During the 1920’s, a “flowering of creativity,” as many have called it, began to sweep the nation. The movement, now known as “The Harlem Renaissance,” caught like wildfire. Harlem, a part of Manhattan in New York City, became a hugely successful showcase for African American talent. Starting with black literature, the Harlem Renaissance quickly grew to incredible proportions. W.E.B. Du Bois, Claude McKay, and Langston Hughes, along with many other writers, experienced incredible popularity, respect, and success. Art, music, and photography from blacks also flourished, resulting in many masterpieces in all mediums. New ideas began to take wings among circles of black intellectuals. The Renaissance elevated black works to a high point. Beyond simply encouraging creativity and thought in the African American community, the writers of the Harlem Renaissance completely revolutionized the identity of African American society as a whole, leading black culture from slavery to its current place in America today.
There was no single cause which produced the Harlem Renaissance, but there are several historical developments which paved the way. The first set of contributing factors deal with the cultural background of Harlem from 1900 to 1920. At the turn of the century, Harlem first began to emerge as a distinctly black community. As black population increased, African American culture came to the surface and blacks started to hold prominent roles in this self-motivated community. This afro-centric atmosphere of Harlem appealed to many southern blacks, and as a result, “the Great Migration of southern rural blacks to the north began in 1915” (Haskins 15). Blacks left segregation-endorsing southern states to find newly opened jobs and opportunities in the north. This migration so greatly affected New York that, according to Negroes in the U.S., by 1930 over 52% of Manhattan’s black residents had migrated from South Atlantic states. This migration set the stage for a diverse and interesting Harlem flavor, which led to the Renaissance.
A second cluster of factors contributing to the Renaissance concerns the development of a sense of empowered community among black culture in the “twenties” and the preceding decade. The African American churches played a large role not only in religious thought, but also in building community and self-awareness among blacks. Organizations such as the Negro YMCA and African American lodges and social clubs began to emerge and flourish. In 1909 and 1910, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Urban League were formed. In 1916, Marcus Garvey began the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), which stressed nationalism among blacks and “urged blacks to be proud of their color and to build social and economic institutions of their own” (Haskins 29). Although different in some of their ideals, these organizations led to black nationalism and community. The prohibition movement also contributed to a broadening awareness of emerging black culture, since prohibition led to illegal sales of alcohol and the flocking of both whites and blacks to the clubs of Harlem. This in turn led to a white interest in black culture, music, and literature. Another community builder for African Americans was the 1917 East St. Louis Massacre and the increase in lynching incidents, which led to thousands of blacks marching in New York to protest the actions of the whites in the anti-black riot. This event showed whites the strong presence of blacks in New York and opened the eyes of the African American community to see their strength in numbers and the power of a unified goal.
Behind every great movement in history, there are men and women who made their mark. So also the story of the Harlem Renaissance cannot be told without reference to some of the contributors. Carl Van Vechten, one of the few white authors associated with the movement, generated interest in the African American subculture of Harlem by publishing the very upsetting novel, Nigger Heaven. Almost all readers, both black and white, were offended, but the book helped the movement gain steam, and encouraged white interest in the culture of Harlem. W.E.B. Du Bois, founder of the NAACP, writer, and editor of The Crisis magazine, advocated pride in the black heritage and endorsed many other young black writers. Alain Locke, who graduated from Harvard and Oxford, was the primary analyst and advisor for the movement. James Weldon Johnson both contributed to the success of many other writers and wrote many fine works of his own, including “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which later became known as the Negro National Anthem. These men can be considered founding fathers of the movement because, beyond their own literary works, they did numerous other things contributing to the Renaissance’s success. They pursued the philosophical goal of the movement and pushed for black expression and thought. They “exerted considerable influence … and control over aspiring black writers” and “served chiefly as critics, advisors, and liaisons between the younger black writers and the white literary establishment” (Wintz 2).
Many leading authors of the movement played a key part in its results. The writers of the Harlem Renaissance showed a distinct black style and form. Claude McKay played a significant role in the beginning of the movement, publishing poems and stories on various subjects and writing the first black-authored bestseller of the time, a novel entitled Home to Harlem. Countee Cullen was an influential poet in the movement, known for his incredible lyrics. He had been raised in Harlem and was highly esteemed among the elevated circles in New York. Jessie Fauset, a close friend of Du Bois and fellow editor of The Crisis, wrote mainly about upper class blacks, but is perhaps best known as the mentor of Jean Toomer. Toomer was a sensation with his early works in The Liberator and The Crisis, but following the 1923 publication of his novel, Cane, Toomer quickly faded to obscurity. Zora Neale Hurston, possibly the best known female poet of the time, based many of her works on folklore and won many literary awards. Langston Hughes, the most famous overall poet of the Harlem Renaissance, was known for his creativity and expression. He won numerous awards and was able to sustain his literary career even after the movement had ended.
As the Depression came, the Harlem Renaissance gradually ended. However, the ongoing effects of the movement are the reason the Harlem Renaissance has been described as revolutionary. The literature of the movement was one of its main accomplishments. One thing it immediately accomplished for American literature was to create a platform for new ideas. Although the Renaissance’s literature was not intended to be primarily political, it did boldly confront political themes in its poetry and fiction. Renaissance authors “addressed issues of race, class, religion, and gender” (The Harlem Renaissance 2). One example was McKay’s response to race riots, which he voiced in his 1919 poem “If we Must Die.” James Weldon Johnson, Langston Hughes, and Arna Bontemps also wrote protest poems. Hughes’ poems of protest in the 1930’s went as far as to rally behind the communist societal ideals of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. Racial themes were a constant in the literature of the Harlem writers, and black nationalism swept the Harlem culture. Magazines such as Opportunity and The Crisis endorsed black political forums and addressed voting issues in the African American community. Religion was also a theme in writings of the time, due to the fact that many writers came from devout religious backgrounds. Countee Cullen’s work, as in “Yet I Do Marvel,” often questions whether or not God is “good, well-meaning, kind” (Cullen 267). James Weldon Johnson also treats religious themes in God’s Trombones, where he explores the preaching of southern black preachers. Lastly, feminism found its way into the writings of the Harlem Renaissance, as female writers such as Zora Neale Hurston, female editors such as Jessie Fauset, and female patrons such as Charlotte Mason had involvement in every level of the Harlem literature. These influential women “not only made a major contribution to the literature of the Harlem Renaissance but also introduced … themes that explored the role of women in black America” (Wintz 207). Thus, a great variety of issues were brought to attention of the broader American culture as a direct result from the Harlem Renaissance.
Beyond new ideas, the Harlem Renaissance writers contributed new literary techniques and methods to American literature. In their poetry, prose, novels, and other writings, the Harlem authors incorporated many forms unique to the black community. Folklore was one of these methods. Zora Neale Hurston, for example, based almost all of her writings on folk stories. Along with folklore, Zora Neale Hurston used southern comedy, which was rare among the black intellectuals of Harlem. James Weldon Johnson also tapped into southern black tradition, using poetry “to capture the imagery and cadences of old-time black preachers” (Frazier 272). Many black poets used graphic pictures and description in their work. Langston Hughes shows this in his poem “Dream Variation,” as he describes his dream with “Dance! Whirl! Whirl!” (Hughes 272). Variety in form and subject was one of the strong points of Harlem literature, and the only constant in all the literature was creativity.
Perhaps the greatest legacy from the writers of the Harlem Renaissance is the lasting literature itself. The Harlem Renaissance created literary works that defined a whole culture and time period. Literature of the period invoked feeling, thought, and creativity. Authors such as Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, Jessie Fauset, Zora Neale Hurston, Arna Bontemps, Langston Hughes, Alain Locke, W.E.B. Du Bois, and James Weldon Johnson are still discussed in literary circles, sold at bookstores, and enjoyed by readers everywhere.
Beyond literature, the works of the Harlem Renaissance also had many cultural implications. Most of the cultural ramifications took place within the African American community. One immediate way the Harlem Renaissance affected black culture was by encouraging blacks in other art forms. Blacks soon became very popular in the field of visual arts. Aaron Douglas and William H. Johnson were two of the many black painters to benefit from the Harlem Renaissance. Black music also began to flourish, and jazz became a sensation under black talents such as Duke Ellington, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, and Ma Rainey. James Van Der Zee represented blacks in the photography profession. As a result of this increasing exposure to black culture and art, the distance between black and white culture began to diminish.
Even after the Harlem Renaissance was over, the movement inspired the emergence of black writers in America. Many of the themes and literary styles of Harlem Renaissance writers have been continued in today’s African American literature. Through the works of the Renaissance, “the foundation was laid for Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Gwendolyn Brooks, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Terry McMillan, Rita Dove, and thousands of other African American writers, painters, composers, and singers” (Harlem Renaissance 2). Prior to the Harlem Renaissance, black artistic involvement was scarce, but as a result of it many black writers continue to enjoy success in all fields of literature and art.
The Harlem Renaissance also gave the entire African American culture a new identity, which led them out of the degradation of slavery. Alain Locke described the shift in black self-evaluation in his 1925 work, The New Negro, as he said, “The day of ‘aunties,’ ‘uncles’ and ‘mammies’ is equally gone. Uncle Tom and Sambo have passed on…. In the very process of being transplanted, the Negro is becoming transformed” (Locke 336). Locke and other writers of the movement inspired pride in the black heritage and pushed the concept that African American culture has the same potential for genius as any other culture. Du Bois addresses this point in one of his editorials, calling for the liberation of the intellect and creativity of African Americans. He writes: “Off with these thought-chains and inchoate soul-shrinkings, and let us train ourselves to see beauty in black” (Du Bois 278). Indeed a “New Negro” was created.
The new image of black culture continued to extend, reaching not only African Americans, but also blacks throughout the world. “African and Caribbean blacks were affected to a surprising degree” (Wintz 228). Based on the works of Hughes, Toomer, McKay, Johnson, and Cullen, worldwide poets and thinkers from French speaking countries in Africa tried to start a similar Renaissance in Paris. Leopold Senghor, and Aime Cesaire are simply a few of Renaissance leaders for French speaking blacks. South Africa also mined great wealth from the writings of the Harlem Renaissance, and South African writer Peter Abrahams even related the literature from Harlem to his own situation in his African homeland (Wintz 228-229).
The Harlem Renaissance was also a significant contributing factor to the civil rights movement in America. The civil rights movement not only affected blacks, but carried implications for all minorities and for all people in American society, regardless of race. The ideals of black nationalism and equality shown in the Harlem Renaissance were groundbreaking. The intellectual synergy of a united African American community set a precedent for the civil rights movement decades later. In fact, Wintz maintains that “the only similar experience occurred during the civil rights movement…in which blacks again united for a magic moment in history” (Wintz 231). The Harlem Renaissance moved African Americans one step closer to equality and proved that “black literature could be an important weapon in the struggle for civil rights” (Wintz 191).
The word “renaissance” means “rebirth.” It means that something new came into existence; life was produced. By tracing the effects of the Harlem writers, it becomes apparent that the movement truly was a renaissance. The Harlem Renaissance was not merely a short-lived bright spot in the intellectual and artistic history of African Americans. It was a movement that left a living legacy. It changed forever the image of the black community in America, both in terms of the self-perception of black culture and in terms of the impact of black culture on American society. The Harlem Renaissance truly was a significant bridge, leading black culture in America from slavery to its current place of influence in American society.