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Harlem Renaissance

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on July 14, 2011 at 6:55:24 am



 Harlem Renaissance





  • Overview


The Harlem Renaissance was the most significant event in African American intellectual and cultural life in the twentieth century. Its was a literary movement that touched almost every component of African American creative culture in the period from World War I through the Great Depression: music, the visual arts, theater, and literature. It also affected politics, social development, and almost every phase of the African American experience in the 1920s and 1930s.


Langston Hughes was a prominent member of the Harlem Renaissance -- a movement during the 1920s of black writers and intellectuals who engaged in intense debate regarding the place of the African American in American life, and on the role and identity of the African-American artist. Pictured here are Langston Hughes [far left] with [left to right:] Charles S. Johnson, E. Franklin Frazier, Rudolph Fisher and Hubert T. Delaney, on a Harlem rooftop on the occasion of a party in Hughes' honor, 1924.


The Harlem Renaissance was a move toward so-called "high art" in black writing, rather than the use of folk idioms, comic writing, and vernacular that had often been considered the special realm of African-American writing up to that time. In some respects this shift mirrors the change from rural to urban life for many blacks in this period. However, several of the Harlem writers made powerful use of folk idioms such as the blues, particularly Langston Hughes (1902-67). The Harlem writers also engaged in an intense debate regarding the place of the African American in American life, and on the role and identity of the African-American artist. In this sense the Harlem Renaissance is by no means a monolithic movement with a single purpose. For example, the artistic differences between Hughes and the poet Countee Cullen (1903-46) are instructive. Cullen felt that an African-American poet should be free to write in mainstream established traditions, and need not to "color" poetry. "I want to be a poet, not a Negro poet," he said, and wrote in forms such as the sonnet and became a translator of Euripides. Hughes, on the other hand, saw this attitude as a betrayal of racial identity, an aping of white Europeans, and sought in his work to accept and explore his blackness using forms and idioms that he associated with it. Both are major poets but their differences point to the relative breadth of the movement and to the development of quite different kinds of African-American writing in the Harlem Renaissance.


Harlem Renaissance writers include James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938), Jessie Redmon Fauset (1882-1961), the Jamaican-born Claude McKay (1889-1948), Zora Neale Hurston, Nella Larsen (1893-1964), Jean Toomer (1894-1967), Arna Bontemps (1902-73), Gwendolyn Bennett (1902-81), and Helene Johnson (1907-95). In addition to the NEW NEGRO anthology, key works produced during the period of the renaissance or during its influence include Toomer's multigeneric CANE (1923), Hughes' WEARY'S BLUES (1926), Larsen's QUICKSAND (1928) and PASSING (1929), and Hurston's THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD (1937).


  • Brief Summary of Movement


When African-Americans settled in Harlem, they brought their hopes and dreams. They also brought their history, their culture, and their talents. Soon, the neighborhood was bursting with creative energy. African-Americans were creating a new identity. Their new home gave them a chance to express themselves and to show their talents. This time period became known as the Harlem Renaissance. Renaissance means "new birth." And that's exactly what was happening in Harlem. Music and writing was the took over Harlem. The world took notice of what was happening in Harlem. The Harlem Renaissance allowed many African Americans to experience these new works. White society first became aware of African-American writers and artists during this period and began to show appreciation for their work. Many people were introduced to African-American culture for the first time. People all over the country were enjoying African- American literature, were moved by their art, and listened to their music. The Harlem Renaissance gave a powerful voice to African-American people everywhere.


The Harlem Renaissance was primarily a literary and intellectual movement, the precise chronological limits of which are somewhat difficult to define. Generally the consensus among scholars has been that the Harlem Renaissance was an event of the 1920s, bounded on one side by the war and the race riots of 1919 and on the other side by the 1929 stock market crash. Some... have greatly extended or sharply limited the movement's lifespan. Abraham Chapman, for example, saw elements of the Renaissance in Claude McKay's poetry of 1917 and even in W. E. B. DuBois' poem "Song of Smoke," which appeared in 1899.


  • Main Characters

Langston Hughes was the most famous poet of the time. His poems focused on the lives of working class African Americans. Other prominent Harlem Renaissance writers include James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938), Jessie Redmon Fauset (1882-1961), the Jamaican-born Claude McKay (1889-1948), Zora Neale Hurston, Nella Larsen (1893-1964), Jean Toomer (1894-1967), Arna Bontemps (1902-73), Gwendolyn Bennett (1902-81), and Helene Johnson (1907-95). In addition to the NEW NEGRO anthology, key works produced during the period of the renaissance or during its influence include Toomer's multigeneric CANE (1923), Hughes' WEARY'S BLUES (1926), Larsen's QUICKSAND (1928) and PASSING (1929), and Hurston's THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD (1937).


Harlem was reborn in many ways. Jazz and blues composers like Jelly Roll Morton and Duke Ellington created lyrics and beats that reflected the excitement of the time. Actresses like Josephine Baker performed at the famous Apollo Theatre. Dancers like Billy "Bojangles" Robinson tapped down Broadway. Singers like Billie Holiday sang the blues. Musicians like Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie played their trumpets. The Harlem Renaissance was also a literary movement. Several famous writers told stories in the voices of ordinary African-Americans. Zora Neal Hurston, one of the most famous writers, wrote about black culture and the attitudes of her people. W.E.B. DuBois
wrote about the tense relationship between blacks and whites; all of them spoke out against racism and they wrote about their dreams for racial equality.


Louis Armstrong and

Duke Ellington                                   Billie Holiday                           Dizzy Gillespie                       W.E.B. DuBois            Langston Hughes






  • Style

No common literary style, artistic style or political ideology defined the Harlem Renaissance. What united participants was their sense of taking part in a common endeavor and their commitment to giving artistic expression to the African-American experience. Some common themes existed, such as an interest in the roots of the 20th-century African-American experience in Africa and the American South, and a strong sense of racial pride and desire for social and political equality.


  • Structure

The 1920s saw the flowering of African American culture in the arts. In music, black culture expressed itself through jazz, derived from slave songs and African spirituals. Jazz first emerged in the early 1900s in New Orleans then spread to Chicago, New York City, and elsewhere. The 1920s is often called the  "Jazz Age" because jazz flourished and gained widespread appeal during the decade. The character of the music was often associated with the “loose” morals and relaxed social codes of the time. Among the famous jazz performers of the period were Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, and Duke Ellington. The flowering of black literature in the Northeast, especially in Harlem in New York City, was known as the Harlem Renaissance  Black artists explored the African American perspective through poetry and novels. One of the most famous authors of the time was the poet Langston Hughes, who published “The Weary Blues,” in 1926. Harlem was the site of social activity as well as intellectual activity, as prominent and wealthy blacks hosted extravagant gatherings for Harlem Renaissance figures.




  • Theme


To truly understand the Harlem Renaissance and appreciate its contributions, it is necessary to know some of the major ideas and issues underlying its creative works and cultural activities. There were many themes, ideas and issues that ran through Harlem Renaissance thinking and expression. A few of them include:

1. Roots in the south and Africa: The Harlem Renaissance celebrated, respected and explored the origins of African Americans in the south and in Africa. Rather than looking to Europe and colonial America as the source of ideas, beauty and insight, many of its novels and other creative works were based on themes and issues in Africa and southern life. Previously, Africa and the south were seen as embarrassingly backward, primitive places that progressive Blacks tried not to be identified with but the Harlem Renaissance changed this feeling.

An interest in Africa had started earlier in the century (e.g. in the form of the Pan-African Congresses organized by DuBois) and was reflected widely in literature, dance, music and the visual arts. Even in businesses the interest in Africa was reflected (for example in the names of companies and in advertising). Ethiopia was considered a symbol of all of Africa and members of the African race were often euphemistically called Ethiopian or Nubian. For example, one services business was named "The Ethiopian Life Insurance Company". European artists also were heavily influenced by the values and appearance of African art. Major sculptures with African themes started to appear in non-African settings. Artists such as Aaron Douglas began to use themes such as African Masks and the desire to relate to an African homeland in magazine illustrations, murals and paintings. It should be noted that not only was Africa seen and respected as the homeland of African Americans but the image of Africa began to be upgraded and redefined. Instead of seeing Africa as primitive, pagan and embarrassingly backward, Harlem Renaissance creative types redefined Africa as a worthwhile, beautiful homeland that had given much, had much to teach and should be celebrated with a sense of pride of origins.

2. Racial identity and self-acceptance: In the Harlem Renaissance, the acceptance of and fascination with African Americans themselves and their origins, culture, personalities and styles was highlighted. It was felt that African Americans should define themselves and be the voice and interpreters of their own culture. This focus on being Black went beyond the quaint, homey and pleasant characters of Paul Laurence Dunbar and broke new ground to explore complex and sometimes unpleasant themes. In many ways this theme anticipated the ideas of the Black is Beautiful movement decades later in the 1960s and 70s.

3. Black vs. white mainstream culture: Though they were African Americans, Harlem Renaissance cultural activists were also intellectuals in general and they thus also felt a kinship with general artistic and literary trends. Their racial identity made them Black but their profession placed them in what was then considered a European intellectual tradition. Some were concerned with proving to the world that African Americans could create and express European culture as well as any European could while others wanted to abandon Europe as a cultural model and base their work on African, Caribbean or southern Black models. Some artists, musicians and writers handled this conflict differently from others.

Expressing oneself and the black man's feelings: The Harlem Renaissance was nothing if not an expressive period. Its concerns were to express what Blacks saw, felt, experienced and thought from the inside. Rather than be depicted, characterized or portrayed by others, its practitioners took upon themselves the task of expressing and describing Black realities, problems and thoughts. Having the ability and responsibility to express themselves was itself one of the major issues the New Negro had to face.

5. Harlem: Harlem, the place and the state of mind it involved, is itself a major theme of the Harlem Renaissance. The people, character types, lifestyle and activities of Harlem energized and inspired its creative types. A number of important books have Harlem in their titles or refer to Harlem issues in their plots.

6. The common folk: The problems and nobility of the common person and his culture was also a concern for Harlem Renaissance artists and intellectuals, just as it was for other writers and thinkers of the 1930s. The music of the common man, jazz and the blues, formerly considered low down or even sinful, began to rise in acceptance among the cultural set. There was also a certain amount of inner conflict over not being the common man. Though they spoke of and for the common man, they themselves were in fact not the common man.



  • Quotes

"I've always been interested in history, but they never taught Negro history in the public schools... I don't see how a history of the United States can be written honestly without including the Negro." - Jacob Lawrence, 1940






"...Our problem is to conceive, develop, establish an art era. Not white art painting black...let's bare our arms and plunge them deep through laughter, through pain, through sorrow, through hope, through disappointment, into the very depths of the souls of our people and drag forth material crude, rough, neglected. Then let's sing it, dance it, write it, paint it. Let's do the impossible. Let's create something transcendentally material, mystically objective. Earthy. Spiritually earthy. Dynamic." - Aaron Douglas


"Sometimes I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can anyone deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It's beyond me." - Zora Neale Hurston  


“We are drawn to the Harlem Renaissance because of the hope for black uplift and interracial interaction and empathy that it embodied and because there is a certain element of romanticism associated with the era’s creativity, its seemingly larger-than-life heroes and heroines, and its most brilliantly lit terrain, Harlem, USA.” ––Clement Alexander Price, Race, Blackness, and Modernism During the Harlem Renaissance 


  • Reception/Legacy

The Harlem Renaissance had a number of results and outcomes that lasted long after it ended and that were felt far beyond the boundaries of Harlem and Black America:

  • It portrayed and exemplified a new type of African American and thus helped to change the African American image forever
  • It started and established the careers of many important African American writers, artists and thinkers who were influential for decades after
  • It brought forth a body of creative cultural work (e.g. art, music and literature) that have become classics in African American and American culture
  • It created an ongoing interest in African American culture that continues up to this day
  • It bequeathed to Harlem a glamour that made it famous world-wide. Even now the word "Harlem" creates a special excitement that many people recognize and respond to, even if they know nothing else about the African American experience
  • It established Harlem as the cultural and political capital of Black America for artistic, entertainment and cultural purposes (even though the south was in many senses the original geographical homeland of most African Americans).
  • Its achievements led to later important African American advances such as the civil rights movement.
  • It caused people all over the world to admire and imitate Black American cultural styles in music, dance, language, fashion, etc.



  • Works Cited

Ryan, Maureen. "THE HARLEM RENAISSANCE." Scholastic Action 28.9 (2005): 14. MasterFILE Premier. EBSCO. Web. 12 July 2011.















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