Harlem Renaissance Analysis

Origins (Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

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.

Harlem Renaissance Redefining African American Identity (Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Harlem Renaissance writers boldly rejected prevalent stereotypes that portrayed African Americans as nothing more than pitiable societal problems. Harlem Renaissance writers blended awareness of their racial heritage and progress with their considerable literary talents in efforts to present realistic images of black life. Harlem Renaissance authors built upon the rich tradition of strong, persevering, African American characters established in nineteenth century slave narratives and autobiographies by Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, and others. Writers of the Harlem Renaissance also could discredit literary stereotypes by recalling fiction by William Wells Brown, Harriet Wilson, and Charles Waddell Chesnutt, among others.

Unlike earlier African American writers, Harlem Renaissance authors found that their works received greater exposure; during the 1920’s and early 1930’s, major publishers produced books by African Americans with an unprecedented frequency. Black writers had improved opportunities to accomplish two major goals: to portray African American life accurately and to promote African American culture. Collectively, works of the Harlem Renaissance provide a panorama of early twentieth century black life. Characters vary from ones whose deeds are virtuous to those whose actions are questionable, although in general, Harlem Renaissance literature presents more upright characters. They represent all levels of society, socially and economically. For the first time in American literature, there are consistent attempts to portray African Americans in urban locations. The works of Harlem Renaissance writers proudly display the great variety in African American life and assert that regardless of their status, African Americans are worthy of respect.

Harlem Renaissance writers wrote considerably about the double identity of being black and American. This dual identity could be cause for rejoicing, as in James Weldon Johnson and John Rosamond Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing” (1900), known as the black national anthem. Other times being black and American could be cause for despair, as many African American World War I veterans discovered upon their return to the United States. The veterans hoped that their service to their country would result in better employment and housing opportunities. Instead, the veterans were still treated as second-class citizens. Harlem Renaissance writers recorded the pleasures and pains resulting from dual identity.

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

Four prominent visionaries articulated the need for an African American awakening, created influential works, and promoted the works of new and younger authors. The most influential mentor was W. E. B. Du Bois, who was a prolific writer and a civil rights leader. Du Bois, who called for an African American literary renaissance as early as 1920, served as editor of Crisis, one of the two major black periodicals that included Harlem Renaissance fiction and poetry. The second periodical, Opportunity, was edited by Charles S. Johnson, who was also instrumental in promoting Harlem Renaissance writers. Du Bois’ novel Dark Princess: A Romance (1928), published during the Harlem Renaissance, presents an African American protagonist who realizes that racism extends beyond America and that Third World people should unite to end racial oppression.

Another architect of the movement was Jessie Redmon Fauset, who believed that portrayals of African Americans must be written by African Americans. As literary editor for Crisis from 1919 to 1926, Fauset promoted the talents of Langston Hughes, Countée Cullen, and others. As author of four novels, Fauset shows the impact of race and gender limitations on African American women. Her novels, often about middle-class blacks (a first), have such themes as racial discrimination in the North, racial identity, heritage, miscegenation, and blacks passing for white. Fauset’s There Is...

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

The era’s poets included Sterling Brown, Grimké, Georgia Douglas Johnson, Helene Johnson, and Spencer. Major poets included Cullen, McKay, and Hughes. Cullen published three volumes of poetry during the era: Color (1925), Copper Sun (1927), and The Black Christ and Other Poems (1929). Poems such as “From the Dark Tower,” “Heritage,” and “Yet Do I Marvel” reflect Cullen’s concerns about racial identity and his role as a poet. McKay’s two volumes of poetry published during the time of the Harlem Renaissance are Spring in New Hampshire and Other Poems (1920) and Harlem Shadows (1922), which has been heralded as one of the era’s finest works. Much of McKay’s and Cullen’s poetry focuses on the dual-identity issue and the notion that blacks are aliens in America. The militant “If We Must Die” remains McKay’s most widely known poem. The most famous Harlem Renaissance writer, who was also called the poet laureate of Harlem, was Hughes. A prolific writer, Hughes published two volumes of poetry during the era: The Weary Blues (1926) and Fine Clothes to the Jew (1927). His poems such as “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” show racial pride and perseverance; poems such as “Prayer Meeting” provide glimpses into everyday Harlem life.

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

In addition to Fauset and Johnson, many other novelists published during the Harlem Renaissance, such as Nella Larsen, who wrote Quicksand (1928) and Passing (1929), and White, author of The Fire in the Flint (1924) and Flight (1926). Fauset, Johnson, Larsen, and White’s works often represent the African American middle class. Fauset and Larsen’s novels also reveal the lives of African American women. Other novels satirize whites’ and blacks’ obsession with color. Illustrating this category are Wallace Thurman’s The Blacker the Berry (1929) and George S. Schuyler’s Black No More: Being an Account of the Strange and Wonderful Workings of Science in the Land of the Free (1931).

In addition to satire, there are realistic novels of place. Examples include Cullen’s One Way to Heaven (1932), Hurston’s Jonah’s Gourd Vine (1934), Thurman’s Infants of the Spring (1932), and Jean Toomer’s Cane (1923). African Americans in foreign locales are represented by Du Bois’ Dark Princess (1928), McKay’s Banjo: A Story Without a Plot (1929) and Banana Bottom (1933). The coming-of-age novel is represented by Hughes’ Not Without Laughter (1930). Rudolph Fisher’s The Conjure-Man Dies: A Mystery Tale of Dark Harlem (1932) is the first African American detective novel. In addition to poetry and novels, writers of the Harlem Renaissance created short stories, essays, biographies, and autobiographies. The Harlem Renaissance lives on in its writings.

Harlem Renaissance At Issue (Representations of Race in American Literature)

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...

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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:...

(The entire section is 289 words.)