In the late teens and early 20s of the 20th century, there was a great migration of blacks from the rural South to the urban North. This literal movement sparked what was called the Harlem Renaissance–named after the New York City neighborhood, it was a movement seen in all major US cities–also known as the New Negro movement, the New Negro Renaissance, and the Negro Renaissance.
This movement, began around 1918 as World War One ended, blossoming in the 20s and then fading away in the Depression Era 1930s. The Harlem Renaissance marked the beginnings of mainstream–white–publishers and critics taking African American literature seriously, which it turn made it accessible, and of interest, to the nation as a whole. And though it was primarily a literary movement, the Harlem Renaissance also brought about widespread interest in African American music, theater, art, and politics.
During this Great Migration of blacks leaving the South, coupled with a new more powerful politically charged group of African Americans who fought for racial equality, more and more educated and socially conscious blacks settled in New York, in Harlem, bringing with them a rich history of art, music and literature never before seen in the North. Harlem became the political and cultural center of black America.
African American art and literature seemed destined to become more mainstream just before the turn of the century, but as many blacks left the South in hopes of finding a more prosperous life for themselves, musical genres that once seemed specifically Southern, jazz and the blues, moved north, winding up in nightclubs and cabarets in Harlem.
In literature, poet Paul Laurence Dunbar and novelists Charles Chestnutt, were among the earliest African Americans to see their work become accepted by white America in the 1890s. By the end of World War I, the fiction of James Weldon Johnson and Claude McKay’s poetry began to inform all of America about the harsh realities of black life, and the struggle for racial identity, and for equality.
There seem to be several specific works that sparked interest in an African American literary voice: Claude McKay’s volume of poetry, Harlem Shadows
–which was one of the first works by a black writer to be published by a mainstream, national publisher; Cane
by Jean Toomer, was an experiment in both prose and poetry, documenting the lives of Black Americans; and There Is
Confusion, by Jessie Fauset, which told America of black middle-class life from a female point of view.
Building a foundation upon these literary works, the Harlem Renaissance was born. Three significant events then gained a foothold to further the movement out of Harlem and into the heartland.
The first, in early 1924, was a dinner, hosted by Charles Johnson of the National Urban League to introduce black writers to New York’s white literary establishment. As a result of this dinner, The Survey Graphic, a magazine of social analysis and criticism produced a Harlem issue in March 1925. It was devoted to defining the aesthetic of black literature and art, and featured works by black writers.
The second event, in 1926, was the publication of Nigger Heaven by white novelist Carl Van Vechten. It was an exposé of Harlem life, and though it offended many in the black community, its depiction of both an elite and a baser side of Harlem created a “Negro vogue.” Suddenly Harlem was overwhelmed by white New Yorkers drawn to its exotic nightlife, its new music, its new voice.
Then, in the fall of ’26, a group of young black writers produced Fire!!, their own literary magazine. With that publication, a whole new generation of African American writers and artists, like Langston Highes, Wallace Thurman, and Zora Neale Hurston took over the Harlem Renaissance.
Yet there was no one style that defined the Renaissance; rather, it was a commitment to giving voice, voices, to the African American community through the written word, through art, music, even through fashion. Those voices told the story of African Americans in the 20th century, in both Africa and the South; it told of a strong sense of pride in being black, and of a deep-seated need for equality, socially and politically. It was a voice that simply asked to be heard, to be acknowledged. These voices, the means to spreading the African American story were as diverse as the stories themselves.
Langston Hughes wove music–African music, jazz and blues–into his poetry: The Weary Blues
. Claude McKay wrote sonnets attacking racial violence in If We Must Die;
he also gave glimpse to the glamour and the grit of Harlem in Harlem Shadows
. In the poem Heritage, Countee Cullen talks of being both Christian and African, yet not belonging fully to either tradition. Quicksand
, by Nella Larsen, gave voice to the African American woman’s loss of identity, and Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God
, used folk life of the black rural south to create a brilliant study of race and gender in which a woman finds her true identity.
Diversity and experimentation flourished in the performing arts, in Bessie Smith’s blues, and in jazz. Jazz was everything, from a marriage of blues and ragtime–Jelly Roll Morton–to instrumentals–Louis Armstrong–and composer Duke Ellington. Painter Aaron Douglas voiced his opinion through a primitive style of painting, incorporating African elements in his works.
The audiences were mixed. The literature of the Harlem Renaissance appealed to the African American middle class and to the white book-buying public. Magazines like The Crisis and Opportunity gave work to Harlem Renaissance writers, published poetry and short stories by black writers, and promoted African American literature. These voices were heard by the black community, proud, for once to have a voice they recognized, and by the white community, desperate to learn more about black Americans.
While one of the great outcomes of the Renaissance was that it allowed access for black writers to the white publishing houses, the movement relied too heavily on white publishing houses and white-owned magazines for some. Most African American critics supported the relationship, seeing it as a means to equality, a way to acceptance, but others, like W.E.B. Du Bois, criticized the Harlem Renaissance, and accused black writers of reinforcing negative African American stereotypes. In response to the critics, Langston Hughes wrote an essay, The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain
in 1926, where he told of black artists who needed an outlet to express themselves freely, no matter what the public–black or white–thought.
In the cabarets, the audiences were also mixed; Harlem residents and white New Yorkers sought out Harlem nightlife. it was new to white New Yorkers; different, dangerous, exotic. Clubs catered to white clientele over the black community; some places, most notably the Cotton Club, carried this to an extreme, by providing black entertainment for exclusively white audiences.
So, what caused the end of the Harlem Renaissance in the 30s?
The Depression increased economic pressure on all sectors of life. Organizations like the NAACP and the Urban League, which once promoted the Renaissance, now shifted their interests toward economic and social issues.
And many black writers–Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson and Charles Johnson–left New York City. A riot in Harlem in 1935—sparked by economic hardships of the Depression and increased racial tension between the black community and white shop-owners–destroyed the once popular view of Harlem as a the ‘Mecca of the New Negro.’ It now had the appearance of a new danger, no longer exotic, simply violent. White New Yorkers began to avoid Harlem, and the neighborhood sank deeper into despair.
However, in spite of all the changes–economic ills, thee artists and writers seeking new venues for their voices, a rice in racism–the Renaissance did not disappear overnight. Nearly one-third of the books published during the Renaissance appeared after 1929. While many believe the Harlem Renaissance ended when most of those associated with it left, or stopped writing, new voice emerged in the 30s and 40s who were never associated with the movement.
The Harlem Renaissance forever changed the African American arts and literature movement in America. Writers that came after found publishers and the public more open to their works than they had been previously. And the Renaissance inspired new generations of African American authors, like Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright; even authors such as Toni Morrison and Alice Walker, who found success in the 1980s and ’90s, owe a debt of gratitude to the Harlem Renaissance.
Many who found fame and acceptance in the Harlem Renaissance–writers Claude McKay, Langston Hughes, and Countee Cullen, actor and musician Paul Robeson
, dancer Josephine Baker
–traveled to Europe and attained a popularity there that rivaled or surpassed what they achieved in the United States.
For thousands of blacks around the world, the Harlem Renaissance was proof that the white race did not hold a monopoly on literature and culture. For thousands of whites around the world, the Harlem Renaissance gave view to a world they have never before seen or experienced. The Harlem Renaissance was a step towrd the realization that, while we all may have differing storieds, differing birth places, skin colors, voices, we are all part of one another.