The Harlem Renaissance

During the 1920s, Harlem became the capital of black America, attracting black intellectuals and artists from across the country and the Caribbean.

The Harlem Renaissance was the black version of the cultural rejection of the Lost Generation and the Algonquin Round Table. The Harlem Renaissance was the name given to the cultural, social, and artistic explosion that took place in Harlem between the end of World War I and the middle of the 1930s. During this period Harlem was a cultural center, drawing black writers of all genres, artists, musicians, painter, photographers, poets, and scholars to the area to pursue their crafts. The Renaissance was spurred by the Great Migration of blacks out of the South to northern cities in the first three decades of the Twentieth Century. A fierce racial conscious and a powerful sense of racial pride animated the literature of the Harlem Renaissance.

Major poets of the Harlem Renaissance include Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Jean Toomer (Crane, 1923) and Claude McKay (Harlem Shadows, 1922). The West Indian-born poet McKay expressed the new spirit of defiance and protest with militant words: “If we must die – oh let us nobly die…dying but fighting back!” The poet Countee Cullen eloquently expressed black artists’ long-suppressed desire to have their voices heard: “Yet do I marvel at a curious thing: To make a poet black and bid him sing!” Many of the greatest works of the Harlem Renaissance sought to recover links with African and folk traditions. In “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” the poet Langston Hughes reaffirmed his ties to an African past: “I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.” In his book Crane, Jean Toomer, blended realism and mysticism, and poetry and prose to describe the world of the black peasantry in Georgia.

The novelists of the Harlem Renaissance explored the diversity of black experience across boundaries of class, color, and gender, while implicitly or explicitly protesting antiblack racism. In There Is Confusion (1924) Jessie Redmon Fauset considered the transformation of mainstream culture affected by the new black middle class and by the black creative arts. Walteer White’s The Fire in the Flint (1924) focused on the career and then the lynching of a black physician and veteran of World War I. Protesting racial oppression and exposing its most barbaric expressions, White’s novel also brought attention to a distinguished black professional class whose progress was being blocked by prejudice. Nella Larsen and Rudolph Fisher were two significant novelists (and friends) whose work explores issues of racial psychology, class, and sexuality in the modern city. 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. Two prolific and central figures of the Renaissance, who produced significant, politically radical novels were W.E.B. Du Bois in Dark Princess (1928) and Claude McKay in Banjo (1929). Both novels show the strong influence of Marxism and the anti-imperialist movements of the early 20th century, and both place their hopes in the revolutionary potential of transnational solidarity to end what they consider to be the corrupt and decadent rule of Western culture.

Zora Neale Hurston, a Columbia University trained anthropologist, incorporated rural black folklore and religious beliefs into her stories. A fierce racial conscious and a powerful sense of racial pride animated her literature. See her short story, “Spunk”. Ms. Hurston courted controversy through her involvement, along with others mentioned herein, with a black literary publication called FIRE!! Her most well-known works, Their Eyes were Watching God and Mules and Men, were published in the 1930s.

Black music (primarily Jazz) provided the pulse of the Harlem Renaissance. Although African Americans wrote symphonies and sonatas in the period between the world wars, it was the nightclub music that seems to capture the period. The musical show Shuffle Along, which opened on May 23, 1921, and ran for over 500 performances, was written by Eubie Blake, with lyrics by Noble Sissle. Both Josephine Baker and Ethel Waters performed in the chorus line. Paul Robeson was briefly in the cast as a member of a barbershop quartet. “I’m Just Wild about Harry” was the hit of the show. There is a more general discussion of Jazz and the cultural scene in Harlem, “Jazz was the Sound of the Speakeasies”, later in this section.