The Harlem Renaissance

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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 Orleans and St. Louis, and jazz and blues clubs opened in Harlem. These clubs attracted both blacks and whites and were excellent places to meet and plan strategies, talk over works in progress, display art, drink, and listen to musicians such as Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Cab Calloway, and Duke Ellington. One of the most noted venues, the Cotton Club, practiced its own kind of discrimination. Its entertainers had to be light-skinned. Thus, Josephine Baker, whose act featured a banana...

(This entire section contains 1351 words.)

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skirt, had to go to Europe to achieve fame.

The art world exploded with new experimental expression, brighter colors, and freer forms. The colors became bolder, more alive, and more apt to attract attention and elicit discussion; paintings were everywhere. Artists and art lovers met at coffeehouses, where they shared and generated new ideas.

Writers, in particular, benefited from the camaraderie. They tried out ideas and established salons, often under the auspices of white benefactors, where they read and critiqued one another’s works. It became known that the African American was in “vogue,” a term that distressed some intellectuals because it implied a temporary condition. It was true that some white patrons simply liked the exotic feel of being associated with another race. One unkind rumor suggested that Zora Neale Hurston was paid to attend white parties and act like an African American. Writers gave talks, took part in symposiums, and generally enjoyed the star status. In addition, theaters began employing black actors and producing works by black playwrights. By the mid-1920’s, Harlem had indeed become the epicenter for change and freedom. For more than a decade thereafter, it was abuzz with excitement and seriousness of purpose. Locke felt that the urban setting helped African Americans appreciate the great variety of perspectives and ambitions among them, as Harlem was home to business professionals, preachers, outcasts, students, and criminals, as well as those involved in the arts.

In March, 1924, the National Urban League hosted a dinner to honor the emerging array of talented black writers. Du Bois urged Harlem writers to attend and meet with white writers and publishers. This gathering had a huge impact. White-run publishing companies were now more eager to solicit manuscripts from black authors.

In 1925, Locke and Johnson were asked to edit a black artisans edition of Survey Graphic, a national magazine devoted to social issues and cultural affairs. The issue, “Harlem: Mecca of the New Negro,” became a landmark in the Black Arts movement. It featured works by Countée Cullen (1903-1946), Langston Hughes (1902-1967), Du Bois (1868-1963), James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938), and Jean Toomer (1894-1967). Encouraged, Locke expanded the introduction and used the magazine as the basis for an anthology that included works by Claude McKay (1889-1948), Hurston (1891-1960), and Jessie R. Fauset (1882-1961). The anthology, The New Negro: An Interpretation (1925), gave Locke the reputation of being the architect, or, as he preferred to be called, the “midwife” of the Harlem Renaissance.

Locke hoped that greater exposure would demonstrate that African Americans had cultural awareness and self-confidence and in no way were of lesser intelligence or creativity than whites. He hoped to dispel the stereotypes in literature of Uncle Tom or Uncle Remus—no more grinning mammies or faithful family retainers willing to sacrifice themselves to preserve the status of their white employers and no more stock figures, African Americans shuffling to do service, or acting dumb to entertain. The New Negro movement aimed to set those stereotypes to rest. The New Negro spoke his mind, had confidence, and fought back. Mainly, Locke hoped that the image of the humble, self-effacing, always accommodating African American would fade, to be replaced by a self-assertive, independent individual who resisted domination. Arts and letters, Locke believed, could serve to raise racial consciousness.

For Further Reference

Chapman, Abraham. “The Harlem Renaissance in Literary History.” CLA Journal 11, no. 1 (September, 1967): 38-58. A personal accounting of Chapman’s dismay at the scant attention paid to the Renaissance and its writers.

_______, ed. Black Voices: An Anthology of African American Literature. New York: New American Library, 1968. The introduction to Chapman’s classic collection still stands as one of the most comprehensive statements regarding the long history of blacks in literature.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, eds. Harlem Renaissance Lives, from the African American National Biography. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. This is a compendium of the main features of the Harlem Renaissance, its germination, and the major artists, writers, and musicians involved. The introduction by Cary D. Wintz is especially valuable.

Lewis, David Levering. When Harlem Was in Vogue. New York: Alfred Knopf, 1981. This remains the standard work on the Harlem Renaissance. It reads as a narrative, involving the reader in the day-to-day details while covering all the salient points.

Major, Clarence, ed. The Garden Thrives: Twentieth Century African-American Poetry. New York: HarperPerennial, 1996. A good collection of the major poems, with commentary and an introduction by a leading authority in black literature.