The Harlem Renaissance

So indelibly associated with African Americans is Manhattan’s Harlem district that it is easy to forget how shallow its black roots are. Significant black settlement there began only in the late nineteenth century and did not explode until after World War I. Then, virtually overnight, Harlem emerged as a vigorous black city within a city—the first of its kind in America. During the 1920’s, it shared the ebullient mood of the nation, adding the heady excitement of celebrating its own uniqueness. As ever more people poured in, new clubs and theaters opened and publishing opportunities expanded, drawing in talented African Americans and fostering a vibrant cultural movement that was distinctively black yet wholly American.

Scores of names from the extraordinary roster of talent that came out of the Harlem Renaissance still resonate clearly: musicians such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Fats Waller; entertainers such as Bessie Smith, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Ethel Waters, Eubie Blake, Josephine Baker, and Paul Robeson; and writers such as Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, Countee Cullen, and Zora Neale Hurston.

A subject as remarkable as the Harlem Renaissance merits a special book and such is what Steven Watson has written for Pantheon’s beautifully designed “Circles of the Twentieth Century” series. Though small, it feels large, with pictures, maps, and sidebars in almost every opening and a cornucopia of marginalia—quotations, definitions, and useful bits of information. Watson’s text is clear, concise, and authoritative. His is a book to be read for pleasure, browsed for fun, and consulted for answers to serious questions. He and the book’s designer, Cheryl L. Cipriani, have created a volume that fills the mind and delights the eye.