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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 Negro: An Interpretation. Locke believed that African-American writers and artists should participate in the leadership of their people and should be involved in showing white America a new vision of blacks as productive and creative forces to be reckoned with. The New Negro, in Locke’s estimation, should be an African American who asserted himself or herself economically, politically, and culturally. In his role as the disseminator of the New Negro philosophy, Locke organized a series of traveling African- American art exhibits and helped launch a national black theater movement.
Red Summer of 1919
In the years immediately following World War I, relations between blacks and whites were strained. White war veterans returning to northern cities felt threatened by the increased population of blacks and their stronger economic position—at least when compared to the prewar years. Many blacks returned from the war wondering why, after fighting for their country and receiving commendations for their bravery from the French, they were still treated as second-class citizens at home. Southerners sensed a heightened level of self-confidence among the blacks visiting their families from their jobs in northern cities. Economic pressures hit the general American population after the war when the government lifted price controls and unemployment and inflation rates jumped.
During the summer and early fall of 1919, twenty-five race riots erupted across the nation in Chicago; Charleston, South Carolina; Omaha, Nebraska; Washington, D.C., and other cities. In the space of six weeks, seventy-six lynchings were reported; a dozen of the lynchings were perpetrated on black men still wearing their service uniforms.
Johnson coined the term “Red Summer” while investigating these incidents for the National As- sociation for the Advancement of Colored People. Racial tensions were exacerbated by the nation’s postwar fear of the newly formed Bolshevik, or “red,” regime in Russia. Many efforts by blacks to improve their economic and political status were met with white suspicions that they were as “radical” as the Russian Bolsheviks.
Life in Harlem during the 1920s and 1930s
Harlem, a neighborhood in New York City, became the preeminent black urban enclave in the United States early in the twentieth century, when thousands of blacks migrated primarily from southern and rural regions. Previously, the area had been a wealthy white neighborhood, but economic hard times and skyrocketing real estate values at the start of the twentieth century created a situation in which clever entrepreneurs began leasing vacant rooms in white-owned buildings to black newcomers to the city. Harlem’s black population in 1914 was about fifty thousand; by 1930 it had grown to two hundred thousand.
The neighborhood also attracted black intellectuals, artists, and others interested in participating in Harlem’s increasingly vibrant cultural environment. Black political organizations, such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the National Urban League, established offices in Harlem, as did major black newspapers such as The Messenger and The New York Age. Marcus Garvey, leader of the “back-to- Africa ” movement, set up his Universal Negro Improvement Association in Harlem. Garvey and others energized Harlemites with their messages of black pride and self-sufficiency.
Harlem also became an entertainment capital early in the century. Musical performers moved to Harlem, drawn by the atmosphere and the hundreds of nightclubs and other venues where the jazz sound was wildly popular. Performers Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, and others played to appreciative crowds at nightspots like Smalls’s Inn and the Savoy Ballroom. But not only locals patronized the free-spirited nightclubs that began to give Harlem a wild reputation; whites from other parts of New York City “discovered” Harlem and made it the place to be on a Saturday night. Ironically, some of the nightclubs were off-limits to blacks, including the famous Cotton Club, until 1928 catering to a wealthy white clientele intent on experiencing the “exotic” Harlem atmosphere.
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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 popular music in their work, but none was as well known for this technique as Hughes. He used blues and jazz beats in much of his poetry, recreating the sounds and music he heard in the clubs and on the streets of Harlem. Hughes’s poetry not only incorporates the rhythms of familiar music but also covers topics common to many blues songs: economic hardship, failed romance, loneliness, and sexual desire. In the poem “The Weary Blues,” Hughes writes of a piano player performing at a club and uses the technique of repetition, a familiar technique in many blues songs.
Urban and Rural Settings
Because many of the Harlem Renaissance writers moved to the cities from rural areas, both settings became critical components of their work. For example, Toomer’s book of poetry, stories, and a play, Cane, includes a section devoted entirely to characters in a rural Georgian setting, with images of trees and sugar cane. In the second section, the action takes place in Washington, D.C., and is filled with images of streets, nightclubs, houses, and theaters. Hurston set most of her stories in rural towns, in accordance with her lifelong effort to collect black rural folktales.
The move between rural and urban is also critical to many Renaissance novels. In McKay’s Home to Harlem, the primary locale of the story is Harlem. But each of the novel’s protagonists comes from someplace else: Jake is assumed to be originally from the rural South, and Ray is Haitian. Larsen’s novel Quicksand follows a mixed race woman who travels from her job at a black southern college to various large cities around the world in search of a place she can truly call home. She ultimately ends up living in rural Alabama, feeling suffocated.
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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 focused primarily in Harlem, other cities also experienced their own versions of the Harlem Renaissance during the 1920s and 1930s. Artists and writers located in cities such as Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, and Washington, D.C., were producing valuable and exciting work.
Locke, for example, maintained his contact with Howard University in Washington, D.C., as the chair of its philosophy department for more than forty years. A number of writers got their start in the nation’s capital, including Toomer and Rudolph Fisher, and Hughes often spent time there. Chicago was not only a hotbed of musical energy during the 1920s and 1930s, but writers such as Frank Marshall Davis wrote while living there. And, though he wrote just after the period of the Renaissance, Richard Wright used his own Chicago experiences liberally in his work.
Music during the Harlem Renaissance
Music saturated Harlem during the 1920s and 1930s, whether at the numerous Protestant churches, where age-old and new spirituals comforted the congregations, or at the neighborhood’s hundreds of speakeasies, nightclubs, and theaters, where jazz and blues tunes pushed dancers well into the early morning hours.
Of all the styles of music in Harlem, the district is probably best known for its jazz. Black bandleaders such as Louis Armstrong, Fletcher Henderson, and Duke Ellington made jazz the neighborhood’s (and the nation’s) most popular musical style in the 1920s and 1930s, even though many people—including numerous black intellectuals— found its rhythms too harsh and bawdy. But the rage for jazz would not die, and patrons crowded Harlem’s countless clubs nearly every night to hear the dynamism and spontaneity that were the hallmarks of jazz.
In 1926, the Savoy Ballroom opened, and its reasonable cover charges encouraged people of all races and economic levels to spend the evening dancing and listening to the best jazz in the world. While many well-known musicians performed there, the Savoy was also a place where unknowns could see if they had the talent to compete. Jazz and blues singers Bessie Smith and Ella Fitzgerald got their starts at the Savoy.
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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 Survey Graphic, Vol. 6, No. 6, March 1925, p. 664.
Janken, Kenneth R., “African American and Francophone Black Intellectuals during the Harlem Renaissance,” in the Historian, Vol. 60, No. 3, Spring 1998, pp. 487ff.
Kent, George E., “The Fork in the Road: Patterns of the Harlem Renaissance,” in Black Word, Vol. 21, No. 8, June 1972, pp. 13–24, 76–80.
Locke, Alain, “Color—A Review,” in Opportunity, Vol. 4, No. 37, January 1926, pp. 14–15.
—, “Enter the New Negro,” in Survey Graphic, Vol. 6, No. 6, March 1925, pp. 631–34.
—, “Youth Speaks,” in Survey Graphic, Vol. 6, No. 6, March 1925, pp. 659–60.
McKay, Claude, “White Houses,” in Survey Graphic, Vol. 6, No. 6, March 1925, p. 662.
Perry, Margaret, The Harlem Renaissance: An Annotated Bibliography and Commentary, Garland Publishing, Inc., 1982, pp. xxxv–xxxvi.
Singh, Amritjit, “‘When the Negro Was in Vogue’: The Harlem Renaissance and Black America,” in The Novels of the Harlem Renaissance: Twelve Black Writers, 1923–1933, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1976, pp. 1–39.
Stuart, Andrea, “The Harlem Renaissance in the Twenties Produced a Wealth of Black Talent. But What Was Its Legacy and Who Did It Really Benefit?” in the New Statesman, Vol. 10, No. 459, June 27, 1997, pp. 40–41.
Wall, Cheryl A., “Poets and Versifiers, Singers and Signifiers: Women of the Harlem Renaissance,” in Women, the Arts, and the 1920s in Paris and New York, edited by Kenneth W. Wheeler and Virginia Lee Lussier, Transaction Books, 1982, pp. 74–98.
Washington, Michele Y., “Souls on Fire: The Artists of the Black Renaissance in the 1920s and ’30s Defined a New Cultural Identity Reflecting Their African Roots,” in Print, Vol. 52, No. 3, May–June 1998.
Bontemps, Arna, The Harlem Renaissance Remembered, Dodd, Mead, 1972. This is a collection of essays by a writer and thinker who participated in the Harlem Renaissance. The second chapter provides a useful overview of the period.
Hughes, Langston, The Big Sea, Hill and Wang, 1993. Hughes’s autobiography was originally published in 1940. This is a reprint of his memories of his life as a poet in Harlem and as a cook and waiter in various Paris nightclubs during the 1920s.
Lewis, David L., When Harlem Was in Vogue, Alfred A. Knopf, 1981. This book is a social history of Harlem in the 1920s, focusing on the literature and music produced during the era.
—, ed., The Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader, Penguin USA, 1995. This collection includes essays, memoirs, drama, poetry, and fictional pieces from forty-five of the major and minor writers of the Harlem Renaissance.
Wintz, Cary D., Black Culture and the Harlem Renaissance, Rice University Press, 1988. Wintz’s book is an exploration of the Harlem Renaissance phenomenon in the context of black social and intellectual history in the United States, and it connects the Renaissance writers with the literary community as a whole.
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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 Americans and 462 racially motivated aggravated assaults against African Americans occurred in the year 2000.
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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 essays and plays, Cane was his only published book.
In 1925, Countee Cullen published his first collection of poems, Color, to high praise. Cullen’s work, including the poetry in Color, was known for its beauty and lyricism, despite featuring incidents of racism. Alain Locke referred to Cullen as “a genius” in his review in Opportunity, published not long after the release of Cullen’s collection, comparing Cullen with the poets A. E. Houseman and Edna St. Vincent Millay.
Both black and white readers eagerly awaited Cullen’s first book; in fact, his poetry, especially that found in his first collection, was so popular that many blacks of the day knew Cullen’s verses by heart. The best-known poem from this collection is “Heritage,” in which Cullen considers the meaning of Africa to himself and African Americans. The collection won a Harmon Foundation award in 1925.
God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse
James Weldon Johnson’s God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse was published in 1927. This collection of poetry established Johnson as one of the literary stars of the period and reflected the style and rhythm of the preaching that the author heard in African-American churches. Countee Cullen, reviewing the collection in The Bookman, called Johnson’s work “magnificent.” Many critics have noted that Johnson does not use dialect in this poetry collection, and generally the response to the poet’s decision is favorable.
Home to Harlem
Claude McKay’s novel Home to Harlem was published in 1928, the first in a series of three novels that many critics see as a trilogy of black life in America. The story centers on the relationship between two black men, Jake and Ray. Jake is an AWOL soldier, intent on returning to Harlem and the good times he remembers there. Ray is his opposite— a highly educated man who has completely lost touch with his culture. Through their conversations and actions, McKay shows two ways of responding to the racial prejudice in America during the 1920s. Ray experiences intellectual angst and leaves the United States for Europe, while Jake remains in Harlem, happy with his life and friends but intent on maintaining his pride.
Home to Harlem was the first bestselling book by a black writer in the United States. The novel was such a commercial success that it was reprinted five times in two months. Many readers were attracted by the book’s racy image of jazzage Harlem; McKay writes of prostitutes, nightclubs, and boozy parties. However, many critics —especially those black critics who believed that positive representations of African Americans would help rid the nation of its racial problems— condemned McKay’s novel for its bawdy images of black life in Harlem.
The New Negro: An Interpretation
Many historians and critics of the Harlem Renaissance credit the 1925 publication of Alain Locke’s anthology, The New Negro: An Interpretation, with encouraging the explosion of energy among black artists and writers in the 1920s and 1930s. The collection includes poetry and prose from such Renaissance stars as Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Zora Neale Hurston, and Claude McKay. The high quality of the anthology’s work attracted the attention of literary critics of the day and alerted the public to the talents of a previously unknown group of writers. The book also served to alert black writers that they were not alone by exposing them to other writers’ efforts and by promoting an atmosphere of inspiration.
The anthology received excellent reviews, including positive comments from W. E. B. Du Bois. Locke felt strongly that a group of African-American artists and writers could bridge the gap between white and black communities, and the publication of the The New Negro was an effort to start that process.
Nella Larsen wrote two novels addressing the issue of light-skinned blacks living as whites, Quicksand and Passing, but Quicksand, published in 1928, was the first and more well received. In Quicksand, Larsen tells the story of a woman of mixed ancestry, much like herself, who feels comfortable in neither black nor white society.
Critics were impressed with the rich psychological background Larsen gave her characters in the novel, as well as with the novel’s use of symbolism. In addition, many readers were happy that a black writer, while still tackling sensitive issues of race and culture, had chosen to place most of the story in a relatively genteel setting, as opposed to many other novels that depicted impoverished black society. With the publication of Quicksand, many intellectuals involved in the Harlem Renaissance took positive notice of Larsen, including W. E. B. Du Bois and Alain Locke, and predicted her continued success as an author. The novel won the Harmon Foundation’s bronze medal in 1928.
Their Eyes Were Watching God
Critics consider Their Eyes Were Watching God Zora Neale Hurston’s best fictional work. The 1937 novel (late in the period but still considered a Harlem Renaissance work) is informed by the extensive work Hurston did collecting black folktales throughout the 1920s and 1930s. It tells the story of a black woman struggling to assert her identity— both as an African American and as a woman—in the southern United States around 1900.
The critical reception of Their Eyes Were Watching God was mixed; some readers praised its accurate portrayal of small-town black life, while others, such as Richard Wright, accused Hurston of pursuing racial stereotyping to please white audiences. Overall, the novel was under-appreciated when it was first published and viewed as an escapist piece of fiction. It gained considerable respect in the last half of the twentieth century as a feminist tale of empowerment and fulfillment.
The Weary Blues
The Weary Blues, Langston Hughes’s first published collection of poetry, released in 1926, contains both traditional lyric poems written on classical subjects and poems about being black in America in the early twentieth century. Some of the strongest verses, in fact, reflect Hughes’s love for blues and jazz music by imitating the cadences of popular tunes heard in Harlem nightclubs and on the streets.
Though a few of the poems in this collection were written when Hughes was a teenager, most critics still saw in the volume a special energy and vigor; indeed, many of these poems remain the author’s most well known and well loved pieces, such as “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” Many black critics, however, were uncomfortable with his less traditional rhyming schemes and, concerned that Hughes was furthering the negative image of African Americans, disliked his portrayals of unsophisticated blacks and their day-to-day lives. They referred to him as a “racial artist,” or an artist who relies too heavily on his identity as an African American. Other critics praised his successful integration of musical styles into his poetry and language, especially in the title piece, “The Weary Blues,” which captures the tone of a piano player performing in a nightclub. Hughes’s experimental style was both respected and condemned by various readers and critics.
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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 their works and music. Langston Hughes, for example, reads his poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” and Duke Ellington performs “The Cotton Club Stomp.” In addition, some contemporary artists participate in the recording: rapper Ice-T reads Claude McKay’s poem “If We Must Die.” The set was released in 2000 by Wea/Rhino.
Langston Hughes’s first collection of poetry, The Weary Blues, is celebrated on a CD of the same name, featuring Hughes reciting his poetry and the legendary jazz musician Charles Mingus performing music that recreates the atmosphere of a Harlem blues club. The CD was originally released in 1958 and is available on the Uni/Verve label.
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