Harlem Renaissance: Pivotal Period in the Development of Afro-American Culture
Contents of Curriculum Unit 78.02.03:
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.
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.
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.
Certain events are especially significant to any cultural movement. Arna Bontemps, in his essay “The Awakening: A Memoir,” sees 1921 as the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance. Countee Cullen, soon to become a noted poet, published his poem “I Have a Rendezvous with Life” in DeWitt Clinton High School’s literary magazine, of which he was an editor, in January of that year. In June of the same year, another young poet, Langston Hughes, just graduated from high school in Cleveland and soon to enroll at Columbia, published his poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” in Crisis. At virtually the same time, Shuffle Along became a smash on Broadway. Hughes recalls coming to Columbia mostly to see the all-black musical (book by Fluornoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles and lyrics by Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle), which featured songs that became widely popular, including “I’m Just Wild About Harry.” It was a loosely plotted musical about a mayoral election in an all-black southern town. The dancing and singing were responsible for its great popularity. During the decade, each year saw the opening of new black musicals inspired by the success of Shuffle Along.
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.
In 1922, Claude McKay published Harlem Shadows, a book of poetry. McKay, a young Jamaican writer, soon became an integral part of the Renaissance. He later contributed three novels, the picaresque Home To Harlem (1928), Banjo (1929), and Banana Bottom (1933), as well as a book on Harlem called Harlem: Negro Metropolis (1940), and an autobiography, A Long Way from Home (1937). The musicals Strut Miss Lizzie and Seven-Eleven appeared on Broadway in 1922 as well.
In 1923, Charles S. Johnson became editor of the newly born Opportunity, Roland Hayes gave his landmark American concert debut in Town Hall, and Jean Toomer published the most remarkable work of the period, Cane. Cane is a series of interrelated poems and stories, or sketches, almost mystically evoked and inspired by Toomer’s pilgrimage to the South. (Toomer, a very light-skinned Negro who later followed the mystic teachings of Gurdjieff, was raised in Washington, D.C.) Although the book was not widely popular at the time of its appearance, it symbolized many qualities and motifs associated with the renaissance period, notably the desire for atavistic (African) connections and the romanticized concept of strength as located in southern black peasants, as opposed to fragmentation of northern black identities.
Opportunity’s award dinner in 1924 has been previously mentioned. In this year Paul Robeson, the brilliant actor and singer, became known to the general public in Eugene O’Neill’s play All God’s Chillun Got Wings, which played in New York for several weeks. The musical Dixie to Broadway starring Florence Mills was a tremendous success.
In 1925 Countee Cullen published a book of poetry entitled Color. Langston Hughes also published a book of poetry Weary Blues. Most important, The New Negro, edited by Alain Locke, appeared. This work, perhaps more than any other, sought to mark the fact that an “awakening” or “renaissance” (both terms were actually used in the book and Locke coined the latter) was in progress. The book featured fiction by Rudolph Fisher, Jean Toomer (selections from Cane), Zora Neale Hurston, and Eric Walrond, all fast becoming key figures in the movement. Poetry by Cullen, McKay, James W. Johnson, Bontemps, and Hughes was presented along with a play by Willis Richardson, which is one of the few surviving works of the Krigwa Players, a black repertory group which strove to develop serious black drama by and for blacks. Essays explored the basic premises of this period: a new interest in sociology (particularly concerning the Migration), an increased interest in the Negro past, and, most especially, intense affirmation and discovery of the validity of Afro-American folk culture. The collection also featured illustrations by a brilliant young artist, Aaron Douglas, who captured in his black and white prints the themes featured in the literature. Douglas’ work exhibits strong African motifs, another fundamental theme of the renaissance.
In 1926, Hughes’ article “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” appeared and attempted to define the role of the Negro artist: “We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame.” Hughes, in collaboration with Wallace Thurman, Zora Neale Hurston, Aaron Douglas, John P. Davis, Bruce Nugent, and Gwendolyn Bennett, decided that to express their “dark-skinned” selves, they needed to begin their own magazine. The result was one fine issue of Fire, published in November, which featured works by all the collaborators. Unfortunately, lack of funds brought the project to a hasty conclusion. In this year, too, Carl Van Vechten, the greatest of the wealthy white enthusiasts, published Nigger Heaven, his controversial fictional view of contemporary Harlem. This novel enjoyed widespread popularity, but was sharply criticized by some blacks (DuBois) and defended by others (Hughes). Paul Green’s Pulitzer Prizewinning play In Abraham’s Bosom was produced in 1926.
In 1927, James Weldon Johnson’s book of folk poetry, God’s Trombones, was published. Dubose Heyward, whose Porgy had been very popular a few years earlier, wrote and produced a second play, Mamba’s Daughters. The musical of the year was Africana, starring Ethel Waters. In addition, Langston Hughes’ second volume of poetry, Fine Clothes to the Jew, was published.
Rudolph Fisher’s novel, Walls of Jehrico, appeared in 1928 as did McKay’s novel Home to Harlem and Wallace Thurman’s The Blacker the Berry. McKay’s novel was apparently the first fictional work by an Afro-American to reach the best-seller lists. Lyles and Miller tried to recapture their earlier success by producing Keep Shuffling and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson starred in the Blackbirds revue of that year. Three other novels published that year were W. E. B. DuBois’ Dark Princess, Nella Larsen’s story of the color line, Quicksand, and Jessie Fausett’s book on a similar theme, Plum Bun.
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. It is interesting that Charles Gilpin, the great black actor, achieved great fame in The Emperor Jones by O’Neill in 1920, the beginning of the renaissance, and died in 1930. Also in 1930, the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical play by Marc Connelly, Green Pastures, became the most successful venture since Shuffle Along, and was one of the last black musicals produced until the present period. In addition, Hughes published his first novel, Not Without Laughter, Larsen published her second novel, Passing, and McKay also published his second novel, Banjo.
In 1931, A’lelia Walker died. The heiress to Madame Walker’s hair-products fortune, A’lelia had been the great Negro party-giver of the period, using her townhouse in Harlem, her apartment, and her mansion at Irvington-on-the-Hudson to entertain black and white intellectuals. Her attempt to glorify the black artists of the period by devoting a floor in her townhouse to walls covered by art and poetry of the period was not wholly successful, but the “Dark Tower,” as she called it, was unique. In 1934, two important writers died within a week of each other: Wallace Thurman and Rudolph Fisher. Zora Neale Hurston wrote two novels in the 1930’s, Jonah’s Gourd Vine (1934) and her best work, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937). Bontemps also published two novels: God Sends Sunday (1931) and Drums at Dusk (1939). In terms of a literary movement, the period ended with the publication of Richard Wright’s Uncle Tom’s Children in 1938, which marked a sharp difference in style and theme. Wright’s naturalistic fiction was a definite departure from the romanticized works of the renaissance.
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Since this unit is intended primarily for English teachers, the emphasis of the course should be the analysis of the literature of the period, once the teacher has explored the historical significance of the Harlem Renaissance. The works of the period, as well as the artwork, exhibit certain common themes: an expression of a kind of pride and dignity bordering on defiance; atavistic yearnings for Africa; an exploration of southern black culture using folk forms in an attempt to portray the Afro-American peasant in a romanticized and glorified light: Afro-American exoticism; and finally, subtle political parody of the period itself.
Several books of fiction and poetry can illustrate these themes
for the teacher, although each teacher may wish to choose individual
poems and short stories for students (see Student Reading List). It
is first noteworthy that poetry was the primary form of expression
in the early renaissance. Poetry by nature is more centered on
emotion than is fiction; therefore it is not surprising to find that
Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, and Countee Cullen relied on the
themes of pride and dignity, atavistic yearnings, and exoticism in
their poetry. McKay’s “If We Must Die” (1919) is classic in its
expression of active resistance:
McKay’s “Harlem Dancer” contains exotic imagery which can be
construed as a form of atavistic yearing:
The image of the palm evokes a tropical African setting, and the audience “devouring” the dancer seems interested in the exotic vision, although the place (a Harlem theatre?) was not the dancer’s rightful environment.
Cullen explores the question of African descent in his
Cullen’s answer to his initial question is intricately developed in the long poem, but the idea causes him “no peace.” The poem depends heavily on a romanticized concept of Africa, as does most of the writing of the period, and on a use of the exotic and sensual in Cullen’s unexplained yearings to “strip” and “dance” when “the rain begins to fall.” However, students must understand that although the African references may be imprecise, it is very important that for the first time, Afro-Americans wanted to admit any connection whatsoever with Africa. Hughes’ “Afro-American Fragment,” though not published until 1959, also explores African links:
Subdued and time-lost
For Hughes, the connection is not overt; it is “far away” yet it
exists in “those songs/ Beat back into the blood.” Many poems in
Hughes’ Weary Blues exhibit an even subtler tie with African
heritage. In the first section of the book, many of the poems are
Hughes’ famous “jazz” poems depicting Harlem’s nightlife. Yet the
recurring use of the terms “jungle” and “jazz” together give us a
sense that this Afro-American music is born of the jungle beats. For
example, in “Nude Young Dancer,”
In “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” Hughes reaches back to his
African heritage again:
Later in the book, Hughes develops other important themes: “Songs
for a Banjo Dancer” and “Blues Fantasy” are written in the style of
the blues, an important folk form of Afro-Americans; the pain of
race relations, an aspect of the theme of pride and dignity, are
explored in the second section of the book, as in the poem, “As I
The last stanza borders on a kind of defiance against racial
barriers. Hughes also speaks for the average black men and women who
have continued to strive against odds in his classic “Mother to
Son,” in which a mother advises her son:
Claude McKay’s Home to Harlem is the tale of Jake, an archetypal folk hero who is successful with women, free to roam in quest of his dreams, and, of course, a “man’s man.” As the novel opens, Jake has returned to Harlem from the World War. He has gone AWOL because he was not pleased with the role he and other black soldiers had been playing. Throughout the loosely structured episodic novel, the exotic nature of Harlem is viewed in the gay nightlife. Jake himself “took whatever he wanted of whatever he fancied and . . . kept going.” Jake operated purely on instinct, pursuing joy in life. His companion Ray, a would-be writer, is his opposite, and never seems at ease with life partly because he is an “intellectual.” Jake, representing the primitive and the “common” black man is the positive character. Hence, McKay sought to glorify the working-class “peasant” Negro.
Jean Toomer’s Cane, in a much more artistic and symbolic
way, also seems to extol the virtues of the “primitive” black
peasants. The strong characters in his book are primarily Southern
black women who, however, remain unaware of their own power. For
example, the central character in “Fern” is a woman whom men
continue to go to though they are ultimately unsatisfied because she
never really gives them anything. Afterward, the men feel strangely
“bound to her,” but ironically, “nothing ever came to Fern.” The
collection’s later stories are set in the North where Toomer
delineates fragmentation of the northern black personality as in
“Box Seat.” In the last section, Toomer combines his two themes when
the main character in “Kabnis,” a northern Negro living in the rural
South, is consumed with fear and uncertainty unlike the native
southerners who are able to accept their environment and in some
senses thrive in it. Much of Toomer’s poetry explores African
connections, as does “Georgia”:
A literary analysis of the Harlem Renaissance, the last work of Wallace Thurman, Infants of the Spring, provides a kind of natural conclusion. This novel attempts to tell the story of the Renaissance itself in fictional form. The main character, Raymond Taylor, is a representation of Thurman himself. He is an aspiring author who lives in an experimental house dubbed “Niggeratti Manor” by Taylor. The Manor is a house in Harlem that a concerned black woman has rented to Negro artists. The tone of the novel is cynical and most of the characters’ stories end in psychological or physical tragedy. After a wild interracial party at the Manor, Ray remarks: “This ... is the Negro Renaissance and this is about all the whole damn thing is going to amount to.” Ray also remarks later that “at least the forward of my generation is tired of being patronized and patted on the head by philanthropists and social service workers.” Finally Ray concludes that each Negro artist must be true only to his own sensibilities, not to a movement: “I don’t owe anything to anyone except myself.”
Langston Hughes’ story “Who’s Passing for Who” also takes a satirical look at fictional writers of the renaissance and the racial games they played.
Thurman’s roman ˆ clef is an awfully harsh assessment of the
renaissance, partly because Thurman himself became a bitter man
because he felt that as a black artist he could never achieve the
heights of literary fame he sought. In teaching young people about
this period, we must realize that although the movement did not, in
many ways, live up to the expectations of its more stringent critics
like Thurman, it did mark an extraordinary new environment for black
creative expression. Were it not for the “Awakening,” one wonders,
would we have been privileged to the talents of Richard Wright,
Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Ishmael Reed, Toni Morrison, and the
many Afro-Americans who have since contributed so much to the
literary and cultural history of America?
(This unit was designed as part of an elective course in
Afro-American Literature for high-school students, mostly juniors
and seniors, with a variety of reading and writing skills. The unit
can be taught autonomously at any high school level since many of
the reading selections, especially the poetry, are fairly easy to
The first two weeks should primarily introduce the historical
backgrounds of the Renaissance Period. The points to be covered are:
Students must understand that 1920 was only 57 years after the
Emancipation Proclamation. Previously, Afro-Americans as a group did
not have education or access to the publishing world sufficient to
make a significant literary effort. Similarly, other fields of art
were shut off by the general assumption of black inferiority. Also,
Afro-Americans were not thought to have a distinct cultural
Here it would be useful to mention other literary movements and the European Renaissance.
3. What was the state of American society at this time?
Here the teacher should cover the Jazz Age, Prohibition, postwar changes, and white-black relationships.
4. Why did Harlem develop as the “black mecca”?
5. What was the Great Migration?
6. Who was Marcus Garvey and how did he influence black thought of the period?
Lecturing and note-taking would be primary strategies for
objectives 1 and 2. For objectives 3 and 4, readings from The New
Negro (“The New Negro” and “Negro Youth Speaks”), an excerpt
from Langston Hughes’ The Big Sea, and “The Awakening: A
Memoir” by Arna Bontemps will be helpful. Students will read
selections and answer questions.
Also, in these first two weeks it would be useful to show two
filmstrips which the Lee High School History Department possesses:
“The Harlem Renaissance and Beyond, Part 1,” and “The Great
Migration,” Parts 1 and 2.