The Harlem Renaissance (c. 1918–1935) was a blossoming of African American creative arts associated with the larger New Negro movement, a multifaceted phenomenon that helped set the directions African American writers and artists would pursue throughout the twentieth century. The social foundations of the movement included the Great Migration of African Americans from rural to urban spaces and from South to North, dramatically rising levels of literacy, and the development of national organizations dedicated to pressing African American civil rights (the NAACP), “uplifting” the race and opening up socioeconomic opportunities (the National Urban League), and developing race pride, including Pan-African sensibilities and programs (the United Negro Improvement Association and the Pan-African conferences). Black exiles and expatriates from the Caribbean and Africa crossed paths in metropoles like New York and Paris following World War I (1914–1918) and had an invigorating influence on each other that gave the broader “Negro renaissance” (as it was then known) a profoundly important international cast.
The term Harlem Renaissance, which became popular in later years, particularly after the term Negro lost currency, derives from the fact that Harlem served as a symbolic capital of the cultural awakening, a dynamic crucible of cultural cross-fertilization, and a highly popular nightlife destination. Harlem was a relatively new black neighborhood becoming virtually a black city just north of Central Park, and it attracted a remarkable concentration of intellect and talent. More “liberal” in matters of race than most American cities (although, of course, racism was rampant), New York had an extraordinarily diverse and decentered black social world in which no one group could monopolize cultural authority, making it a particularly fertile place for cultural experimentation. Moreover, being situated in New York—the publishing capital of the Western Hemisphere, one of the world’s great ports, and the financial as well as cultural capital of the United States—put Harlem in a strategic position for developing black arts and sending them out to the world. Few of the well-known black writers or artists were born in Harlem, but almost all of them passed through it, were inspired by it, or achieved their reputations in part because of what happened there.
The Harlem Renaissance took place at a time when European and white American writers and artists were particularly interested in African American artistic production, in part because of their interest in the “primitive.” Modernist primitivism was a multifaceted phenomenon partly inspired by Freudian psychology, but it tended to extol so-called “primitive” peoples as enjoying a more direct and authentic relationship to the natural world and to simple human feeling than so-called “over-civilized” whites. They therefore were presumed by some to hold the key to the renovation of the arts. Early in the twentieth century, European avant-garde artists including Pablo Picasso (1881–1974) had been inspired in part by African masks to break from earlier representational styles toward abstraction in painting and sculpture. The prestige of these revolutionary experiments caused African American intellectuals to look on African artistic traditions with new appreciation and to imagine new forms of self-representation, a desire reinforced by rising interest in black history. Black History Week, now Black History Month, was first celebrated in 1928 at the instigation of the historian Carter G. Woodson (1875–1950).
The interest in black heritage coincided with a general interest, among American intellectuals and artists generally, in defining an “American” culture distinct from that of Europe and characterized by ethnic pluralism as well as a democratic ethos. Thus the concept of cultural pluralism inspired notions of the United States as the first “transnational” nation, in which diverse heritages should develop side-by-side in harmony rather than be “melted” together or ranked on a scale of evolving “civilization.” W. E. B. Du Bois (1868–1963), the dominant black intellectual of the day, had already advocated something like this position in his famous book, The Souls of Black Folk (1903), a defining text of the New Negro movement because of its profound effect on an entire generation that formed the core of the Harlem Renaissance.
According to Du Bois and his colleague at the NAACP, James Weldon Johnson (1871–1938), the only uniquely “American” expressive traditions in the United States had been developed by African Americans because they, more than any other group, had been forced to remake themselves in the New World, while whites continued to look to Europe, or sacrificed artistic values to commercial ones. The very oppression that African Americans had suffered had made them the prophets and artistic vanguard of “American” culture. This judgment was reinforced by the immense popularity of African American music, especially jazz, worldwide. The popularity of jazz among whites was shaped in part by interest in the “primitive and exotic” and helped spark a “Negro Vogue” in cities like New York and Paris in the mid to late 1920s. Simultaneously, European dramatists extolled the body language of African American dance and stage humor (descended from blackface minstrelsy, America’s most popular and original form of theatrical comedy). The most well-known white man to bring attention to the “Harlem” Renaissance was undoubtedly Carl Van Vechten (1880–1964), whose music criticism extolled jazz and blues and whose provocatively titled novel Nigger Heaven (1926) helped spread the Negro Vogue, serving virtually as a tourist guide to Harlem and capitalizing on the supposed “exotic” aspects of black urban life, even while focusing, primarily, on the frustrations of black urban professionals and aspiring writers. Vilified by many but defended by the likes of Langston Hughes (1902–1967), James Weldon Johnson, and Nella Larsen (1893–1963), Van Vechten became a key contact for several black artists and authors because of his interracial parties and publishing connections.
In addition to primitivism, the tendencies to press for “authentic” American art forms, and to find them in black America, led black writers to “the folk” at a time when American anthropologists led by Franz Boas (1858–1942) were revolutionizing their discipline with arguments against the racist paradigms of the past. The “folk”— people of the rural South particularly, but also the new migrants to northern cities—were presumed to carry the seeds of black artistic development with relative autonomy from “white” traditions. Thus James Weldon Johnson, in God’s Trombones (1927), set traditional African American sermons in free-verse poetic forms modeled on the techniques of black preachers. Jean Toomer (1894–1967) was inspired by southern folk songs and jazz to lyrical modifications of prose form. Most famously, Langston Hughes turned to the blues for a poetic form derived from and answering to the desires, needs, and aesthetic sensibilities of the black working class. Sterling Brown (1901–1989) followed Hughes in a similar spirit with ballads and other poetic forms, attempting to catch the spirit of the folk heritage without merely imitating “folk” performance.
The Jamaican-born author and radical socialist Claude McKay (1889–1948) produced “proletarian” novels extolling the primitive authenticity and vitality of the black working class in Home to Harlem (1928) and Banjo (1929), a Pan-Africanist novel set in Marseilles, France. More influentially, Zora Neale Hurston (1891–1960)— an anthropologist and folklorist partly trained by Franz Boas—developed a new language and approach to narrative fiction inspired by black “folk” expressive traditions, most famously and successfully in her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937).
In a completely different register, Nella Larsen explored the psychology of urban sophisticates in her novels Quicksand (1928) and Passing (1929), analyzing the psychological intricacies of race consciousness, and exposing the massive pressures to subordinate women’s sexuality to the rules of “race” and class. The daughter of a white immigrant from Denmark and a black West Indian cook, Larsen knew intimately the price that color-line culture exacted of those who transgressed its most fundamental rules, and her fiction remains unequaled for the originality and incisiveness with which it exposes the contradictions of identities founded on the assertion of absolute difference between “black” and “white.” Hers was a unique achievement at a time when de facto and de jure segregation were becoming ever more entrenched features of American society.
By the mid-1930s, the optimism of the “renaissance” was wearing thin as the Great Depression clamped down and Marxist orientations (never absent from the renaissance) gained dominance. Black writers—above all, Langston Hughes, who had emerged as one of the stars of the “renaissance” and began working in numerous genres—began defining their new directions in contrast to the renaissance of the 1920s, describing the work of the earlier decade as too “racialist” in orientation (as opposed to Marxist and class-conscious) and as too dependent on wealthy white “patrons.” The characterization was reductive, as most such attempts at generational self-definition tend to be. Today it is clear that the Harlem Renaissance marked a turning point in black cultural history and helped establish the authority of black artists over the representation of black culture and experience, while creating a semiautonomous aesthetic field in the realm of “high culture” that has continuously expanded.
SEE ALSO Du Bois, W. E. B.; Hurston, Zora Neale; Pan–Africanism
Edwards, Brent Hayes. 2003. The Practice of Diaspora: Literature, Translation, and the Rise of Black Internationalism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Huggins, Nathan Irvin. 1971. Harlem Renaissance. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Hutchinson, George. 1995. The Harlem Renaissance in Black and White. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Lewis, David Levering. 1981. When Harlem Was in Vogue. New York: Random House.
"Harlem Renaissance." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 26, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/harlem-renaissance
"Harlem Renaissance." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved June 26, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/harlem-renaissance
HARLEM RENAISSANCE. Known also by the names Black Renaissance or New Negro Movement, the Harlem Renaissance represented a cultural movement among African Americans roughly between the end of World War I (1918) and the beginning of the Great Depression (1929). The names given to this movement reveal its essential features. Certainly the words "black" and "Negro" mean that this movement centered on African Americans, and the term "renaissance" indicates that something new was born or, more accurately, that a cultural spirit was reawakened in African American cultural life. Although most historians remember the Harlem Renaissance as a literary movement, in fact, African Americans during the 1920s also made great strides in musical and visual arts, as well as science. Finally, the focus on Harlem—an old Dutch-built neighborhood of New York City—indicates that this "renaissance" was something of an urban phenomenon. In fact, the exciting developments in African American cultural life of the 1920s were not limited to Harlem, but also had roots in other urban communities where black Americans migrated in great numbers: East St. Louis, Illinois; Chicago's south side; and Washington, D.C.
The artists of the Harlem Renaissance forwarded two goals. Like the journalists and other "crusaders" of the Progressive era, black authors tried to point out the injustices of racism in American life. Second, newspaper editors, activists, authors, and other artists began to promote a more unified and positive culture among African Americans. Early efforts to publicize a more unified consciousness among African Americans included two publications in 1919: Robert Kerlin's collection of editorial material in Voice of the Negro and Emmett Scott's Letters from Negro Migrants. On the political front, leaders such as Marcus Garvey began to put forth plans for black economic self-sufficiency, political separatism, and the creation of a cross-national African consciousness.
Several important developments during the World War I era gave rise to the Harlem Renaissance. First, black southerners since the turn of the century had been moving in large numbers to the North's industrial cities. As a result, southern blacks who had been denied their political rights and had resorted to sharecropping as a
means of livelihood came into contact with northern African Americans who were more often the descendants of free blacks and, therefore, had better access to education and employment. Additionally, black Americans moving to the cities had much to complain about. World War I, the so-called war to make the world safe for democracy, had been a bitter experience for most African Americans. The U.S. Army was rigidly segregated, race riots broke out in many American cities during or immediately after the war, and the North was residentially and economically segregated like the South, despite the absence of Jim Crow laws.
Not all of the forces driving the Harlem Renaissance were negative, however. An influential anthropologist of the time, Zora Neale Hurston, observed that many white American artists began to employ aspects of African American culture in their works; she called these people "Negrotarians." Significant among these were Frank Tannenbaum, author of Darker Phases of the South (1924), and Paul Green, whose 1926 production of In Abraham's Bosom with a mostly black cast won the Pulitzer Prize.
The literary works of the Harlem Renaissance were products of their writers' racial consciousness but also demonstrated
a profundity and beauty that placed many of these writers among the great literary figures of the century. An important originator of the movement, James Weldon Johnson, gave impetus to other black writers in 1922 by publishing the work of contemporary black poets in a volume entitled The Book of American Negro Poetry. Writing throughout the 1920s, Johnson published his re-flections on the decade of black artistic creation in his auto-biographical Black Manhattan (1930). Johnson was joined by another early and influential writer, Jamaican-born Claude McKay. McKay gained notoriety with awareness-raising poems such as "The Lynching." McKay, like fellow Caribbean native Marcus Garvey, displayed the defiance and anger felt by black Americans in the wake of World War I.
The most influential African American poet of the 1920s would prove to be the eloquent Langston Hughes, called the Poet Laureate of the Harlem Renaissance. Early Hughes's poetry such as "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" and "Mother to Son" reflected his roots in African American culture; these poems were published in The Weary Blues (1926). Later Hughes's work—four poems on the infamous (mis)trial of nine black men accused of rape in Alabama—revealed his heightened political consciousness and were published as Scottsboro Limited (1932). In the waning years of the Harlem Renaissance, Hughes turned to satirical short stories on black life with a collection entitled The Ways of White Folks (1934).
Perhaps one of the best fiction writers of the Harlem Renaissance was Jessie Redmon Fauset. Well educated at Ivy League schools, Fauset represented the "talented tenth" of African Americans that W. E. B. Du Bois hoped would excel to the point of proving blacks' value to American society. Fittingly, Fauset represented blacks in her novels as mainstream Americans, choosing to weave race issues within her wider interest in cultural problems such as social status and economic well-being. Her most important works included There Is Confusion (1924), Plum Bun (1928), and Comedy: American Style (1933). Other writers—E. Franklin Frazier and Alain Locke, for example—hoped to advance the position of African Americans through scholarship by exposing the problems facing black Americans to induce change, as progressive journalists and novelists had done with health and safety issues before.
Black Americans during the 1920s excelled in fields other than literature. We often remember jazz as the product of black migration to New Orleans, but the other cities that black artists called home—New York, Chicago, St. Louis, for example—witnessed the development of jazz music as well. Important jazz pianists such as the unofficial "mayor" of Harlem, Fats Waller, and Art Tatum played music at house parties and other gatherings in Manhattan, making music an integral part of the black experience in the urban North. African American band-leaders—Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Fletcher Henderson—and vaudeville blues singers—Gertrude "Ma" Rainey and Bessie Smith—performed for black and white audiences, thereby influencing popular music in general.
Like Jessie Fauset, composer William Grant Still brought to the Harlem Renaissance a background in American higher education. Trained at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, Still used traditional African American musical idioms to create European-style symphonic music. He was the first black composer to have a symphony played by a major orchestra, the first to conduct a major orchestra, and the first to have an opera produced by a major opera company. In 1931, Still legitimized Afro-inspired aesthetics in Western musical forms in premiering a tribute to the Harlem Renaissance aptly entitled the Afro-American Symphony.
In the world of visual art, the leading graphic artist, and illustrator for many of James Weldon Johnson's works, was Aaron Douglas. In northern cities, black artists such as Douglas wanted to capture their people's movement, energy, and soul as jazz musicians had. One of the most successful artists to do this was Archibald J. Motley Jr. Using vibrant color and flowing shapes, Motley reflected in his work the fast-paced urban life he observed in Chicago.
The Harlem Renaissance as a movement represented a rebirth of African American culture in the United States. As a product of black urban migration and black Americans' disappointment with racism in the United States, the renaissance was aimed at revitalizing black culture with pride. In political life, literature, music, visual art, and other cultural areas, African Americans in the 1920s put forth their individual and collective sense of dignity in the face of an American culture that often considered them second-class citizens.
Franklin, John Hope, and Alfred A. Moss Jr. From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans. 8th ed. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2000. See chapter eighteen, 400–417. Classic, and still excellent, account of the Harlem Renaissance, balancing narrative with interpretation of primary evidence.
Huggins, Nathan Irvin. Harlem Renaissance. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971. Standard monograph on the movement.
———, ed. Voices from the Harlem Renaissance. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976. Vast collection of primary documents from the period.
Kellner, Bruce, ed. The Harlem Renaissance: A Historical Dictionary for the Era. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1984. A useful reference tool on people, places, and a variety of other subjects pertaining to the movement.
Kramer, Victor. The Harlem Renaissance Re-Examined. New York: AMS, 1987. A large volume of scholarly essays on a wide range of topics within the movement.
Perry, Margaret. The Harlem Renaissance: An Annotated Bibliography and Commentary. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1982. A wonderful research tool on nineteen influential period authors, complete with citations of published works.
Singh, Amritjit. The Novels of the Harlem Renaissance: Twelve Black Writers, 1923–1933. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1976. Literary study of wide cross-section of black authors.
Waldron, Edward E. Walter White and the Harlem Renaissance. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1978. A mono-graph on the influential civic leader's role during the period.
"Harlem Renaissance." Dictionary of American History. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 26, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/harlem-renaissance
"Harlem Renaissance." Dictionary of American History. . Retrieved June 26, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/harlem-renaissance
Harlem Renaissance, term used to describe a flowering of African-American literature and art in the 1920s, mainly in the Harlem district of New York City. During the mass migration of African Americans from the rural agricultural South to the urban industrial North (1914–18), many who came to New York settled in Harlem, as did a good number of black New Yorkers who moved from other areas of the city. Meanwhile, Southern black musicians brought jazz with them to the North and to Harlem. The area soon became a sophisticated literary and artistic center. A number of periodicals were influential in creating this milieu, particularly the magazines Crisis, which was published by W. E. B. Du Bois and urged racial pride among African Americans, and Opportunity, published by the National Urban League. Also influential was the book The New Negro: An Interpretation (1925), edited by Alain Locke.
Responding to the heady intellectual atmosphere of the time and place, writers and artists, many of whom lived in Harlem, began to produce a wide variety of fine and highly original works dealing with African-American life. These works attracted many black readers. New to the wider culture, they also attracted commercial publishers and a large white readership. Writers associated with the Harlem Renaissance include Arna Bontemps, Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, James Weldon Johnson, Zora Neale Hurston, and Jean Toomer. Visual artists connected with the movement are less generally known. Among the painters are Aaron Douglas, Palmer Hayden, Malvin G. Johnson, and William H. Johnson. The best-known sculptor is probably Augusta Savage. Photographers include James Van Der Zee and Roy De Carava. The Harlem Renaissance faded with the onset of the Great Depression of the 1930s.
See D. L. Lewis, ed., The Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader (1994) and as author, When Harlem Was In Vogue (1981, repr. 1997); N. I. Huggins, Harlem Renaissance (1971); B. Kellner, ed., The Harlem Renaissance: A Historical Dictionary for the Era (1987); M. S. Campbell, ed., Harlem Renaissance: Art of Black America (1987, repr. 1994); L. Harris, ed., The Philosophy of Alain Locke: Harlem Renaissance and Beyond (1989); H. Bloom, ed., Black American Prose Writers of the Harlem Renaissance (1994); J. O. G. Ogbar, The Harlem Renaissance Revisited: Politics, Arts, and Letters (2010). In addition, many materials relating to the period can be found in the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York City.
"Harlem Renaissance." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 26, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/harlem-renaissance
"Harlem Renaissance." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved June 26, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/harlem-renaissance
"Harlem Renaissance." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 26, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/harlem-renaissance
"Harlem Renaissance." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved June 26, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/harlem-renaissance