... A Swell Time while It Lasted ...": The End of the Harlem Renaissance,,19728,2001-01-01 00:00:00.000,2010-04-23 00:00:00.000,9999-12-31 23:59:59.997,NULL,NULL,NULL,NULL,1G2,164561G2:3425700019,3425700019,"Cullen, Countee

views updated

"... A Swell Time while It Lasted ...": The End of the Harlem Renaissance

In his autobiography, The Big Sea, Langston Hughes (1902–1967; see biographical entry) wrote of the Harlem Renaissance: "I was there. I had a swell time while it lasted. But I thought it wouldn't last long.... For how could a large and enthusiastic number of people be crazy about Negroes forever?"

The effect of the Great Depression on the Harlem Renaissance

Just as modern-day critics and historians disagree on when exactly the Harlem Renaissance began, none can pinpoint the moment it ended. Some say that it died naturally because it did not have a strong enough foundation to last. Others say the loss of certain key people—to jobs and lives outside of Harlem or to death—triggered its demise. Still others claim that the end of Prohibition (a ban on the "manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors" that began with the 1918 passage of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution and ended with the repeal of the amendment in 1933 after the government was no longer able to enforce it; see Chapter 6) made "going uptown" unnecessary and not so glamorous, taking Harlem out of the spotlight. But all agree that the biggest reason for the decline of the Harlem Renaissance was the dawn of the Great Depression, a period of economic downturn that caused widespread poverty and suffering for millions of Americans.

The Depression lasted from approximately 1929 (when the stock market collapsed) until the United States entered World War II in 1941, when the demand for war-related materials and supplies created jobs and gave the economy a big boost. Throughout the 1920s the U.S. economy was weakened by a number of factors, among them (1) the tendency of many Americans to spend more money than they earned and to rely on credit to buy what they wanted; (2) an uneven distribution of wealth that put the largest part of the profits earned by big businesses into the hands of a small percentage of people; and (3) unwise lending practices by American banks.

At the same time, the stock market was growing too fast, as investors eager to get rich quick paid inflated prices for stocks. Then, toward the end of the 1920s, people began to think that they would lose the money they had invested in stocks. Large numbers of investors panicked and sold their stocks, causing the stock market "crash" and losses estimated at thirty billion dollars. The result was dismal: the production and sale of goods in the United States declined rapidly, and so did the employment rate. Soon more than fifteen million Americans (about one-quarter of the workforce) were out of work.

The Great Depression had a devastating effect on Harlem's African American community. Median family income went from $1,808 in 1929 to $1,019 in 1932, a 43.6 percent decrease in only three years. Yet migrants continued to flood into Harlem, so rents stayed high. Even though the number of black professionals had grown by 69 percent between 1920 and 1930 (according to research by sociologist Charles S. Johnson at Fisk University), those who would come of age in the 1930s faced a bleak future as black banks and businesses collapsed and the funds for education dried up.

Harlem undergoes a change

Hard economic times meant a cultural downturn as well, as Harlem began its descent from a thriving center of black life to a community beset by poverty and crime. Now only the richest people, black or white, could afford Harlem's fancy, expensive nightclubs; everybody else went to the shab-bier speakeasies. Meanwhile, music fans were becoming more interested in the sophisticated sounds of "swing," and the jazz center moved south, away from Harlem and into downtown Manhattan.

Racism, however, seemed just as strong as ever, as shown by the 1931 case of the Scottsboro Boys. These nine Alabama youths, whose ages ranged from thirteen to nineteen, had been accused of raping two white prostitutes, one of whom later reversed her story. The evidence against them was extremely flimsy, yet eight of the nine were convicted and sentenced to death (the youngest received life imprisonment). Many people felt that the accusations and convictions were racially motivated. A widespread public outcry finally led to several new trials, and five of the youths were released while the other four spent long terms in prison. For blacks as well as whites concerned about civil rights, the case highlighted the fact that the battle against racism and injustice was far from over.

It's not over yet

Nevertheless, for a few years after the stock market crash, some things remained much the same as they had been during the glory years of the Harlem Renaissance. There were still accomplishments to laud and interesting things to do and see. A number of major literary works were published between 1929 and 1931, including novels by Wallace Thurman (The Blacker the Berry; see biographical entry), Claude McKay (Banjo; see biographical entry) and Langston Hughes (Not without Laughter; see biographical entry), poetry by Countee Cullen (The Black Christ; see biographical entry); and James Weldon Johnson's history of Harlem, Black Manhattan. In 1929 both Thurman's drama Harlem and the musical revue Ain't Misbehavin' opened on Broadway. Duke Ellington appeared with his orchestra in a short film called Black and Tan, and the Harmon Foundation sponsored an exhibition of works by African American artists at the National Gallery and a traveling exhibit that was viewed by 150,000 people around the United States.

Still, things had changed, and they would change even more over the next few years. The wealthy whites who had supported African American writers and other artists with money and encouragement could no longer afford to do so, or they just weren't as interested as they had been; "we were no longer in vogue," remembered Langston Hughes. In addition, conflicts and events that occurred within the ranks of the Harlem Renaissance leadership helped bring the period to a close.

"... the end of the gay times ...."

One such event was the death of heiress and hostess A'lelia Walker, whose nightclub and literary salon, the Dark Tower, had been a popular and fashionable gathering place for what Zora Neale Hurston (1891–1960; see biographical entry) called "the Niggerati" (the innovative young black writers and artists who formed the core of the Harlem Renaissance) and their followers. Walker had long suffered from high blood pressure, and she died suddenly from a heart attack on August 17, 1931. Laid out in a silver casket, her body was viewed by several thousand mourners. Her crowded funeral featured a eulogy delivered by the distinguished Reverend Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. and a performance of popular songwriter Noel Coward's "I'll See You Again" by a group called the Four Bon Bons. Walker's luxurious Long Island mansion, Villa Lewaro, had already been auctioned off, and her Harlem townhouse was leased to the city. Remembering the funeral, Hughes wrote in The Big Sea: "That was really the end of the gay times of the New Negro in Harlem."

But there were a few more sad events to come. The younger generation of the Harlem Renaissance was again reminded of its own mortality with the deaths of writers Wallace Thurman (1902–1934) and Rudolph Fisher (1897–1934), which occurred within days of each other in 1934. Thurman suffered from tuberculosis and other ailments, and his doctor had warned him to stop drinking alcohol. Depressed and deeply disappointed in himself (despite what other people saw as some major achievements), Thurman not only ignored his doctor's warning but went on a drinking binge that led to his death in the charity ward of a New York hospital. Fisher, a radiologist, died of cancer that may have been caused by exposure to his own x-ray equipment.

The lives of other Harlem Renaissance notables were moving in different directions as well. During the 1930s Alain Locke (1886–1954; see biographical entry) turned all of his attention to his work as a Howard University professor. In a letter to Charlotte Mason (quoted in David Levering Lewis's When Harlem Was in Vogue), he commented: "I know it isn't the end of the world, but it is the end of an era." W.E.B. Du Bois (1868–1963; see biographical entry) left the editorship of the financially troubled Crisis in 1934, after puzzling his friends with his advocacy of voluntary segregation as the only solution to racism. James Weldon Johnson (1871–1938) resigned his position as leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and joined the staff at Fisk University as a professor of creative writing. Charles S. Johnson (1893–1956) and painter Aaron Douglas (1899–1979; see biographical entry) also took jobs at Fisk. Jessie Fauset (1882–1961; see biographical entry) wrote The Chinaberry Tree and Comedy, American Style before marrying and settling into life as a New Jersey homemaker.

Few of the Harlem Renaissance writers retained the glory and prominence they had once enjoyed. The immensely promising and innovative Jean Toomer (1894–1967; see biographical entry) wrote little after becoming involved with the Gurdjieff movement (which held that people could achieve higher consciousness through a balance of mind, soul, and body) and even claimed that he considered himself not black but "American, simply an American." Countee Cullen (1903–1946; see biographical entry) received little fanfare and no glowing reviews for his poems in The Black Christ or for his novel One Way to Heaven, and in 1934 he returned to DeWitt Clinton High School, where he had been a student, to teach French. Cullen remained there until his death in 1946. Claude McKay (1890–1948; see biographical entry), who had left Harlem for Europe and North Africa before the renaissance began, returned after it had ended and tried unsuccessfully to establish a magazine that would appeal to a wide spectrum of African Americans. He published two nonfiction works, the autobiographical A Long Way from Home (1937) and Harlem: Negro Metropolis (1940) and surprised his former friends by converting to Catholicism just before his death in 1948.

Hurston and Hughes continue their careers

Two notable figures who produced significant works in the post-Harlem Renaissance years were Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes. Yet, due to a disagreement over shared work on a play called Mule Bone, these two talented people spoke to each other only once over the next few decades. Mule Bone was to be a three-act comedy based on a folktale collected by Hurston during her travels in the South. Wealthy patron Charlotte Mason (see Chapter 2) paid the rent on a house in New Jersey where Hurston and Hughes worked together on the play. Then, Hurston went off on a trip to Florida, and Hughes traveled to Cuba and other places in pursuit of other projects. Later, Hughes heard that Hurston was marketing Mule Bone as her own creation; her refusal to acknowledge Hughes's role caused a permanent rift between the two, and the play was not staged until 1991.

This conflict aside, however, Hurston's career thrived after 1932, when she turned away from Mason's sheltering embrace and monetary support. The publication of Their Eyes Were Watching God—widely regarded as her finest work and a masterpiece of American literature—came in 1937. Hurston also produced an autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road (1942), and another novel, Seraph on the Suwanee; 1948) which were praised by critics but not very popular with readers. Finally she retired from literary pursuits to live on a houseboat and support herself with low-paying jobs. Hurston died poor in 1960 and was buried in an anonymous grave, but in 1973 writer Alice Walker—who greatly admired Hurston's work—located what she thought was probably Hurston's burial site and placed a memorial stone there.

Langston Hughes was one of few Harlem Renaissance stars to enjoy a fully successful career and public adoration until the end of his life. But this occurred after he endured some painful events, especially the ending of his relationships with both Charlotte Mason and Zora Neale Hurston. It was with deep regret that Hughes broke with Mason, who seems to have served not only as a material supporter but also as a maternal figure to him. Her idea that African American writers should produce "primitive" works finally became too limiting for Hughes, and when he told Mason that he wanted to write according to his own creative vision, not hers, and could no longer accept her support, she gave him a strong tongue-lashing and sent him on his way. Then Hughes's friendship with Hurston came to a nasty end with the conflict over Mule Bone. Hughes recovered his spirits somewhat during a poetry-reading tour of the Deep South and the West, and he published a volume of short stories called The Ways of White Folk (1934) that featured satires of various Harlem Renaissance figures, including Charlotte Mason and Carl Van Vechten. In 1932 Hughes traveled to Russia with a group of twenty young people, very few of them actors, who had been hired to appear in a Russian-produced film (to be called Black and White) about the problems and experiences of African Americans since the Civil War. The group was very warmly received in Moscow, but the film was never made, due partly to the participants' lack of acting ability and a bad script and partly to Russia's reluctance to offend the U.S. government.

Hughes continued to travel extensively, both overseas and in the United States, and his poetry became more politically radical as his frustrations over black people's continued suffering grew. Eventually he returned to Harlem. There, he put his talent to use in many different ways over the next several decades, writing not only poetry but also nonfiction articles, essays, and even song lyrics. By the end of his life he was revered as the best-known, and perhaps the most influential, figure in African American literature.

Writers shift their focus

As the Great Depression tightened its grim hold on the United States, novelists and other artists began turning away from the literary experimentation of the 1920s. Their focus shifted toward realism and highlighting larger social issues. Major writers like Sherwood Anderson, John Dos Passos, and Theodore Dreiser were creating works that portrayed the struggles of ordinary Americans in hard times, and their writings often revealed their leftist (the belief that society needs to change to benefit all citizens) attitudes. Many writers were even touting communism (an economic system that promotes the ownership of all property by the community as a whole) as the only solution to society's ills; both Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen, for example, supported the Communist Party's candidate in the U.S. presidential election of 1932.

The New Deal disappoints African Americans

That candidate did not win, however. The winner of the presidential race was Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882–1945), the Democratic party candidate. He had gained the support of several groups of voters—blacks among them—who had never voted for a Democrat before. (African Americans traditionally voted Republican because the man they credited with ending slavery, President Abraham Lincoln, had been a Republican.) Roosevelt promised not only to help those hurt by the Depression but also to work for expanded civil rights for blacks. The program of reforms he sponsored, which he called the "New Deal," did indeed bring hope and jobs to unemployed, desperate Americans, but Roosevelt did not really live up to his promise of helping African Americans. He told black leaders that he could not afford to offend the "Dixiecrats," a group of powerful southern politicians whose support he needed to push his reforms through Congress and who were opposed to granting blacks more civil rights.

African Americans were very discouraged with how slowly they were moving toward full equality. It seemed that no matter how smart or talented they were or what great things they created or did, they could never prove their worth to whites. Despite the grand predictions of Alain Locke and others that black achievements would lead to recognition and respect from white America, the Harlem Renaissance had not sparked any real changes. A new spirit seemed to overtake Harlem—a spirit of disappointment—and the communal feeling that had once prevailed (the feeling of we-are-all-in-this-together) began to fade. Even the Tree of Hope outside the famous Connie's Inn (see Chapter 6), some superstitious people noted, was ailing.

A burst of anger

Disappointment led to frustration among black Americans, and frustration finally erupted into anger and violence. One of the issues that had come to disturb Harlem residents was the fact that few of the many white-owned businesses in Harlem, whose profits came from black customers, hired black employees, particularly in positions of responsibility. There were some peaceful organized protests, but finally, on March 19, 1935, the African American community expressed its rage through rioting and destruction on Harlem's Lenox Avenue. The incident was fueled by the rumored beating death of a teenager who had been roughed up by white store clerks after being caught shoplifting. In the end, three blacks were killed, thirty were injured, and more than a hundred were jailed; the approximately twenty thousand participants had caused a two-million-dollar loss to white-owned commercial property. This event suggested to many that a new, more brutal, era had begun in Harlem.

Taking stock of the Harlem Renaissance

Even at its height, the Harlem Renaissance was viewed by some as a shallow movement, in which the most privileged members of the African American community amused themselves while the less privileged continued to suffer in much the same way they always had. And there were those who said that the Harlem Renaissance occurred mostly for the benefit of white people whose interest in African American culture was just a passing fad.

In the years following the Harlem Renaissance, African Americans endured trying times as they struggled to define themselves within their country's wider culture. Contemporary black writers like Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Alice Walker have faulted some Harlem Renaissance artists for appealing to only a small segment of the black audience, but they have also admitted that the period left an artistic foundation upon which later writers, painters, and musicians could, and did, build. The innovative jazz-influenced poetry of Langston Hughes, the skillfully written and colorful short stories of Jean Toomer, the novels of Claude McKay and Jessie Redmon Fauset, the paintings of Aaron Douglas, and the music of Fats Waller and Duke Ellington—these are all real achievements. They are worth remembering, worth studying, and still enjoyable and enriching for today's readers and audiences. As critic George Kent wrote in the June 1972 issue of Black World magazine, the talented participants in the Harlem Renaissance "made paths through what had been stubborn thickets." For one short but thrilling decade, they created a world that had never before existed.

For More Information

Bontemps, Arna. The Harlem Renaissance Remembered. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1972.

Huggins, Nathan Irvin. Harlem Renaissance. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971.

Kellner, Bruce, ed. The Harlem Renaissance: A Historical Dictionary for theEra. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1984.

Lewis, David Levering. When Harlem Was in Vogue. New York: Knopf, 1981.

Watson, Steven. The Harlem Renaissance: Hub of African-American Culture,1920–1930. New York: Pantheon Books, 1995.