Harlem Renaissance

The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018

Harlem Renaissance

Harlem Renaissance: An intellectual and cultural movement of the 1920s centered in Harlem, then a predominantly African American section of New York City, and focusing on the arts — literature in particular but also visual art, music, theater, and dance. The movement was originally called the “New Negro Renaissance,” reflecting the aspirations and expectations of participants who sought to build racial consciousness, celebrate black heritage, and gain recognition and acceptance. It is commonly dated to 1919, following the end of World War I, and reached its zenith in the latter half of the 1920s. The decline of the movement is often linked to the crash of the stock market in 1929 and the onset of the Great Depression, with an end date ranging from 1929 to the mid-1930s.

The Harlem Renaissance, which presented black life from a black point of view, was fueled by a mass migration of African Americans out of the South and into northern cities during the teens and in the aftermath of the war as well as by the emergence of a cadre of bold black intellectuals. Harlem, often called the “Negro Mecca,” grew tremendously during this period and served as a crossroads for urban diversity and rural roots, as exemplified by folklore and spirituals. The area became not only the nexus of black literature, theater, music, and dance but also an intellectual and artistic nerve center for the nation, highlighting African American culture for a diverse national audience for the first time. The movement embraced both traditional and new means of expression, employing classical as well as modernist forms and techniques, producing sonnets as well as jazz. Underlying the diversity of form and style, however, were common goals of race-building and integration. W. E. B. Du Bois, an educator and activist who devoted his life to “the problem of the color line,” took this view to an extreme, declaring in his essay “Criteria of Negro Art” (1926) that “all art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists.”

As the leading African American intellectual of his time, Du Bois was a major influence on the Harlem Renaissance, though most of the movement’s rising stars would reject his dogmatic insistence on portraying blacks in a positive light. Particularly influential was Du Bois’s concept of “twoness,” or dual identity; as he explained in The Souls of Black Folk (1903), a collection of essays on the plight of black Americans: “One ever feels his two-ness — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled stirrings: two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” Also influential was his concept of the “Talented Tenth,” an educated black elite to achieve social change. In his essay “The Talented Tenth” (1903), Du Bois advocated higher education for “[t]he best and most capable [black] youth” to make them “leaders of thought and missionaries of culture among their people”; he believed in “developing the Best of this race that they may guide the Mass away from the contamination and death of the Worst, in their own and other races.” Du Bois’s editorship of the NAACP journal The Crisis (1910— ), a position he held from the founding of the journal until 1934, was also critical in providing an outlet for the work of black writers.

Other significant “elders” of the Harlem Renaissance included Jessie Fauset, James Weldon Johnson, and Alain Locke. Fauset, a writer and teacher, served as literary editor of The Crisis from 1919 to 1926, cultivating young writers including Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, and Jean Toomer, in addition to producing several novels, poems, and essays of her own. Johnson, already admired for his novel The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912), compiled two anthologies, The Book of American Negro Poetry (1922) and The Book of American Negro Spirituals (1925), providing a literary foundation for the movement he called the “flowering of Negro literature.” Locke, a firm believer in the power of culture to further black advancement, produced the movement’s first manifesto, The New Negro, published first as a special issue of the magazine Survey Graphic (March 1925) and then in expanded form as an anthology the same year. The anthology, which included portrait drawings by Winold Reiss of movement participants, featured essays, fiction, and poems by emerging writers such as Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and McKay. In his introduction, Locke proclaimed that “Negro life is seizing upon its first chances for group expression and self-determination.”

With black writers generally shut out of the white publishing world, black periodicals provided virtually the only outlet for African American literature in the teens and the first half of the 1920s. In addition to The Crisis, the leading periodical of the Harlem Renaissance was the National Urban League’s Opportunity (1923—49), edited by sociologist Charles S. Johnson from 1923 to 1928. Charles Johnson, like Fauset, nurtured a generation of young black writers, publishing works including Hughes’s poem “The Weary Blues” (1923). Indeed, he is often credited with launching the “New Negro” movement by bringing black writers and white publishers together at a dinner sponsored by Opportunity in 1924. Fire!! (1926), an avant-garde literary magazine founded by artist Richard Bruce Nugent and Hughes and edited by writer Wallace Thurman, took a different approach. As a radical alternative manifesto to The New Negro, Fire!! featured many of the same leading young writers while presenting the rough, vernacular, even decadent and debauched side of Harlem that the cultural elite sought to hide.


Opportunity: A periodical of the Harlem Renaissance.

Patrons also played an important role in the Harlem Renaissance, providing support for young participants as well as connections to the publishing world. In 1928, A’Lelia Walker, a black heiress whom Hughes called the “joy-goddess of Harlem’s 1920s,” founded “The Dark Tower,” a salon named for Cullen’s column in Opportunity, to support Harlem culture. White writer Carl Van Vechten, author of Nigger Heaven (1926), a controversial best seller that described both the unseemly and the Talented Tenth life in Harlem and helped fuel a wave of “Harlemania,” provided financial support to Hughes and Hurston and served as a bridge to the white publishing world. “Godmother” Charlotte Mason, a white primitivist, provided financial support to protégés including visual artist Aaron Douglas, Hughes, Hurston, and Locke, funding, among other things, Hurston’s two-year expedition to the South to collect Negro folklore. Other white supporters — known as “Negrotarians,” a term coined by Hurston — included Jewish capitalists who made common cause with oppressed blacks and authors (such as Waldo Frank and Eugene O’Neill) who wrote black characters into their works and provided links to publishers.

Over the course of the 1920s, tensions began to emerge among participants in the Harlem Renaissance, particularly over the literary portrayal of black people. Du Bois and his followers, such as Fauset, Locke, and Cullen, favored dignified, uplifting portrayals focused on the Talented Tenth, which they saw as the engine of liberation. But another faction, dominated by younger artists and writers associated with “Niggerati Manor” — as Hurston referred to a rooming house where many members lived and gathered — sought more freedom of expression, including the freedom to depict “low,” popular culture and the “debauched tenth,” so to speak, of black society. This faction, which viewed the genteel ethos of the Talented Tenth (derogatorily termed “dicties”) as elitist and stultifying, included Douglas, Hurston, Nugent, Thurman, and Hughes, whose landmark essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” published in The Nation in 1926, addressed the issue of black artistic identity, proclaiming “We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame.” Publication of McKay’s Home to Harlem (1928), a picaresque novel about Harlem street life written while McKay was living abroad, showed up the rift as never before: Hughes called the book, which became the first best-selling novel in America by a black author, “the finest thing ’we’ve’ done yet”; Du Bois said “I feel distinctly like taking a bath.”

While literature was important to the Harlem Renaissance, music, dance, and theater did as much if not more to fuel “Harlemania” and the “vogue of the Negro,” white fascination with “exotic” Harlem life and culture. During the era of Prohibition, Harlem was the place to go for jazz, blues, speakeasies, and booze. Many were also drawn by an interest in primitivist and African themes, by the perception of black Americans as Noble Savages, both sensual and spiritual. Musicians and singers such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Bessie Smith, Fats Waller, and Ethel Waters played clubs and cabarets including the famous (and famously segregated) Cotton Club, which strictly enforced its whites-only audience policy. Fletcher Henderson, whose orchestra was the leading black society dance band, pioneered the “big band” sound. Musical revues and vaudeville were staples of Harlem Renaissance theater; Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake’s Shuffle Along (1921) was a breakthrough musical revue written and performed entirely by African Americans. Dance was also popular, with leading performers including Josephine Baker, renowned for “le jazz hot” as an expatriate in Paris; tap dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson; and the gyrating Earl “Snakehips” Tucker. The lindy hop, a trendy new dance step, was developed at the Savoy Ballroom in the late 1920s.

While the Harlem Renaissance had ended by the mid-1930s, when class concerns began to overshadow race, the movement is often cited as an influence on the subsequent civil rights movement. Racial consciousness, integration, interracial cooperation, and the importance of positive images of black Americans arose again as major themes in the struggle for equality.

FURTHER EXAMPLES: Hughes’s poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” written in 1920 and published in The Crisis in 1921:

I’ve known rivers:

I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.

I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.

I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.

I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

I’ve known rivers:

Ancient, dusky rivers.

My soul has grown deep like rivers.

Other notable works of the Harlem Renaissance include McKay’s Harlem Shadows (1922), a collection of seventy poems; Toomer’s Cane (1923), a modernist yet elegiac montage of poems, sketches, stories, and a novelette-drama depicting the black South; Fauset’s There Is Confusion (1924), the first female-authored novel of the movement; W. C. Handy’s Blues: An Anthology (1926); Nella Larsen’s short novels Quicksand (1928) and Passing (1929); Cullen’s The Black Christ and Other Poems (1929); Thurman’s play Harlem (1929), coauthored with William Rapp, a white friend; and Rudolph Fisher’s novels The Walls of Jericho (1928) and The Conjure-Man Dies (1932), generally considered the first African American detective novel. Arna Bontemps, a participant in the movement, chronicled its history years later in a collection of essays he edited entitled The Harlem Renaissance Remembered (1972).