Harlem Renaissance Analysis

Historical Context

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...

(The entire section is 1051 words.)

Representative Authors

The Harlem Renaissance was a period between World War I and the Great Depression when black artists and writers flourished in the United States. Critics and historians have assigned varying dates to the movement’s beginning and end, but most tend to agree that by 1917 there were signs of increased cultural activity among black artists in the Harlem section of New York City and that by the mid-1930s the movement had lost much of its original vigor. While Harlem was the definite epicenter of black culture during this period, and home to more blacks than any other urban area in the nation in the years after World War I, other cities, such as Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia, also fostered similar but smaller communities of black artists.

The movement came about for a number of reasons. Between 1890 and 1920, the near collapse of the southern agricultural economy, coupled with a labor shortage in the north, prompted about two million blacks to migrate to northern cities in search of work. In addition, World War I had left an entire generation of African Americans asking why, when they had fought and many had died for their country, they were still afforded second-class status. By the end of the war, many northern American cities, such as Harlem, had large numbers of African Americans emboldened by new experiences and better paychecks, energized by the possibility of change. A number of black intellectuals, such as W. E. B. Du Bois and Alain Locke, were making it clear that the time had come for white America to take notice of the achievements of African-American artists and thinkers. The idea that whites might come to accept blacks if they were exposed to their artistic endeavors became a popular one.

To this end, magazines such as the Crisis, published by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and Opportunity featured the prose and poetry of Harlem Renaissance stars Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, Nella Larsen, and Zora Neale Hurston. Major New York-based publishing houses began to search for new black voices and print their poems, short stories, and novels. White intellectual society embraced these writers and supported— financially and through social contacts—their efforts to educate Americans about their race, culture, and heritage through their art. Ultimately, however, the financial backing began to run dry in the early 1930s with the collapse of the New York stock market and the ensuing worldwide economic depression. The Renaissance had run its course.

Countee Cullen (1903–1946)
Born May 30, 1903, in Louisville, Kentucky (although a few accounts claim Baltimore or New York City), Countee Cullen is believed to have been reared by his paternal grandmother, who died when he was fifteen. He was then adopted by the Reverend Frederick Cullen, later the head of the Harlem chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and introduced to the lively intellectual and cultural life of New York. He received an undergraduate degree from New York University and a master’s degree from Harvard University.

Cullen, a writer of both poetry and prose, believed that art should be where whites and blacks find common ground. In 1925, his most wellknown work, Color, was published to nearly universal praise. In the 1930s, he turned to teaching and eventually began producing his plays. Cullen received numerous awards for his work, including a Guggenheim fellowship in 1928. He died of uremic poisoning January 9, 1946, in New York City.

W. E. B. Du Bois (1868–1963)
William Edgar Burghardt Du Bois, or, as he is more commonly known, W. E. B. Du Bois, was born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, February 23, 1868. Trained as a sociologist, Du Bois received his bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees from Harvard University. He condemned racism in America and was one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He wrote numerous books on race issues and worked as a university professor.

In addition to his support of young writers during the Harlem Renaissance, Du Bois’s 1903 sociological examination of African Americans, The Souls of Black Folk, helped create the atmosphere in which many of the Renaissance writers and artists could flourish. He coined the phrase “talented tenth” to denote the group of highly educated, culturally adept, and politically astute blacks who would lead the rest of the race into better lives. By the early 1930s, Du Bois became disillusioned about life in America, and his political beliefs forced him to resign from his NAACP position. His politics led to membership in the Socialist Party, and he experienced confrontations with the U.S. government on several occasions. After joining the Communist Party in 1960, Du Bois moved to Ghana, where he died on August 27, 1963.

Jessie Redmon Fauset (1882–1961)
Jessie Redmon Fauset was born in Snow Hill, New Jersey, April 27, 1884, the daughter of a minister. She was the first black woman to graduate from Cornell University, received a master’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania, and studied at the Sorbonne in Paris. In addition to writing novels, poetry, short stories, and essays, Fauset taught French in the Washington, D.C.,...

(The entire section is 2176 words.)

Literary Style

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...

(The entire section is 521 words.)

Movement Variations

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...

(The entire section is 571 words.)

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...

(The entire section is 504 words.)

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...

(The entire section is 219 words.)

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...

(The entire section is 265 words.)

Representative Works

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...

(The entire section is 1272 words.)

Media Adaptations

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...

(The entire section is 215 words.)

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,...

(The entire section is 369 words.)