Harlem Renaissance

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Harlem Renaissance:
In any study of the development of Afro-American culture, the period of the 1920’s known as the Harlem or Negro Renaissance is pivotal. It was a time when black and white Americans alike “discovered” the vibrancy and uniqueness of black art, music, and especially, literature. The decade was marked by exciting nightlife in Harlem’s cabarets, particularly the Cotton Club; by the publishing of a great number of novels, short stories, plays, poems, and articles about and by blacks; by great musicals written by and starring blacks, most importantly the legendary Shuffle Along; and by the production of artwork by talented young artists like Aaron Douglas and Richmond Barthe.

What made this period significant was the fact that the “Negro was in vogue,” as Langston Hughes writes in his autobiography The Big Sea. For the first time in American history, large numbers of black artists could earn their livings and be critically acknowledged in their fields. It was a time of excitement for the younger generation of the Negro intelligentsia, dubbed the “New Negroes” in Alain Locke’s collection of the same name, published in 1925. As Locke, often termed the “father” of the Negro Renaissance, says in his introductory essay “The New Negro,” “The younger generation is vibrant with a new psychology” (p. 3). This “new psychology” was a freedom of expression hitherto unknown in such a large number of black artists as well as receptiveness to anything “black” on the part of many whites.

In all forms of art, there developed a need to identify and utilize both Afro-American folk forms (tales, spirituals, and customs) and African forms. What made this renaissance pivotal for Afro-Americans, most particularly artists and intellectuals, was the affirmation of a distinct cultural heritage and the visibility of that culture’s manifestation.

The fact that this phenomenon occurred in the 1920’s is easily understood in light of American history of the era. The Negro Renaissance was a significant tile in the overall mosaic of the post-war period, often referred to as the “Jazz Age.” This label itself reflects the influence of Afro-American culture on the period. Black artists, like noted white artists of the “lost generation” that included Hemingway and Fitzgerald, were influenced by the rejection of traditional moral values which produced a mania for exotic lifestyles. In fact, this post-war lost generation often “found itself” in a trek to Harlem’s entertainment spots!

Prohibition, and the speakeasies it spawned, helped create a culture of nightlife, dancing, and loose morals. Harlem’s Cotton Club illustrates concretely the paradox of black-white relations in many northern capitals: the club was instrumental in launching the careers of many brilliant black musicians like Duke Ellington, yet it was operated by whites primarily for white audiences. Writes Hughes: “White people began to come in droves. For several years they packed the expensive Cotton Club on Lenox Avenue. But I was never there, because the Cotton Club was a Jim Crow club for gangsters and monied whites.” “Rent” parties (an admission charge helped hosts to pay their rents) and other clubs, including Small’s Paradise, were also popular.

Although the patronage of whites was a factor in the Harlem Renaissance (not only did they “patronize” cabarets, but their patronage often extended to supporting young black artists), the period is notable above all for its black artistic and philosophical awakening. Why was Harlem the focal point of this movement? Scholars have provided numerous explanations, the most obvious being that New York, the cultural center of America, was the logical center for the genesis of formal Afro-American culture. Harlem’s black population in 1920 was extremely large and continued to increase throughout the decade, reaching 200,000 by 1930 according to James Weldon Johnson’s Black Manhattan. The Harlem black community contained not only American blacks, but many West Indians. It was the national headquarters for recently founded protest groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Urban League. Black pride in Harlem had been exemplified on July 28, 1917, by a parade of ten thousand Negroes silently protesting anti-black violence. In 1919, blacks marched again to celebrate the return of the all-black 369th Infantry from service in World War I. Further, by 1920 Harlem had gained a symbolic significance for blacks which caused it to be referred to as a “mecca” by scholars of the period. Harlem was not a ghetto; it was a black city! The books Black Manhattan (1930) by Johnson, and Negro Metropolis (1940) by Claude McKay, as well as the essay “Harlem: The Cultural Capital” by Alain Locke in The New Negro, offer further evidence that black intellectuals considered Harlem a black capital.

Between 1900 and 1920 the number of blacks in Harlem doubled, as did the black populations in many other northern cities. This movement, including the further growth between 1920 and 1930, is referred to as the “Great Migration.” Blacks left the South in astonishing numbers for many reasons: depression in the agricultural southern economy; the World War I industrial boom in the North; growing oppression in the South; and a thoroughly American striving for a better quality of life. Charles S. Johnson, a Negro sociologist and an important figure in the Renaissance, concluded in his essay “The New Frontage on American Life”: “In ten years, Negroes have been actually transplanted from one culture to another” (The New Negro, p. 285).

Another important aspect of Harlem’s black cultural history is its role as a center for protest organizations. Although the Negro Renaissance was fundamentally a cultural movement, it can in no way be isolated from black protest of the period: protest movements formed an important psychological backdrop and many artists in fact wrote for radical magazines like The Crisis, Opportunity, and The Messenger. W. E. B. DuBois, already a noted scholar, author, and spokesman by 1920, was editor of the N.A.A.C.P.’s Crisis magazine, founded in 1910 in New York. His editorials were widely read. The Urban League’s magazine Opportunity, edited by Charles S. Johnson, also initiated one of the most important series of events in the renaissance by promoting contests for promising young black writers. In 1924, Opportunity sponsored the first of several dinners honoring young black writers. C. H. Johnson termed it their “debut” and, as Arna Bontemps recalls in his essay “The Awakening: A Memoir,” “Johnson was pleased to call the dinner a ‘coming-out party’ for an informal group designated as the ‘Writer’s Guild.’ ” (The Harlem Renaissance Remembered, p. 11). The socialist magazine The Messenger, begun by activists A. Phillip Randolph and Chandler Owen in 1917, also employed some of the renaissance writers, notably Wallace Thurman. The majority of renaissance writing was not polemical, but the subtle ties that many writers had with established protest organizations are important in understanding the pervasive feeling of black intellectuals that all accomplishments were in a sense political. There was a general belief that individual achievement by any Negro was a road to improved conditions for all members of the race.

If one examines the academic and social backgrounds of many of the participants of the renaissance, one might reasonably conclude that the movement was primarily an elitist or middle-class phenomenon. In some senses this is true, yet this is an oversimplification. The men and women prominent in the awakening felt in many cases that they spoke for the “common” black man. Also, many writers, particularly Langston Hughes, Rudolph Fisher, Claude McKay, and Zora Neale Hurston, glorified the “average” Negro in their poetry and fiction.

The fact is that during this period black pride for many blacks (not only those involved directly in the renaissance) was a greater reality than in any previous period. Marcus Garvey’s separatist “Back to Africa” movement centered in New York was important in the fabric of the era. Although many of the Harlem intellectuals severely criticized the movement, it was vastly popular with working-class blacks. Garvey in turn criticized the “New Negroes” as being elitist “talented-tenth” traitors. However, Garvey’s racial pride theories, emphasis on Afro-American history, advocacy of a return to Africa, and stress on economic independence for Negroes attracted attention from the masses. Garvey, a Jamaican inspired by Booker T. Washington, established his United Negro Improvement Association in 1917. His movement flourished until his imprisonment for fraud in 1925. His massive parades and conventions reflected an increased sense of black pride and interest in an African heritage on the part of Negroes of all classes.

In 1921, a massive convention of Garvey’s U.N.I.A. occurred in New York. The international extravaganza was held in August and, according to Bontemps, “Nothing quite comparable had ever occurred in the New World experience of black people.” In addition, the 135th Street branch of the New York Public Library (now the famed Schomburg Library) featured an exhibition of the works of Negro painters and sculptors.

Because of the crash of the stock market in 1929, many of the activities of the renaissance started to decrease; however, many of the authors who became popular during the twenties published through the thirties and later

Excerpts taken from: . . . . . . . . .


1. What was the state of American society at this time?

2. Why did Harlem develop as the “black mecca”?

3. What was the Great Migration?

4. Who was Marcus Garvey and how did he influence black thought of the period?

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