The Harlem Renaissance English III Advanced Composition & Novel Mrs. Snipes & Mrs. Lutes
“Harlem was not so much a place as a state of mind, the cultural metaphor for black America itself.”Langston Hughes Blues, (1929). Archibald J. Motley Jr.
Introduction • The Harlem Renaissance, known also as the New Negro Movement and the Negro Renaissance, was an important cultural manifestation of the mid-twenties and thirties. • With Harlem as its center, the Renaissance was an upsurge of new racial attitudes and ideals on the part of Afro-Americans and an artistic and political awakening. • It was partly inspired by the iconoclastic spirit of the times. • The Harlem writers and artists were, like their Modernist white counterparts, in quest of new forms, images, and techniques. • They, too, were skeptical and disillusioned. • What chiefly differentiated them, however, was their view of artistic endeavor as an extension of the struggle against oppression.
Migration • The historical roots of the Harlem Renaissance are complex. • In part, they lay in the vast migration of African Americans to northern industrial centers that began early in the century and increased rapidly as World War I production needs and labor shortages boosted job opportunities. • The target for the move north for African American artists and intellectuals was often New York City. By the 1910s, Harlem had become a spirited community that provided community and support for a diverse population pouring in from the South and the Caribbean. The Migration of the Negro, Panel No. 1, (1940-1). Jacob Lawrence.
Upheaval • Social and political upheaval added to the creative ferment of the period. • Increased contact between African Americans and white Americans in the workplace and on city streets forced a new awareness of the disparity between the promise of U.S. democracy and its reality. • African American soldiers who served in World War I were angered by the prejudice they often encountered back at home, compared to the greater acceptance they had found in Europe. • As African Americans became increasingly disillusioned about achieving the justice that war-time rhetoric had seemed to promise, many determined to pursue their goals of equality and success more aggressively than ever before. • World War I brought in its wake a series of devastating race riots culminating in the 1919 outbreaks in Washington and Chicago. Members of the Harlem-based 369th Regiment arriving in New York, 1919. As one soldier noted, “When we have proved ourselves men, worthy to work and fight and die for our country, a grateful nation may gladly give us the recognition of real men, and the rights and privileges of true and loyal citizens of these United States.”
Movements • Organized political and economic movements also helped to motivate the Harlem Renaissance by creating a new sense of empowerment in African Americans. • The NAACP boasted nearly 44,000 members by the end of 1918. • In the early 1920s Marcus Garvey’s message of racial pride drew hundreds of thousands of ordinary men and women to his United Negro Improvement Association and its Back-to-Africa movement. He articulated a coherent program of black pride, Pan-Africanism, and economic self-sufficiency. The African American working class responded enthusiastically. • A. Philip Randolph and the Messenger challenged traditional black leadership from the socialist left. Marcus Garvey
Historical Ideologies The artistic output of the Harlem Renaissance was dominated by two ideologies, both driven by racial consciousness and pride.
The first of these schools of thought was represented by W.E.B. Du Bois, James Weldon Johnson, and Alain Locke. • They saw the arts as an area where talented and culturally privileged African Americans could lead their race’s fight for equality. • They believed that art functioned as propaganda: works of art inspired by the artists’ racial heritage & experiences would prove the beauty of the race and its crucial contributions to American culture. • These artistic successes could foster pride among all African-Americans and prove their educated class to be the equal of the white educated class. “We have a right, in our effort to get just treatment, to insist that we produce something of the best in human character and that it is unfair to judge us by our criminals and prostitutes. This is justifiable propaganda.” [Du Bois, The Crisis, 21 (June 1921), 55-6] W. E. B. Du Bois
Opposition to this art-as-propaganda view came from the very same elite vanguard of artists that the older generation was counting on to promote the cause: artists such as Claude McKay, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Aaron Douglas. • They felt the need to present the ordinary African-American person objectively as an individual simply living in the flesh-and-blood world. • This perspective argued against painting and characterizing only “cultured” and “high class” African-Americans who mirrored the standards of white society. • This school of thought advocated artists who chose to pursue their art for its own sake. “Sometimes, I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It is beyond me.” -Zora Neale Hurston Langston Hughes
Influences on Literary Phase: Against the background of increasingly artistic activity, three events occurred between 1924 and 1926 that launched the already developing literary phase of the Harlem Renaissance into the forefront: • Charles S. Johnson’s Civic Club dinner, which forged the link among three major players in the literary renaissance: the black literary-political intelligentsia, white publishers and critics, and young black writers. • The publication in 1926 of Nigger Heaven, by white novelist Carl Van Vechten. This book was a spectacularly popular expose of Harlem life and helped create the “Negro Vogue” that drew thousands of sophisticated New Yorkers to Harlem’s exotic nightlife. • The publication of the literary magazine FIRE!! A group of talented young black writers were spearheaded by Wallace Thurman. These artists were declaring their intent to assume ownership of the literary renaissance.
The Harlem Renaissance incorporated all aspects of African American culture, and even with its diversity and experimentation in its literature, several themes emerged. Interpretation of Harlem Jazz I. Winold Reiss.
Themes in Art, Music and Literature: • EFFORT TO RECAPTURE THE AFRICAN HERITAGE: - corresponded with rise of Pan-Africanism (Marcus Garvey’s ideology & a concern of Du Bois) - exploration of and pride in African heritage reflected in poems by Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes - African motifs in visual art - jazz introduced African-inspired rhythms and themes in compositions • EXPLORATION OF RURAL SOUTHERN ROOTS: - reflected in novels by Jean Toomer and Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God - Jacob Lawrence’s art: Harriet Tubman series and Black Migration series
Themes Continued… • AFRICAN-AMERICAN URBAN EXPERIENCE: - represented by Langston Hughes and Claude McKay - some writers were accused of over-emphasizing crime, sexuality, and other less savory aspects of ghetto life to feed voyeuristic desires of white readers and publishers. • RACE: -explored the impact of racism -protest pieces against racial injustice -emphasizes struggle that dominates African-American history -most literary efforts of the Harlem Renaissance avoided overt protest or propaganda, focusing instead on the psychological and social impact of race. -explores characters of mixed racial heritage who struggle to define their racial identiy in a world of prejudice and racism. • USE OF BLACK MUSIC & FOLKLORE AS INSPIRATION for Poetry, Short Stories, and Novels: - Langston Hughes used rhythms and styles of jazz and blues - black religion as a literary source: James Weldon Johnson’s God’s Trombones - Sterling Brown used blues and southern work songs in his book of poetry Southern Road
Through all these themes Harlem Renaissance writers were determined to express the African-American experience in all its variety and complexity as realisticallyas possible.
The White Influence on the Harlem Renaissance: • The Harlem Renaissance appealed to a mixed audience—the African American middle class and white consumers of the arts. • Urbane whites suddenly took up New York’s African-American community, bestowing their patronage on young artists, opening up publishing opportunities, and pumping cash into Harlem’s “exotic” nightlife in a complex relationship that scholars continue to probe.
The famous Cotton Club carried this trend to the bizarre extreme by providing black entertainment for exclusively white audiences. • The relationship of the Harlem Renaissance to white venues and white audiences created controversy. • While many African-American critics strongly supported the movement, others, like Benjamin Brawley and even W.E.B. Du Bois were sharply critical and accused Renaissance writers and artists of reinforcing negative African-American stereotypes.
Other Important Places Within Harlem & Nightlife: • In addition to the Cotton Club, at Lennox and 140th Street the Savoy Ballroom hosted most of Harlem’s major social events and parties, where blacks and whites mingled on the dance floor and where the Lindy Hop was invented.
Jungle Alley and 7th Avenue: • Jungle Alley, a cluster of clubs and speakeasies along 133rd Street between Lennox Ave. and Seventh Ave. provided a variety of entertainment options and an eclectic and risqué environment which catered to a racially mixed and sexually uninhibited clientele. • Seventh Ave. was the grand avenue where people went to see and be seen. It was a broad, tree-lined boulevard, that was ideal for parades. It was also the location of some of the most prominent Harlem churches. Mostly, though, it was where Harlemites both rich and poor donned their finest clothes and strolled down the avenue on a Sunday afternoon. Three fashionable women strolling on Seventh Avenue in Harlem, 1927.
The Apollo Theater • In the 1930s the opening of the Apollo Theater on 125th Street signaled the expansion of Harlem’s entertainment district. • The Apollo featured the finest acts and became the most prestigious African American performing stage in the country. • The response of the Apollo’s knowledgeable audience could make or break a performer’s career.
Rent Parties: • The distinguishing feature of Harlem nightlife was the house-rent party. • This egalitarian event originated as a way for cash-strapped Harlemites to raise money for their inflated rent payments. • Thursday and Saturday nights were favored for these all-night parties. Thursday was the night off for sleep-in domestic workers and Saturday was usually pay-day for laborers who had Sunday off. • The host would print up invitations that read “Parlor Social” or “Tea Cup Party.” • The host arranged for music and entertainment and cleared all the furniture out perhaps bringing in folding chairs. • The food and drink were basic—bootleg whiskey or bathtub gin, with southern staples: fried chicken and fish, chitterlings, pig’s feet, greens, and cornbread. • The admission fee and the extra charges for food and drink paid for the entertainment, hopefully with enough left over for next month’s rent.
The patrons of Harlem house-rent parties were usually Harlem’s working people—especially domestics and laborers—but all classes attended. • DuBois and others from Harlem’s middle and upper classes pointedly stayed away, viewing them as rowdy, disreputable, and destructive to the public image of African Americans. • Many of the artists, writers, and musicians used them as inspiration. • Bessie Smith celebrated them in her song, “Give Me a Beer and Another Pigfoot,” while Langston Hughes described them in his autobiography as a place where working-class blacks could drink and dance without a white tourist looking over their shoulder. • Whites rarely gained admittance to these gatherings.
Decline of the Harlem Renaissance: The Harlem Renaissance declined in the mid 1930s. Factors that contributed to this decline were as follows: • Harlem’s emergence as a slum: - Within a single decade Harlem transformed from an ideal community to a neighborhood with manifold social and economic problems. - Housing was overpriced, congested, and dilapidated. - Jobs were hard to come by due to competition and discrimination. - As a result, most of Harlem’s residents lived in poverty, a situation that contributed to the growth of crime, vice, juvenile delinquency and drug addiction.
2. The Great Depression: - Increased economic pressure impacted both creative artists and the art industry. - Organizations like the NAACP and the Urban League shifted interests from the arts to economic and social issues. - Book publishers and recording companies also became more careful about their selections. 3. The Departure of Many Key Figures in the Movement: - Charles S. Johnson and James Weldon moved back to the South in 1931; W.E.B. DuBois followed in 1934. - Langston Hughes left and did not return permanently until after WWII - Josephine Baker based her career in Paris in 1925. - Death also cut short many careers. Others found inspiration and life outside of Harlem. 4. The Harlem Riot of 1935: - This event shattered the illusion of Harlem as the “Mecca” of the New Negro that figured so prominently in folklore. - The riot illuminated Harlem as a ghetto and was a result of high crime rates, poverty, and inadequate housing.
Writers & Poets: - Countee Cullen - Langston Hughes - Jean Toomer - James Weldon Johnson - Zora Neale Hurston - Arna Bontemps - Wallace Thurman - Nella Larsen - Claude McKay - Gwendolyn Brooks - Jessie Redmon Fauset Musicians, Singers, Entertainers: - Louis Armstrong - Bessie Smith - Dizzie Gillespie - Josephine Baker - Eubie Blake - Duke Ellington - Ma Rainey - Ella Fitzgerald - Billie Holiday - Ethel Waters - Fats Waller Influential Figures & Events in the Renaissance:
Artists: - Aaron Douglass - Jacob Lawrence - William H. Johnson - Archibald Motley, Jr. - Ronald C. Moody - Palmer Hayden - Lois Mailou Jones Political Activists: - W.E.B. Du Bois - Marcus Garvey - Alain Leroy Locke - Charles R. Drew - Regina Anderson - Arturo Alfonso Schomburg
Athletes/Athletic Teams: - Satchel Paige - The Harlem Globetrotters - Negro National League Journals/Magazines: - The Crisis - The Survey Graphic - Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life - FIRE!!
Powerful Images Into Bondage (1936), Aaron Douglas
Final Thoughts: • What does the Harlem Renaissance mean to us today and to the African American experience of the last one hundred years? Some would acknowledge that it was an event of some interest in the early part of the last century, but dismiss it as having little to do with current events. • Some, more critical, would dismiss it for its dependency on white money, audiences, and publishers. • Others would celebrate it, if only for the quantity and quality of the literature written and the originality of the music. • But few read Countee Cullen today or have the songs of Ethel Waters on their iPods. • Yet, these attitudes and approaches ignore the spirit and uniqueness of the movement.
The spirit of the Harlem Renaissance was centered in its community of writers and artists, each expressing his or her own vision, yet bound together in a shared undertaking, and with the community of intellectuals, critics, patrons, and publishers allied to create a revolution in African American culture—all of this was unique and sadly, would not reappear again. • Though the Harlem Renaissance came to an end, it remains a reminder to all people everywhere of the hope that exists for affecting change, freedom from oppression, and expression individual and cultural identity.
Sources: • Miller, Jr., James E, Kerry M. Wood, and Carlota Cardenas de Dwyer, eds. The United States in Literature. Glenview: Scott, Foresman and Company, 1991. • The Harlem Renaissance: A Unit of Study for Grades 9-12 by Nina Gifford • Harlem Speaks: A Living History of the Harlem Renaissance edited by Cary D. Wintz