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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 PanAfrican 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 “overcivilized” 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.
- 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.
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