Responding to the heady intellectual atmosphere of the time and place, writers and artists, many of whom lived in Harlem, began to produce a wide variety of fine and highly original works dealing with African-American life. These works attracted many black readers. New to the wider culture, they also attracted commercial publishers and a large white readership. Writers associated with the Harlem Renaissance include Arna Bontemps, Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, James Weldon Johnson, Zora Neale Hurston, and Jean Toomer. Visual artists connected with the movement are less generally known. Among the painters are Aaron Douglas, Palmer Hayden, Malvin G. Johnson, and William H. Johnson; the best-known sculptor is Augusta Savage. Photographers include James Van Der Zee and Roy De Carava. The Harlem Renaissance faded with the onset of the Great Depression of the 1930s.
See N. I. Huggins, Harlem Renaissance (1971); B. Kellner, ed., The Harlem Renaissance: A Historical Dictionary for the Era (1987); L. Harris, ed., The Philosophy of Alain Locke: Harlem Renaissance and Beyond (1989); and H. Bloom, ed., Black American Prose Writers of the Harlem Renaissance (1994). In addition, many materials relating to the period can be found in the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, N.Y.C.
The Harlem Renaissance had a profound impact not only on African-American culture but also on the cultures of the African diaspora as a whole. Afro-Caribbean artists and intellectuals from the British West Indies were part of the movement. Moreover, many French-speaking black writers from African and Caribbean colonies who lived in Paris were also influenced by the Harlem Renaissance.
Historians disagree as to when the Harlem Renaissance began and ended. It is unofficially recognized to have spanned from about 1919 until the early or mid 1930s, although its ideas lived on much longer. The zenith of this "flowering of Negro literature", as James Weldon Johnson preferred to call the Harlem Renaissance, is placed between 1924 (the year that Opportunity magazine hosted a party for black writers where many white publishers were in attendance) and 1929 (the year of the stock market crash and then resulting Great Depression).
The Harlem Renaissance reflected social and intellectual transformations in the African-American community that had taken place since the late 19th century. Until the end of the Civil War, the vast majority of African Americans had been enslaved and lived in the South. Immediately after the end of slavery, the emancipated African Americans began to strive for civic participation, political equality and economic and cultural self-determination. The failure of Reconstruction resulted in the establishment of a white supremacist regime of Jim Crow in the South, which through such laws as well as lynching denied African Americans civil and political rights, and undergirded their economic exploitation as share croppers and laborers. As life in the South became increasingly difficult, African Americans increasingly migrated North.
Most of the participants in the African-American literary movement descended from a generation that had lived through the gains and losses of Reconstruction after the American Civil War, and often their parents or grandparents had been slaves. Many participants in the Harlem Renaissance were part of the Great Migration out of the South into the black neighborhoods of the North and Midwest regions of the United States, where African-American sought a better standard of living and relief from the institutionalized racism in the South. Others were Africans and people of African descent from racially stratified communities in the Caribbean who had come to the United States hoping for a better life. Uniting most of them was their convergence in Harlem, New York City.
The Great Migration greatly expanded black communities, creating a greater market for black culture and Jazz and Blues, the black music of the South, came to the North with the migrants and was played in the nightclubs and hotspots of Harlem. At the same time, whites were becoming increasingly fascinated by black culture. A number of white artists and patrons began to view blacks and black culture less condescendingly, and began to offer blacks access to "mainstream" publishers and art venues.
Despite the increasing popularity of black culture in white circles, virulent white racism continued to impact African American communities even in the North. After the end of World War I, many African American soldiers (who fought in segregated units like the Harlem Hellfighters) came home to a nation that often did not respect their accomplishments. Race riots and other civil uprisings occurred throughout the US during the Red Summer of 1919.
In literature, the poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar and the fiction of Charles W. 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 first stage of what was later called the Harlem Renaissance started in the late 1910s. 1917 saw the premiere of Three Plays for a Negro Theatre. These plays, written by white playwright Ridgely Torrence, featured black actors conveying complex human emotions and yearnings, and thus rejected the stereotypes of the blackface and minstrel show traditions. James Weldon Johnson in 1917 called these premiere of these plays "the most important single event in the entire history of the Negro in the American Theatre. Another landmark came in 1919, when Claude McKay published his militant sonnet If We Must Die. Although the poem never alludes to race, to black readers it sounded a note of defiance in the face of racism and the white racist violence of the nation-wide race riots and lynchings taking place at the time. By the end of the First World War, the fiction of James Weldon Johnson and the poetry of Claude McKay was describing the reality of contemporary black life in America and the struggle for black cultural self-definition, anticipating the characteristics of the Harlem Renaissance.
In the early 1920s, a number of literary works signaled the new creative energy in African-American literature. Claude McKay's volume of poetry, Harlem Shadows (1922), became one of the first works by a black writer to be published by a mainstream, national publisher . Cane (1923), by Jean Toomer, was an experimental novel that combined poetry and prose in documenting the life of American blacks in the rural South and urban North. Confusion (1924), the first novel by writer and editor Jessie Fauset, depicted middle class life among black Americans from a woman's perspective.
With these early works as the foundation, three events between 1924 and 1926 launched the Harlem Renaissance. First, on 21 March 1924, Charles S. Johnson of the National Urban League hosted a dinner to recognize the new literary talent in the black community and to introduce the young writers to New York's white literary establishment. As a result of this dinner, the Survey Graphic, a magazine of social analysis and criticism that was interested in cultural pluralism, produced a Harlem issue in March 1925. Devoted to defining the aesthetic of black literature and art, the Harlem issue featured work by black writers and was edited by black philosopher and literary scholar Alain Locke. Later that year Locke expanded the special issue into an anthology, The New Negro. The second event was the publication of Nigger Heaven (1926) by white novelist Carl Van Vechten. The book was a spectacularly popular exposé of Harlem life. Although the book offended some members of the black community, its coverage of both the elite and the baser sides of Harlem helped create a Negro vogue that drew thousands of sophisticated New Yorkers, black and white, to Harlem's exotic and exciting nightlife and stimulated a national market for African-American literature and music. Finally, in the Autumn of 1926 a group of young black writers produced their own literary magazine, Fire!! With Fire!! a new generation of young writers and artists, including Langston Hughes, Wallace Thurman, and Zora Neale Hurston, emerged as an alternative group within the Renaissance.
The theater fell into a decline in the late 1960s but was revived in 1983 through city, state, and federal grant money. It is now operated by a non-profit organization, the Apollo Theater Foundation Inc., and reportedly draws 1.3 million visitors annually. It is the home of Showtime at the Apollo, a nationally syndicated variety show showcasing new talent.
There would be no uniting form singularly characterizing the art that emerged out of the Harlem Renaissance. Rather, it encompassed a wide variety of cultural elements and styles, including a Pan-Africanist perspective, "high-culture" and the "low-culture or low-life," from the traditional form of music to the blues and jazz, traditional and new experimental forms in literature like modernism, and in poetry, for example, the new form of jazz poetry. This duality would eventually result in a number of African American artists of the Harlem Renaissance coming into conflict with conservatives in the black intelligentsia who would take issue with certain depictions of black life in whatever medium of the arts. Some common themes that were represented in the Harlem Renaissance were the influence of the experience of slavery and the African-American folk traditions that emerged from it on black identity, the effects of institutional racism, the dilemmas inherent in performing and writing for elite white audiences, and the question of how to convey the experience of modern black life in the urban North.
The Harlem Renaissance was one of primarily African American involvement and an interpersonal support system of black patrons, black owned businesses and publications. However, it also depended on the patronage of white Americans, such as Carl Van Vechten and Charlotte Osgood Mason, who provided various forms of assistance, opening doors which otherwise would have remained closed to the publicizing of their work outside of the black American community. This support often took the form of patronage or publication. Then, there were those whites interested in so-called "primitive" cultures, as many whites viewed black American culture at that time, and wanted to see this "primitivism" in the work coming out of the Harlem Renaissance. Other interpersonal dealings between whites and blacks can be categorized as exploitative because of the desire to capitalize on the "fad", and "fascination" of the African American being in "vogue". This vogue of the African American would extend to Broadway, as in Porgy and Bess, and into music where in many instances white band leaders would defy racist attitude to include the best and the brightest African American stars of music and song.
For blacks, their art was a way to prove their humanity and demand for equality. For a number of whites, preconceived prejudices were challenged and overcome. Corresponding with the Harlem Renaissance was the beginning of mainstream publishing. Many authors began to publish novels, magazines and newspapers during this time. Publishers began to attract a great amount of attention from the nation at large. Some famous authors during this time included Jean Toomer, Jessie Fauset, Claude McKay, Zora Neale Hurston, James Weldon Johnson and Alain Locke and Eric D. Walrond as well as Langston Hughes.
The Harlem Renaissance would help lay the foundation of the Civil Rights Movement. Moreover, many black artists coming into their own creativity after this literary movement would take inspiration from it.
No common literary style, artistic style or political ideology defined the Harlem Renaissance. What united participants was their sense of taking part in a common endeavor and their commitment to giving artistic expression to the African-American experience. Some common themes existed, such as an interest in the roots of the 20th-century African-American experience in Africa and the American South, and a strong sense of racial pride and desire for social and political equality. But the most characteristic aspect of the Harlem Renaissance was the diversity of its expression.
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 the above-mentioned 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.
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. In the visual arts, Aaron Douglas adopted a deliberately "primitive" style and incorporated African images in his paintings and illustrations
However, the Renaissance was more than a literary or artistic movement, it possessed a certain sociological development—particularly through a new racial consciousness—through racial integration, as seen the Back to Africa movement led by Marcus Garvey. However, W.E.B DuBois's notion of "twoness", first introduced in The Souls of Black Folk (1903), explored a divided awareness of one's identity which provided a unique critique of the social ramifications of this racial consciousness.
The Harlem Renaissance was successful in that it brought the Black experience clearly within the corpus of American cultural history. Not only through an explosion of culture, but on a sociological level, the legacy of the Harlem Renaissance is that it redefined how America, and the world, viewed the African-American population. The migration of southern Blacks to the north changed the image of the African-American from rural, undereducated peasants to one of urban, cosmopolitan sophistication. This new identity lead to a greater social consciousness, and African-Americans became players on the world stage, expanding intellectual and social contacts internationally.
The progress—both symbolic and real—during this period, became a point of reference from which the African-American community gained a spirit of self-determination that provided a growing sense of both Black urbanity and Black militancy as well as a foundation for the community to build upon for the Civil Rights struggles in the 1950s and 1960s.
The urban setting of rapidly developing Harlem provided a venue for African-Americans of all backgrounds to appreciate the variety of Black life and culture. Through this expression, the Harlem Renaissance encouraged the new appreciation of folk roots and culture. For instance, folk materials and spirituals provided a rich source for the artistic and intellectual imagination and it freed the Blacks from the establishment of past condition. Through sharing in these cultural experiences, a consciousness sprung forth in the form of a united racial identity.
Many critics point out that the Harlem Renaissance could not escape its history and culture in its attempt to create a new one, or sufficiently separate itself from the foundational elements of White, European culture. Often Harlem intellectuals, while proclaiming a new racial consciousness, resorted to mimicry of their White counterparts by adopting their clothing, sophisticated manners and etiquette. This abandonment of the authentic culture of their African roots was seen as hypocritical, and intellectuals who engaged in such mimicry earned the epithet "dicky niggers" from disillusioned blacks. This could be seen as a reason by which the artistic and cultural products of the Harlem Renaissance did not overcome the presence of White-American values, and did not reject these values. In this regard, the creation of the "New Negro" as the Harlem intellectuals sought, was considered a failure.
The Harlem Renaissance appealed to a mixed audience. The literature appealed to the African-American middle class and to whites. Magazines such as The Crisis, a monthly journal of the NAACP, and Opportunity, an official publication of the National Urban League, employed Harlem Renaissance writers on their editorial staffs; 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. W.E.B. DuBois did not oppose the relationship between black writers and white publishers, but he was critical of works such as Claude McKay's bestselling novel Home to Harlem (1928) for appealing to the "prurient demand[s]" of white readers and publishers for portrayals of black "licentiousness." 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 art intend 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 and clubs attracted both Harlem residents and white New Yorkers seeking out Harlem nightlife. Harlem's famous Cotton Club, where Duke Ellington performed, 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.
Certain aspects of the Harlem Renaissance were accepted without question, without debate, and without scrutiny. One of these was the future of the "New Negro." Artists and intellectuals of the Harlem Renaissance echoed the 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. This progressivist worldview rendered Black intellectuals—just as their White counterparts— totally unprepared for the rude shock of the Great Depression, and the Harlem Renaissance ended abruptly because of naive assumptions about the centrality of culture, unrelated to economic and social realities.
However, what emerges as a chief criticism of the Harlem Renaissance is that while African-American culture became absorbed into the mainstream American culture, a strange separation emerged of the Black community from American culture. As African-Americans with roots in this country dating to beginning of the North American slave trade in the early 17th century, their worldview is distinctly native. Blacks, unlike other immigrants, had no immediate past, history and culture to celebrate as they were separated by generations from their roots in Africa. 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 other ethnic groups within the United States.
The Harlem Renaissance changed forever the dynamics of African-American arts and literature in the United States. The writers that followed in the 1930s and 1940s found that publishers and the public were more open to African-American literature than they had been at the beginning of the century. Furthermore, the existence of the body of African-American literature from the period inspired writers such as Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright to pursue literary careers in the late 1930s and the 1940s, even if they defined themselves against the various ideologies and literary practices of the Renaissance. The outpouring of African-American literature of the 1980s and 1990s by such writers as Alice Walker and Toni Morrison also had its roots in the writing of the Harlem Renaissance. The influence of the Harlem Renaissance themes and the richness of African-American culture has also been expressed through new media, as is seen in the films of director Spike Lee.
The influence of the Harlem Renaissance was not confined to the United States. Writers Claude McKay, Langston Hughes, and Countee Cullen, actor and musician Paul Robeson, dancer Josephine Baker, and others traveled to Europe and attained a popularity abroad that rivaled or surpassed what they achieved in the United States. The founders of the Négritude movement in the French Caribbean traced their ideas directly to the influence of Hughes and McKay. South African writer Peter Abrahams cited his youthful discovery of the anthology The New Negro as the event that turned him toward a career as a writer. For thousands of blacks around the world, the Harlem Renaissance was proof that whites did not hold a monopoly on literature and culture.