sacrifices and were faced with the same poor living conditions and threats of lynchings and public humiliation that existed before the war. Meanwhile, urban areas in the North and West had profited somewhat from the war with an upswing in new industries. In addition, the decline in immigration from Europe had created a severe labor shortage, which opened up employment opportunities.

In search of economic stability, better lives, and better education for their children, African Americans left the South for industrial centers such as Pittsburgh and Detroit and for cities such as Chicago and New York City. The greatest number of African Americans went to New York City, which had always been a cultural mecca and already had a large black population in Harlem. Harlem’s boundaries had been greatly expanded in 1910 when African American real estate agents and church groups had bought large tracts of land, so housing was available to the black migrants, though they faced greatly inflated rental charges. This influx brought problems. Established residents did not embrace the change, seeing the newcomers as interlopers who would try to take their jobs. Eventually, the wide variety of people from different backgrounds provided opportunities for cultural growth and diversity.

Harlem had already been a center for political activism, where silent marches—and some louder ones—protesting injustice had taken place. Marcus Garvey, charismatic leader of the Back to Africa movement, had his headquarters there, and both the National Urban League and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) had offices there. The National Urban League’s Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life, a periodical designed to stimulate pride in past racial achievements and hope for the future, and the NAACP’s Crisis, edited by historian, journalist, and social critic W. E. B. Du Bois, both provided avenues for sharing ideas. Many writers had come to Harlem intending to turn the lives of migrants into novels and short stories. Alone, these writers might not have created the Renaissance community. However, two very influential leaders—Alain Locke, philosopher, writer, and educator, and Charles Johnson, the director of research for the Urban League—orchestrated a plan for turning the area into a literary haven, calling out to promising writers from other states and offering prize incentives for the best work. Both felt that unfortunate stereotypes could be changed by showing what African Americans were capable of in literature, art, and music. With white publishers beginning to open their doors to black authors, the stage was set: Harlem became a vibrant site of artistic experimentation.

The migrants from the South had brought with them the music of New...

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Harlem Renaissance Summary (Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Origins

The Harlem Renaissance had social and historical causes, among them the arrival to Harlem of many rural, Southern, African Americans who were migrating to the urban North in search of better economic and social conditions. World War I and the generally improving economy of the 1920’s inspired hope of finding jobs and a better life in New York City. Most of the writers, artists, and musicians of the Harlem Renaissance were born elsewhere. Their creations did not always center on Harlem, either, but the acknowledged focal point of African American culture during the 1920’s and 1930’s was Harlem.

At Issue

Early in the twentieth century, hundreds of thousands of African Americans fled poverty and racial discrimination in the South to search for employment in northern cities. In their new northern homes, they gained a feeling of freedom, relieved of some of the weight of southern oppression, and some of them began to express themselves in artistic ways. During the 1920’s, many of these artists were drawn to the Harlem district of New York City, which gave birth to a flurry of creativity so fresh and so productive that it became known as the Harlem Renaissance.

The Harlem Renaissance involved artists from all realms of the creative world: painters, sculptors, poets, novelists, actors, screenwriters, and musicians. Magazines such as The Crisis, a publication of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and Opportunity, the official publication of the National Urban League, were among the first to publish works by African American writers, poets, and essayists. Renaissance writers drew on common cultural experiences to create an elevated awareness and appreciation of their unique heritage. Jamaican immigrant Claude McKay gained a large audience with Harlem Shadows in 1922. McKay’s popularity was soon matched by other writers, including Jean Toomer (Cane, 1923) and James Weldon Johnson (The Book of American Negro Poetry, 1922). Author Langston Hughes became unofficial spokesperson for the Harlem Renaissance and its most prolific writer, publishing more than fifty books. In his works, he gave poetry a new jazz beat and spoke of African American experiences and emotions.

Renaissance sculptors and painters looked away from European masters to African art for inspiration. Painters such as Aaron Douglas, Palmer Hayden, and William H. Johnson and sculptors such as Meta Warrick Fuller, Selma Burke, and Richmond Barthe concentrated on ancestral rituals and dance, native customs and folklore, slave experiences, and themes of African American urban life.

In 1920, actor Charles Gilpin appeared in Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones. A few years later, Paul Robeson debuted on Broadway in a revival of that play and then appeared in the title role in William Shakespeare’s Othello. He received nationwide acclaim for his role in Showboat in 1927. African American musicians demonstrated why the 1920’s was known as the Jazz Age. Louis Armstrong brought New Orleans jazz to popular audiences, and Duke Ellington developed big-band jazz into a new art form.

The Harlem Renaissance coincided with a highly xenophobic age in the United States. The Ku Klux Klan reached new heights of popularity, and lynchings occurred in the South at an alarming rate. However, African American artists received encouragement and financial support from many members of the white community, and audiences nationwide showed new interest in the art forms produced in a small area of Manhattan. As Hughes wrote, “The Negro was in vogue.” White patrons flocked to Harlem to attend shows, readings, and exhibitions.

The economic devastation of the Great Depression in 1930 ended a significant portion of the financial support Harlem artists had received, and audiences and patrons decreased in number. Though the quantity of artistic expression diminished during the 1930’s, the cultural awareness and racial pride inspired by the Harlem Renaissance continued.

Redefining African American Identity

Harlem Renaissance writers boldly rejected prevalent stereotypes that portrayed African Americans as nothing more than pitiable societal problems. Harlem...

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Harlem Renaissance Writers and Their Works (Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Poetry

The poetry of the Harlem Renaissance was the most celebrated, coming from the minds of sensitive, culturally aware, honest, and skilled poets who, by virtue of the genre, had to make each word count. Sometimes those words cut deeply, though not without reason. They opened eyes to outrages and called for action. There were no dominant themes in the poetry, though much of it explored Harlem and race in the United States. Some works protested racial injustice, but most avoided overt protests or propaganda, focusing instead on the psychological and social impact of race. At the time, writers were more interested in acquainting the white public with the lives of African Americans. They wanted to demonstrate...

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Harlem Renaissance Bibliography (Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Suggested Readings

Andrews, William L., ed. Classic Fiction of the Harlem Renaissance. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. Introduces seven of the era’s most famous authors.

Huggins, Nathan Irvin. Harlem Renaissance. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971. A pioneering historical study of the era.

Huggins, Nathan Irvin, ed. Voices from the Harlem Renaissance. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. Anthologizes 120 works according to theme.

Kellner, Bruce, ed. The Harlem Renaissance: A Historical Dictionary for the Era. New York:...

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