The Harlem Renaissance. Harlem is vicious Modernism. BangClash . Vicious the way it's made, Can you stand such beauty. So violent and transforming. - Amiri Baraka ( LeRoi Jones) .
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Harlem is viciousModernism. BangClash.Vicious the way it's made,Can you stand such beauty.So violent and transforming.
- Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones)
The term “Harlem Renaissance” was coined in 1925, though the movement unofficially began in about 1919 (just after WWI) and continued until about the mid 1930s. Over the course of the movement, which was centered in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City, significant contributions were made in the areas of literature, drama, music, visual art, dance, sociology, historiography, and philosophy.
African American literature and arts had already begun a steady development just before the turn of the century. In the performing arts, black musical theater featured such accomplished artists as songwriter Bob Cole and composer J. Rosamond Johnson, brother of writer James Weldon Johnson. Jazz and blues music moved with black populations from the South and Midwest into the bars and cabarets of Harlem. In literature, the poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar and the fiction of Charles Chesnutt in the late 1890s were among the earliest works of African Americans to receive national recognition. By the end of World War I the fiction of James Weldon Johnson and the poetry of Claude McKay anticipated the literature that would follow in the 1920s by describing the reality of black life in America and the struggle for racial identity.
The artists and intellectuals of the Harlem Renaissance found new ways to explore the historical experiences of black America and the contemporary experiences of black life in the urban North. African-American artists and intellectuals rejected merely imitating the styles of Europeans and white Americans and instead celebrated black creativity.
However, as Ezra Pound notes, “the first step of a renaissance, or awakening, is the importation of models for painting, sculpture, or writing.” We might go even further and suggest that the first step of a renaissance is the importation of models for conceiving and creating. A renaissance doesn’t happen in a vacuum. The Harlem Renaissance echoed American progressivism in its faith in democratic reform, in its belief in art and literature as agents of change, and in its almost uncritical belief in itself and its future. Moreover, the literary Renaissance was undoubtedly impacted by the work engaged in by American and European modernist authors.
The diverse literary expression of the Harlem Renaissance ranged from Langston Hughes’s weaving of the rhythms of African American music into his poems of ghetto life, as in The Weary Blues (1926), to Claude McKay’s use of the sonnet form as the vehicle for his impassioned poems attacking racial violence, as in “If We Must Die” (1919). McKay also presented glimpses of the glamour and the grit of Harlem life in Harlem Shadows. Countee Cullen used both African and European images to explore the African roots of black American life. In the poem “Heritage” (1925), for example, Cullen discusses being both a Christian and an African, yet not belonging fully to either tradition. Quicksand (1928), by novelist Nella Larsen, offered a powerful psychological study of an African American woman’s loss of identity, while Zora Neale Hurston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) used folk life of the black rural south to create a brilliant study of race and gender in which a woman finds her true identity.
Diversity and experimentation also flourished in the performing arts and were reflected in the blues singing of Bessie Smith and in jazz music. Jazz ranged from the marriage of blues and ragtime by pianist Jelly Roll Morton to the instrumentation of bandleader Louis Armstrong and the orchestration of composer Duke Ellington. Artist Aaron Douglas adopted a deliberately “primitive” style and incorporated African images in his paintings and illustrations.
The Harlem Renaissance appealed to a mixed audience. The literature appealed to the African American middle class and to the white book-buying public. Such magazines as The Crisis, a monthly journal of the NAACP, and Opportunity, an official publication of the Urban League, employed Harlem Renaissance writers on their editorial staff; published poetry and short stories by black writers; and promoted African American literature through articles, reviews, and annual literary prizes. As important as these literary outlets were, however, the Renaissance relied heavily on white publishing houses and white-owned magazines. In fact, a major accomplishment of the Renaissance was to push open the door to mainstream white periodicals and publishing houses, although the relationship between the Renaissance writers and white publishers and audiences created some controversy. While most African American critics strongly supported the relationship, Du Bois and others were sharply critical and accused Renaissance writers of reinforcing negative African American stereotypes. Langston Hughes spoke for most of the writers and artists when he wrote in his essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” (1926) that black artists intended to express themselves freely, no matter what the black public or white public thought.
African American musicians and other performers also played to mixed audiences. Harlem’s cabarets attracted both Harlem residents and white New Yorkers seeking out Harlem nightlife. Harlem’s famous Cotton Club carried this to an extreme, by providing black entertainment for exclusively white audiences. Ultimately, the more successful black musicians and entertainers, who appealed to a mainstream audience, moved their performances downtown.
Cullen was the leading writer of the Harlem Renaissance. A dedicated craftsman, Cullen was criticized for being conventional, for using the British romantic poets as his models, and for insisting that poetry in general should be free of racial and political matters. But in his finest poem, "Heritage," he demonstrates a clear relationship to Africa.
Primary Works: Color, 1925; Copper Sun, 1927; The Ballad of the Brown Girl, 1927; The Black Christ, 1929.
Described variously as the "most outspoken civil rights activist in America," "the undisputed intellectual leader of a new generation of African- American, and "the central authorizing figure for twentieth-century African-American thought." As a co-founder of the NAACP and the long-time editor of its magazine The Crisis, Du Bois nurtured and promoted many young and talented African-Americans. Underlying his controversial notion of "the talented tenth," was his belief that true integration will happen when selected blacks excel in the literature and the fine arts.
Primary Works : The Souls of Black Folk, 1903; Darkwater, 1920; The Gift ofthe Negro, 1924; Dark Princess: Voices from within the Veil, 1928.
Named one of the “midwives” of the Harlem Renaissance by poet Langston Hughes, Jessie Fauset began her life outside of Harlem in small, suburban middle-class community near New Jersey. An editor, poet, essayist and novelist. She was the most prolific African American novelist of the Harlem Renaissance.
Primary Works: There is Confusion, 1924; Plum Bun, 1928; The Chinaberry Tree; 1931; Comedy, American Style, 1933.
An American novelist, essayist, critic, dramatist, conversationalist, music arranger, short story writer, civic leader and volunteer Rudolph Fisher. Amazing accomplishments for a man who only wrote part-time, while maintaining his job as a doctor of roentgenology (the diagnostic and therapeutic uses of x-rays). By many accounts, Fisher may be the most gifted member of the Harlem Renaissance.
Primary Works: The Walls of Jericho, 1928; The Conjure Man Dies: A Mystery Tale of Dark Harlem, 1932.
Marcus Garvey was a publisher, journalist, entrepreneur, Black nationalist, orator, and founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League (UNIA-ACL). Garvey was unique in advancing a Pan-African philosophy to inspire a global mass movement focusing on Africa known as Garveyism. Promoted by the UNIA as a movement of African redemption, Garveyism would eventually inspire others, ranging from the Nation of Islam, to the Rastafari movement.
Primary Works: Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey, and Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey: Or Africa for the Africans; The Tragedy of White Injustice and Selections from the Poetic Meditations of Marcus Garvey.
Hughes was the first African American author to support himself through his writing; he produced more than sixty books. He earned critical attention for his portrayal of realistic black characters and he became one of the dominant voices speaking out on issues concerning black culture. He wrote in many genres; starting and continuing with poetry, he turned to fiction, autobiographies, and children's books.
Primary Works: The Weary Blues, 1926; Fine Cloths to the Jew, 1927; Four Negro Poets, 1927; The Ways of White Folks, 1934; The Big Sea, 1940.
Larsen's importance as a writer is based upon her two novels; she was unable to complete a third one. She spent her last thirty years as a supervising nurse at a Brooklyn hospital. Both Quicksand and Passing are admired for their use of irony and symbolism dealing in themes of identity, passing, marginality, race consciousness, sexuality, and class distinction. Larsen became the first black woman to receive a Guggenheim fellowship for creative writing. Her novels place her as one of the best fiction writers of the 1920s.
Primary Works: Quicksand, 1928; Passing, 1929; "Sanctuary,” 1930.
With the publication of The New Negro, Locke became the leading theoretician and strategist of the New Negro Movement. Due to the publication of this anthology, critics were forced to take black writing seriously, and it served to unite struggling black authors of that period. Locke was a self-confessed "philosophical midwife" to a generation of black artists and writers. Locke was also a leading figure in the adult education movement of the 1930s.
Primary Works: The Problem of Classification in Theory Value, 1918; The New Negro: An Interpretation, 1925; The Negro in America, 1933; Negro and His Music [and]Negro Art: Past and Present, 1936.
A Jamaica-born writer and poet, McKay evinced an interest in communism in his early life, but after a visit to Russia, he decided that communism was too disciplined and confining. McKay’s work demonstrates a particular concern with the issues of class and of sexuality. McKay’s poetic call-to-arms, “If We Must Die,” is often viewed as an inaugural address of the Harlem Renaissance.
Primary Works: Songs of Jamaica, 1911; Harlem Shadows, 1922; Home to Harlem, 1927; Banjo, 1929; Banana Bottom, 1933; Harlem: Negro Metropolis, 1940.
For many, the literary renaissance in Harlem began in 1923 with the publication of Toomer'sCane. It was hailed as a masterpiece, as a fresh voice from a very promising young writer. This publication also brought Toomer in contact with other black intellectuals. However, his spiritual quest took him away from race issues; he studied and converted to the spiritual thought of the Russian mystic GeorgiGurdjieff and spent his time lecturing on mystical doctrines. His racial ambivalence and involvement with mysticism are often understood as factors in his inability to recapture the promise of Cane.
Primary Works: Cane, 1923; Essentials, 1931.
Vechten was writer and photographer who was also a patron of the Harlem Renaissance. He authored a work of fiction born out of his experiences in Harlem entitled Nigger Heaven. As the title might suggest, the book had a complicated reception by both the black and white communities.
Primary Works: Nigger Heaven; 1926.