How did African American literature change during and because of the Harlem Renaissance?

Expert Answers

Want to remove ads?

Get ad-free questions with an eNotes 48-hour free trial.

Try It Free No Thanks
mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In short, the Harlem Renaissance was the burgeoning of the "New Negroe," the young black who moved from rural areas to New York City and associated with other artisits of his ilk, as opposed to the "Old Negroe" who felt a sense of inferiority. The "New Negro" was assertive, articulate, racially conscious, and very aware of their individual identities and what they produced. Some of these young writers, such as Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes, wrote in Standard English while others employed dialect and criticized Cullen for his lack of dialect and conventional style. At any rate, blacks claimed a new identity, throwing off the psychological chains of the past. Thus, Harlem became "the City of Refuge," the "Mecca."

Within this environment in which there was a growing sophistication and urbanity in the African-American, then, the black writers and muscians, and artisits became more confident and assertive. Nevertheless, many fell back upon the rich oral tradition of Africans and incorporated it into their narratives.

Themes such as alienation and marginality were explored. For instance, in his "Theme for English B," Hughes explores the alienation that the single black student feels, and his doubt that his white professor can understand him,

It's not easy to know what is true for you or me
at twenty-two, my age. But I guess I'm what
I feel and see and hear, Harlem, I hear you:

Some writers were concerned whether their work should be a means of protest against racism because it could, then, beome an agent of propaganda, rather than art. For instance, Countee Cullen wondered in his poem "Yet Do I Marvel" if a black artist could be devoted to beauty and protest simultaneously:

Yet do I marvel at this curious thing:
To make a poet black, and bid him sing!

There was also a new mood in the "New Negro" literature:  a political activism. In his autobiographical novel, Black Boy, Richard Wright embraces Communism when he goes North as a young man. However, he becomes disillusioned by this ideology, and Ralph Ellis's Invisible Man, finds himself exploited. 

Certainly, Zora Neale Hurston, who was interested in anthropology, became very interested in black folk traditions, using her hometown of Eatonville, Florida, a town that had self-government by blacks, as a source for her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, an avant-garde work  in which a young black woman reaches self-discovery and fulfillment. Through the recovery of her cultural heritage by her return home in the end, she discovers her truest self. One critic writes,

Their Eyes Were Watching God may be said to fulfill the promise of the Harlem Renaissance.

A prolific period, the Harlem Renaissance, was a period of exciting new ideas and persons. It was, indeed, the "rebirth" of an identity for blacks.