THE HARLEM RENAISSANCE
Setting the Stage
The Harlem Renaissance is generally regarded as beginning in 1919 following the end of
World War I but the confluence of forces that created the atmosphere in which it developed
began with the outbreak of war in Europe. The United States was called upon to manufacture
munitions and other supplies for the war effort. Many immigrant laborers had returned to
fight in their native lands and the war halted the flow of new immigrants. The shortage of
workers was filled by the reservoir of black laborers in the South and travel subsidies
from industries in dire need of manpower made possible a wholesale migration of over a
million and a half black people from the rural south to the industrial north. Many,
including 50 thousand blacks from the West Indies, settled in Harlem.
At the turn of the century, Harlem had been overbuilt with new apartment houses. Philip
A. Payton, a black man in the real estate business, engineered the movement of black
people into Harlem by proposing to the landlords to fill those empty apartments with black
tenants. It was the first time in the history of New York that black people were offered
new housing, and with wages from the newly created industry jobs there was money available
for renting and buying. When white neighbors tried to halt the flow of black tenants,
Payton created a stronghold by forming the Afro-American Realty Company for the purpose of
buying and leasing houses to be let to black tenants. White flight further reduced the
housing costs and in this two square-mile neighborhood lived more than two hundred
thousand blacks, the highest concentration of black people anywhere on earth.
The War Years
With the entrance of America into the war, Black American soldiers marched off to
defend "Democracy for All" in their segregated regiments. While on tour the
soldiers came in contact with other black soldiers from various imperial systems
throughout the world; they became conscious of one another and found in each other the
promise and the dream of world-wide black unity. Out of those dreams they built
organizations through which Pan Africanism might be a countervailing force against the
apparently crumbling colonial empires. Already, back in New York, a dynamic Jamaican,
Marcus Garvey, was drawing huge crowds denouncing the imperialist white man and calling on
the black man to return to Africa and build an African empire. And while many paid little
heed to "Garveyism" there was an undeniable movement afoot as witnessed in the
writing of W. E. B. Du Bois in black magazines like Crisis and The Messenger.
These articles called for and end to lynchings and mob violence, and demanded that a
country that purports to be fighting a war for democracy should begin by insuring that
right to its black populace at home. Most importantly, these articles ushered the era of
the "New Negro".
The emergence of the New Negro symbolized black liberation and the final shaking off of
the residuals of slavery in mind, spirit and character. This new man shed the costume of
the shuffling darky, the subservient and docile retainer, the clown; he was a man and a
citizen in his own right: intelligent, articulate, self-assured and urban. Alain Locke, a
professor of philosophy at Howard University, wrote in an essay entitled The New Negro,
"in the very process of being transplanted, the Negro has been transformed." And
although black political radicalism subsided with the Armistice, the "New Negro"
lived on. The Harlem Renaissance was a channeling of energy from political and social
criticism into poetry, fiction, music and art.
The Nature of the Movement
In 1925, painter Aaron Douglas, known as the "father" of African Art, wrote
to the poet Langston Hughes:
"Lets bare our arms and plunge them deep through laughter, through pain,
through sorrow, through hope, through disappointment, into the very depths of the souls of
our people and drag forth material crude, rough, neglected. Then lets sing it, dance
it, write it, paint it. Lets do the impossible. Lets create something
transcendentally material, mystically objective, earthy. Spiritually earthy.
These worthy objectives of a new breed of artists trying to reflect their racial
experiences and celebrate their cultural identity by creating new forms of art, true to
themselves and all African Americans.
The desire of black artists to produce works particular to their racial idiom led many,
including Hughes and Douglas, to examine their African ancestors. African art had, by this
time, influenced many European artists including Matisse, Picasso and Modigliani. The
characteristic African art expressions are rigid, controlled, abstract and highly
conventionalized; those of the African American were free, exuberant, emotional,
sentimental and human. Critics claimed that there was little connection for the modern
black American with the peoples of "the dark continent".
The sophisticated, stylish, urban Harlemites felt betrayed by writers like Zora Neale
Hurston who scoured the South to record and preserve black folk traditions, writing in the
dialect of the "old Negro". And when Carl Van Vechten dared to write a novel
entitled "Nigger Heaven", black people held meetings across America to denounce
the book, their objection based on the title alone.
These artists struggled to define the "New Negro" by examining the past.
Identity was central. What did Africa mean? What did the slave and the peasant past mean?
What could folk tradition mean to the "New Negro"? What was color itself?
Blackness, clearly, was not only a color, it was a state of mind. So what of the mulatto,
and what of "passing"? Most of the artistic work of the Harlem Renaissance
resonates these themes and questions.
This self-conscious examination by Harlem artists and literati did not plague the
musicians and performing artists of the time. The music and dances of black artists had
long been at the forefront of American entertainment. Black music and theater had an
openness, an exuberance, freshness and joie de vivre which no other American expression of the time had; it was
infectious, especially in the post war days. The Blues, Ragtime, and its offshoot Jazz,
could be heard in Harlem clubs at all hours of the night, with Bessie Smith, Eubie Blake,
and Duke Ellington presiding. The musical revue, "Shuffle Along" written by
Blake was the toast of the town and included in the chorus an as yet unknown Josephine
Baker, soon to be a star of international fame. Paul Robeson was the favorite star of
theater and film. The black man was in vogue.
White people came to Harlem in droves. White celebrities worked hard to get invited to
gatherings where they could rub elbows with black poets and painters. Prohibition helped
to boost the popularity of Harlem speakeasies and even the threat of a police raid did not
deter white customers bent on an evening of "slumming". Even the churches were
not safe from the invasion and the black congregations of revival meetings were spotted
with the white faces of people from uptown sitting stock still while all around them folks
filled with the spirit sang and danced in the aisles. Some of the owners of Harlem clubs,
delighted at the flood of white patrons, made the grievous error of barring their own
race, after the manner of the famous Cotton Club. But most quickly lost business and
folded up, because they failed to realize that a large part of the attraction of Harlem
night spots lay in simply watching the black clientele. Some black folks found refuge from
the onslaught of white tourists in smaller
gatherings like rent parties or, as they were also known, whist parties where bootleg
whiskey and fried fish were sold at very low prices to help cover the cost of the
The Harlem Renaissance was not confined to New York alone, or for that matter, to the
U.S. and a great many African American artists traveled to Europe, where they could thrive
in an atmosphere that, while perhaps not free of racial prejudice, was at least free from
the dreaded Jim Crow laws of the States.
The stock market crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression brought an end to the
Harlem Renaissance. The black man, at the height of his popularity, became the first to be
sacrificed to unemployment and starvation. The Depression made the Harlem Renaissance,
with its spirit of play and optimism, seem strange and naive. But the 1920s did bring into
focus, with sharper intensity than ever before, the consciousness and reality of the
African American struggle for self-realization, the spirit of which can be seen in this
poem by Langston Hughes:
I TOO SING AMERICA
I, too, sing America
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
I'll be at the table
When company comes.
Say to me,
"Eat in the kitchen"
They'll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed-
I too, am America.
Much of this material has been drawn from the book, "Voices from
the Harlem Renaissance" edited by Nathan Irvin Huggins and from Langston
Hughes' autobiography, "The Big Sea".