Chapter 9: The Harlem Renaissance
(Also known as the "New Negro Movement")

A Brief Introduction

© Paul P. Reuben
June 16, 2014
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Outside Link: | Schomburg Exhibition, Harlem 1900-1940 |

Page Links: | Important Features | Personalities | An Assessment | A Chronology of Important Events | Novels of the Harlem Renaissance | Research and Study Topics | MLA Style Citation of this Web Page |

Site Links: | Chap. 9: Index | Chap. 9: Selected Bibliography | Alphabetical List | Table Of Contents | Home Page |

Harlem is vicious
Modernism. BangClash.
Vicious the way it's made,
Can you stand such beauty.
So violent and transforming.

- Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones)

Harlem ... Harlem
Black, black Harlem
Souls of Black Folk
Ask Du Bois
Little grey restless feet
Ask Claude McKay
City of Refuge
Ask Rudolph Fisher
Don't damn your body's itch
Ask Countee Cullen
Does the jazz band sob?
Ask Langston Hughes
Nigger Heaven
Ask Carl Van Vechten
Hey! ... Hey!
" ... Say it brother
Say it ..."

- Frank Horne, "Harlem"

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Top | Important Features

1. Harlem Renaissance (HR) is the name given to the period from the end of World War I and through the middle of the 1930s Depression, during which a group of talented African-American writers produced a sizable body of literature in the four prominent genres of poetry, fiction, drama, and essay.

 2. The notion of "twoness" , a divided awareness of one's identity, was introduced by W.E.B. Du Bois, one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).and the author of the influential book The Souls of Black Folks (1903): "One ever feels his two-ness - an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled stirrings: two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder."

3. Common themes: alienation, marginality, the use of folk material, the use of the blues tradition, the problems of writing for an elite audience.

4. HR was more than just a literary movement: it included racial consciousness, "the back to Africa" movement led by Marcus Garvey, racial integration, the explosion of music particularly jazz, spirituals and blues, painting, dramatic revues, and others.

 | Top | Personalities of the Harlem Renaissance

| Baker, Josephine | Barnes, Albert C. | Bennett, Gwendolyn | Blake, Eubie | Bonner, Marita | Bontemps, Arna | Brathwaite, William | Brown, Sterling | Coleman, Anita Scott | Covarrubias, Miguel | Cullen, Countee | Cuney, Waring | Domingo, Wilfrid A. | Douglas, Aaron | Du Bois, W.E.B. | Edmonds, Randolph | Fauset, Arthur | Fauset, Jessie | Fisher, Rudolph | Garvey, Marcus | Gilpin, Charles | Grimke, Angelina | Hughes, Langston | Hurston, Zora Neale | Johnson, Charles S. | Johnson, Helene | Johnson, James W. | Larsen, Nella | Locke, Alain | Loggins, Vernon | Lee, George | Mason, Charlotte Osgood | Matheus, John | McKay, Claude | Mills, Florence | Nugent, Richard Bruce | Ovington, Mary White | Patterson, Louise Thompson | Richardson, Willis | Robeson, Paul | Schomburg, Arthur Alfonso | Schuyler, George Samuel | Spencer, Anne | Sissle, Noble | Thompson, Eloise | Walker, A'Lelia | Thurman, Wallace | Toomer, Jean | Van Vechten, Carl | Walrond, Eric | West, Dorothy | White, Walter |

 | Top | A Chronology of Important Events and Publications

1919

1920

1921

1922

1923

1924| Top |

1925

1926

1927

1928

1929

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1930

1931

1932

1933

1934

1935

1937 Publications of McKay, Long Way From Home; Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God.

1939 Publication of Hurston, Moses: Man of the Mountain.

1940 Publications of Hughes The Big Sea; McKay, Harlem: Negro Metropolis

(Information for the above chronology is from Kellner, Harlem Renaissance: A Historical Dictionary for the Era and Watson, The Harlem Renaissance.) 

| Top | Harlem Renaissance: An Assessment from Huggins, Nathan I. Harlem Renaissance. NY: Oxford UP, 1971.

1. Harlem Renaissance brought the Black experience clearly within the general American cultural history.

a. Remarkable coincidences and luck, provided a sizable chunk of real estate in the heart of Manhattan.

b. The Black migration, from south to north, changed their image from rural to urban, from peasant to sophisticate.

c. Harlem became a crossroads where Blacks interacted with and expanded their contacts internationally.

d. Harlem Renaissance profited from a spirit of self-determination which was widespread after W.W.I.

2. Harlem Renaissance could not escape its history and culture in its attempt to create a new one.

a. The "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.

b. The creation of the "New Negro" failed, but it was an American failure, similar to other frustrated promotions.

c. The future of the "New Negro" was accepted without question.

d. Just as the Whites, Black intellectuals were unprepared for the rude shock of the Great Depression; the HR was shattered by it because of naive assumptions about the centrality of culture, unrelated to economic and social realities.

3. Still the Harlem Renaissance had its significance.

a. It became a symbol and a point of reference for everyone to recall.

b. The name, more than the place, became synonymous with new vitality, Black urbanity, and Black militancy.

c. It became a racial focal point for Blacks the world over; it remained for a time a race capital.

d. It stood for urban pluralism; Alain Locke wrote: "The peasant, the student, the businessman, the professional man, artist, poet, musician, adventurer and worker, preacher and criminal, exploiter and social outcast, each group has come with its own special motives ... but their greatest experience has been the finding of one another."

e. The complexity of the urban setting was important for Blacks to truly appreciate the variety of Black life. The race consciousness required that shared experience.

4. Harlem Renaissance's legacy is limited by the character of the Renaissance.

a. It encouraged the new appreciation of folk roots and culture.

b. Peasant folk materials and spirituals provided a rich source for racial imagination and it freed the Blacks from the establishment of past condition.

c. Harlem Renaissance was imprisoned by its innocence. The Harlem intellectuals, while proclaiming a new race consciousness, became mimics of Whites, wearing clothes and using manners of sophisticated Whites, earning the epithet "dicty niggers" from the very people they were supposed to be championing.

d. Harlem Renaissance could not overcome the overwhelming White presence in commerce which defined art and culture. What was needed was a rejection of White values; they had to see Whites, without awe of love or awe of hate, and themselves truly, without myth or fantasy, in order that they could be themselves in life and art.

e. Harlem Renaissance created an ethnic provincialism and its biggest gift could be a lesson from its failures. The biggest is in the strange separation of the Blacks from American culture. Except for a few Blacks, the most striking thing about them is that they are native American. The negative implications have been clear; Blacks, unlike other immigrants, had no immediate past and history and culture to celebrate. But the positive implications of American nativity have never been fully appreciated by them. It seems too simple: the Afro-American's history and culture is American, more completely so than most others in the country.

f. At least the decade of the 1920s seems to have been too early for Blacks to have felt the certainty about native culture that would have freed them from crippling self-doubt. ... that is why the art of the Renaissance was so problematic, feckless, not fresh, not real. The lesson it leaves us is that the true Black Renaissance awaits Afro-Americans' claiming their patria, their nativity.

| Top | Novels of the Harlem Renaissance

Fauset, Jessie Redmon: There is Confusion, 1924; Plum Bun, 1928; The Chinaberry Tree; 1931; Comedy, American Style, 1933

Fisher, Rudolph: The Walls of Jericho, 1928; The Conjure Man Dies: A Mystery Tale of Dark Harlem, 1932.

Hughes, Langston: Not Without Laughter, 1930

Hurston, Zora Neale: Jonah's Gourd Wine , 1934; Their Eyes Were Watching God, 1937

Larsen, Nella: Quicksand, 1928; Passing, 1929

McKay, Claude: Home to Harlem,1927; Banjo,1929; Gingertown, 1931; Banana Bottom,1933

Schuyler, George: Black No More, 1930; Slaves Today, 1931

Thurman, Wallace: The Blacker the Berry; a Novel of Negro Life, 1929; Infants of the Spring, 1932; Interne, with Abraham l. Furman, 1932

Toomer, Jean: Cane, 1923

Van Vechten, Carl: Nigger Heaven, 1926

Walrond, Eric: Tropic Death,1926

White, Walter: The Fire in the Flint,1924; Flight,1926

MLA Style Citation of this Web Page:

Reuben, Paul P. "Chapter 9: Harlem Renaissance - An Introduction." PAL: Perspectives in American Literature- A Research and Reference Guide. URL: http://www.csustan.edu/english/reuben/pal/chap9/9intro.html (provide page date or date of your login).
 

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