Harlem Renaissance

Between 1919 and 1934 African-American artists flocked to New York City, specifically to Harlem. This era was to become one of the most prolific periods of African-American writing. What Alain Locke called in 1925 a “New Negro Movement” was later defined by historians as the Harlem Renaissance. Among the poets who gained popularity during this era were Langston Hughes, Claude Mckay, Countee Cullen, Jean Toomer, Arna Bontemps, Anne Spencer, Gwendolyn Bennett, Helene Johnson, Angelina Weld Grimké, and James Weldon Johnson. Many leading fiction writers also emerged during this period, including Zora Neale Hurston, Rudolph Fisher, Jessie Redmond Fauset, Nella Larsen, and Wallace Thurman. Moreover many of the poets of this era also wrote fiction. The Harlem Renaissance also included the creative works produced by brilliantly talented, prolific dancers, musicians, visual artists, and photographers.

Several conditions enabled this renaissance: Booker T. Washington’s death, World War I, deteriorating southern racial conditions, greater publishing opportunities, and Marcus Garvey’s influence on racial pride. When Booker T. Washington, a former slave and founder of Tuskegee Institute, died in 1915, W. E. B. DuBois, the first African American to take a Ph.D. from Harvard and one of the principal organizers of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), replaced him as the principal spokesperson for African Americans. Although he held tremendous respect for Washington, DuBois disagreed strongly with his conciliatory attitude toward racial injustice in the South. DuBois endorsed more urgent demands for social change.


Langston Hughes

When World War I ended in 1918, returning black soldiers, especially those who had been recognized in France for their heroic achievements, were angered by racial conditions that remained unchanged in the United States. When in 1917 Woodrow Wilson proclaimed U.S. involvement in the war as a means to make the world safe for democracy, many African- American soldiers had felt certain that U.S. discrimination would be dismantled. Confronted by the same racial injustice and violence they left, many black veterans joined their anger with a rising spirit of unrest that was beginning to pervade the country.

Racial conditions in the South were becoming unbearable for African Americans, especially in rural areas. Workers faced unfair sharecropping arrangements, lynching, and segregation, as well as inferior schools and living conditions. Many began moving north with the hope of finding greater economic opportunity in the industrial cities of New York, Chicago, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, and Pittsburgh. Soon African-American professionals followed. This huge influx of African Americans to the North became known as the Great Migration. Many of these people settled in Harlem, which was rapidly becoming known as a center for artistic opportunity.

In his essay “The New Negro,” Alain Locke, the first African-American Rhodes scholar, attempted to direct the spirit of unrest he saw rising in many black communities as a result of these changing conditions. Riots were breaking out across the country. McKay’s famous sonnet “If We Must Die” (1919) addresses this revolutionary spirit: “If we must die, O let us nobly die, / . . . Pressed to the wall, dying but fighting back!”

Locke’s solution was the creation and display of talented art, which would become the black ticket into the social fabric of white America. Placing the future in the hands of young artists like McKay, Locke charged them to produce the uncompromising art essential to the reconstruction of African-American identity. Johnson agreed that “nothing will do more to change [the] mental attitude and raise his status than a demonstration of intellectual parity by the Negro through his production of literature and art” (9).

In this art blacks would be more authentically represented. No more minstrel figures, such as the mammy and coon, comic grotesque figures that represented black females as asexual nurturers and black males as comic buffoons. Crisis, a publication of the NAACP, as well as Opportunity, the publishing arm of the Urban League, held writing contests to inspire young artists. Other outlets included the black socialist publication the Messenger, and white publishers and patrons who became more receptive to black art as well.

A variety of styles and literary devices, including dialect, strict standard English, high and low culture, parody, irony, and satire, fill the pages of Harlem Renaissance writings, creating a window into the rich diversity of perspectives alive in African-American communities. Yet artists continued to debate the best way to represent blacks, which classes to foreground in their work, and whether or not to use dialect. In addition writers struggled against the mean-spirited images of blacks as promiscuous. Some artists considered downplaying the theme of sexuality, which, when used unwisely, could only fuel the harmful effects of this stereotype. Others, like Hughes, insisted that artists must not be servants to outside approval. In his famous essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” (1926), Hughes responds to a fellow artist’s dismissal of his own culture in favor of uncritical acceptance of white Western culture as standard. Declaring the artist’s inability to realize full creative potential without respect for his own culture, Hughes issues a bold mandate to all young black artists:

We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too. . . . If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn’t matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves. (309)

Toomer was the first artist to enjoy widespread critical acceptance of his first work, Cane (1923), success that charged the confidence of other Harlem Renaissance writers. The collection, containing a novella, poetry, and short fiction, as well as drawings, is most noted for its focus on the strength and beauty of rural black women, such as Fern. In his free verse Hughes treats themes of black pride, black unity, racial violence, black poverty, black womanhood, African heritage, and integration. He also transcribed blues, jazz, and gospel into poetic verse. Such innovation gained him the reputation of “poet laureate of the Harlem Renaissance.” In one of his most famous poems, the musician and his sounds come alive on the page: “Thump, thump, thump, went his foot on the floor. / He played the chords then he sang some more.” Johnson explored the sermonic tradition in his poetry, maintaining black verbal art forms, while McKay and Cullen cast their poetry in the traditional form of the sonnet. Cullen, perhaps more closely aligned with European-inspired poetic verse, nonetheless indulged in social protest with his poems “Hritage” (1925) and “Yet Do I Marvel” (1925), which questions God and the paradox of a black poet: “Yet do I marvel at this curious thing; / To make a poet black, and bid him sing!” Although Bontemps once collaborated with Hughes on a literary project, his poetry, influenced by his religious upbringing, is meditative and spiritual with a deep sense of racial pride.

While the movement often seemed to be dominated by men, women also managed to leave their enduring mark on the poetry of the era. Georgia Douglas Johnson attended to racial themes, yet was equally drawn to romanticism, sentimentalism, and issues concerning the human condition. Angelina Weld Grimké treated racial themes with a lyric sensibility. Much of Anne Spencer’s work is concerned with gender more than race. Race-conscious Gwendolyn Bennett wrote lyrics that focused on the “grace and loveliness” of the descendants of Africans (Gates 1227). Helene Johnson was described as “one of the younger group who has taken . . . the ‘racial’ bull by the horns” (Johnson 279).

Other important writers of the period include Eric Walrond, Sterling A. Brown, and Dorothy West. Walrond wrote of his experiences as a West Indian in Harlem, Brown continued Hughes’s emphasis on the poetics of blues culture, and West examined the wealthy class of blacks, writing and publishing well into her nineties.

In opposition to the radical modernist movement and such poets as Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot, Harlem Renaissance poets did not view the entire modern world as a wasteland (see THE WASTE LAND). Instead a sense of optimism pervaded their work, unlike the fatalism and pessimism found in many works of modernism. Like blues music, the poetry transformed hopelessness with love and laughter, the words and images infused with the power of persistence.

Historians David Levering Lewis and Nathan Huggins argue that the Harlem Renaissance failed in its mission to challenge inequitable conditions for blacks in North America through art. Literary critic Houston A. Baker, Jr., disagrees: He insists that such faith in the power of art could be “a mark of British and American modernism,” but that British and white American scholars would dismiss such efforts by labeling the movement a failure (14). Certainly if the success of the movement can be gauged by its influence on generations to follow, the Harlem Renaissance was a tremendous success. Not only did the movement have an impact on individual artists, but the BLACK ARTS MOVEMENT of the 1960s looked to the Harlem Renaissance for guidance and direction.

An Introduction to the Black Arts Movement

An Introduction to the Beat Poets

BIBLIOGRAPHY Baker, Houston A., Jr. Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.
Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., et al., eds. “The Harlem Renaissance.” Norton Anthology of African-American Literature. New York: W.W. Norton, 1997.
Hughes, Langston. “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain.” In Voices from the Harlem Renaissance, edited by Nathan Huggins. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
———. “The Weary Blues.” In Norton Anthology of African- American Literature, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., et al. New York: W. W. Norton, 1997.
Johnson, James Weldon, ed. The Book of American Negro Poetry. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1922.
Karenga, Maulana. Introduction to Black Studies. Los Angeles: Kawaida Publications, 1982.
Lewis, David Levering. When Harlem Was in Vogue. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981.
McKay, Claude. “If We Must Die.” In The Book of American Negro Poetry, edited by James Weldon Johnson. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1922.
———. A Long Way from Home. New York: Lee Furman, 1937. Toomer, Jean. Cane. New York: Liveright, 1923.
Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States. New York: HarperCollins, 1980.

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