The Great Migration
The Great Migration involved huge numbers of African Americans moving from the rural southern United States to northern industrial cities during the first few decades of the twentieth century in search of better jobs. This shift in population helped foster the cultural richness that became known as the Harlem Renaissance.
For most of the nineteenth century, the southern United States, like most of the rest of the country, was primarily an agricultural society. By the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century, the northern economy began to shift to a more industrial base. The southern economy became stagnated and provided a strong impetus for black (and white) farm workers to consider moving north, where the jobs were. Southern blacks considered a move to the north as a step toward economic independence and a better life in a region of the country where they believed they might be treated more fairly.
In addition to the worsening southern economy, blacks were attracted to the north by the fact that during World War I, the United States began limiting the number of immigrants allowed in the country. This created a labor shortage in the north just at a time when the factories were expected to increase production to fulfill orders in support of the war effort. Companies that had rejected the idea of hiring blacks were forced to recruit them actively, even sending labor agents into the South to find workers and offer training in areas such as shipbuilding. Soon, family members were returning to their southern homes from New York, Detroit, Chicago, and other urban centers, telling stories of better jobs and higher salaries. Between 1916 and 1919, about half a million blacks moved to the north; roughly one million blacks made the trip in the 1920s. Between 1910 and 1920, New York City’s African-American population jumped 50 percent.
The New Negro
“New Negro” was the term white Americans had used to refer to a newly enslaved African. However, during the first few decades of the twentieth century, the phrase denoted an African American who was politically astute, well educated, and proud of his cultural heritage—the very opposite of a docile slave. Booker T. Washington’s view of a New Negro was outlined in his 1900 book, A New Negro for a New Century and encompassed education, self-improvement, and self-respect.
During the Harlem Renaissance, Locke used the term in the title of his anthology of African- American poetry and prose, The New...
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Dialect and Colloquialisms
There was no consensus on the use of black or rural dialect in the work of Harlem Renaissance writers; some authors used it liberally while others shunned it entirely. Hurston used dialect in Their Eyes Were Watching God to reflect the atmosphere and tone of the language she heard when collecting folktales. For this, Richard Wright later condemned the novel and claimed that she was painting a negative and stereotypical image of blacks for white readers.
Johnson used dialect verse and misspellings in some of his poetry but decided to discard these techniques when writing his collection of rural sermons turned into verse, God’s Trombones, considered to be, far and away, his best work. He is reported to have said that dialect restricted what he wanted to do in God’s Trombones. The sermons maintain the rhythm and pacing of speech he admired in black preachers but are delivered in a more sophisticated manner. For example, the poem-sermon entitled “The Creation” is written in standard English but maintains the cadence of powerful oratory:
Then God himself stepped down—
And the sun was on his right hand,
And the moon was on his left;
The stars were clustered about his head,
And the earth was under his feet . . . .
Many of the Renaissance poets experimented with using the cadences of...
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Visual Arts during the Harlem Renaissance
Visual arts made a strong statement during the Harlem Renaissance, creating images based on newly developed consciousness about heritage and culture. For example, in her article on Harlem Renaissance art and artists in Print, Michele Y. Washington notes that black artists’ interest in Egypt as part of Africa and their heritage contributed to many of the motifs in the Art Deco style becoming widespread during the 1920s and 1930s.
Aaron Douglas, one of the period’s leading artists, used images of African masks and sculpture in his geometric, Art Deco-style drawings. He served as an apprentice to Winold Reiss, the German artist whose geometric and angular drawings were featured on the original cover of Alain Locke’s The New Negro. Douglas became the premier illustrator for the period’s magazines and books and also created large murals on the walls of various Harlem nightclubs.
Many of the leading Renaissance artists had formal art training but used vibrant and energetic African images to break away from the more traditional forms of European art. Like Douglas, many of these artists collaborated with black writers to decorate the covers and insides of their published poetry collections, novels, and magazines.
The Renaissance in Other American Cities
While the energy of the explosion of African- American literature, music, art, and politics was...
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Compare and Contrast
1920s–1930s: Harlem is well known for its entertainment venues, including the Savoy Ballroom, the Cotton Club, and the Apollo Theater. National acts regularly play at these stages, including Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, and Lionel Hampton.
Today: After closing in the 1970s because African-American acts had access to betterpaying venues, the Apollo is now a national historic landmark owned by a nonprofit organization that books such international stars as Luther Vandross, B. B. King, hip-hop artists, and unknown musical hopefuls seeking national exposure.
1920s–1930s: Claude McKay publishes his novel Home to Harlem, the first bestselling book in the United States written by an African American. Major New York publishing houses search for the next black writer who will satisfy the reading public’s sudden interest in African- American voices.
Today: Popular black authors are no longer a novelty. Works by Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, and Henry Louis Gates Jr. regularly appear on the national lists of bestselling books.
1920s–1930s: Lynchings and racially motivated murders of blacks are not unusual. In 1920, an estimated thirty-three blacks are lynched; in 1930, an estimated twenty-four blacks die from lynchings.
Today: According to national hate crime statistics collected by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, three racially motivated murders of African...
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Topics for Further Study
Many of the period’s prominent writers studied at Columbia University in New York City. Research the histories of Columbia University and other American universities during the first twenty years of the twentieth century. What were the policies of various institutions in terms of admitting black students? What were the choices for blacks who wished to attend college during the 1920s and earlier in the century? Present your findings in an essay.
Churches played a key role in the lives of many Harlemites. In addition to holding Sunday services, some churches, such as the Abyssinian Baptist Church, organized community centers, helped feed the poor, and operated homes for the elderly. Investigate the growth of churches in Harlem during the 1920s and 1930s and how many developed into influential and powerful organizations.
Many critics note that, while the Harlem Renaissance ended during the early 1930s, African-American writers did not stop producing work. Research the important black writers of the 1940s and 1950s, such as Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Ralph Ellison. Acquaint yourself with themes these writers dealt with, their styles, and so on. Discuss in a short essay any similarities or differences you see between this literature and the literature of the Harlem Renaissance.
Some historians and critics have argued that the present time is another “renaissance” for black artists, entertainers, and writers, similar in a...
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Jean Toomer’s Cane is a three-part novel comprising both poems and short stories. Published in 1923, the work was hailed as a revolutionary exploration of black city and rural life in early twentieth century America.
Toomer’s experimentation with style, structure, and language reflects the influence of the numerous avant-garde writers and artists (those whose work is considered groundbreaking or somewhat experimental) he met while living in the Greenwich Village section of New York City. The book received much praise from the critics for its efforts to break from typical realism and for its exciting use of language but garnered little popular success. While Toomer went on to write...
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In 1984, Francis Ford Coppola directed The Cotton Club, a movie starring Richard Gere, Diane Lane, and Gregory Hines, about the famous jazz nightclub in Harlem during the 1920s and 1930s. The film was distributed by Orion Pictures Corporation.
In 1937, Claude McKay’s novel Banjo was made into the film Big Fella, distributed by British Lion Film Corporation.
The Langston Hughes short story “Cora Unashamed” was made into a television film of the same name in 2000, distributed by the Public Broadcasting Service.
Rhapsodies in Black: Music and Words from the Harlem Renaissance is a boxed set with four CDs featuring various artists of the period reading and performing...
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What Do I Read Next?
W. E. B. Du Bois was one of the black intellectuals involved in launching and encouraging the Harlem Renaissance. David L. Lewis’s Pulitzer Prize–winning biography of Du Bois, W. E. B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race, 1868– 1919 (1994), provides readers with a highly detailed narrative of the great thinker and founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in the years preceding the Harlem Renaissance.
Black visual artists experienced an explosion in ideas and energy during the 1920s and 1930s similar to that experienced by writers. Rhapsodies in Black: Art of the Harlem Renaissance (1997) covers the accomplishments of African- American painters, sculptors,...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Baker, Houston A., Jr., Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance, University of Chicago Press, 1987, p. 85.
Bamikunle, Aderemi, “The Harlem Renaissance and White Critical Tradition,” in CLA Journal, Vol. 29, No. 1, September 1985, pp. 33–51.
Cullen, Countee, “And the Walls Came Tumblin’ Down,” in the Bookman, Vol. LXVI, No. 2, October 1927, pp. 221–22.
English, Daylanne K., “Selecting the Harlem Renaissance,” in Critical Inquiry, Vol. 25, No. 4, Summer 1999, pp. 807–15.
Huggins, Nathan I., Harlem Renaissance, Oxford University Press, 1971, pp.10–11.
Hughes, Langston, “The Dream Keeper,” in...
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