Skip to main content Skip to Search Box

Definition: Harlem Renaissance from Philip's Encyclopedia

Period of creativity, particularly in literature, among African-Americans in the 1920s. Centred in Harlem, New York City, the Renaissance produced many fine writers, such as Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, and Claude McKay.


Summary Article: Harlem Renaissance
from Encyclopedia of American Studies

The Harlem Renaissance was the cultural front of the New Negro movement heralded by privileged intellectual leaders during the 1920s. It was also a marker of drastic demographic change with huge political implications, and the historical occasion in which African America's expressive tendencies took on an urban cast. More broadly the Harlem Renaissance was an inspiration for, and a manifestation of, the worldwide Négritude movement which grew out of, and in some quarters superseded, Pan-Africanist thought. Though difficult to date precisely since its sources and effects were both subtle and profound, the creative flowering that centered in a relatively small corner of New York City is generally thought to have begun with the armistice that brought an end to World War I and to have declined when financial support for the arts dried up during the Great Depression.

Apart from dates, wrangles over the meaning and measure of the Harlem Renaissance have kept scholars busy. There is little doubt that the most visible beneficiaries of this breakthrough episode in U.S. cultural history were writers such as Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Jean Toomer, Nella Larsen, and Countee Cullen. Biographies of these gifted artists suggest the range of backgrounds among those who understood themselves as participating in something unprecedented in American art. Thus, Hughes was from the rural Midwest, Hurston from an all-black township in Florida in which African folk-patterns were actively present, and Cullen and Larsen grew up in the urban North, while Jean Toomer was a child of the African American gentry as it existed in the South. Knowledge of this diversity is a good corrective to the common, but misguided, charge that the Harlem Renaissance was of interest only to a conscious elite. It is probably true that few poor Americans, and even fewer immigrants from the Caribbean and West Indies, kept abreast of contemporary belles lettres or visited the galleries in which Harlem Renaissance painters and sculptors displayed their work. The aim, however, especially as the Harlem Renaissance came into being, was to give African American people of all classes art that would inspire those downtrodden by racist laws and attitudes and contribute to the uplift of the race while the creativity of black artists attested to their humanity. The question was, what sort of art could achieve these goals? Powerful arbiters of Harlem Renaissance art such as Jessie Redmon Fauset, Benjamin Brawley, and William Stanley Braithwaite thought that stylistic innovation was off-putting, too much a case of art for art's sake. Middle-class Northerners with an uncomfortable relationship to the black masses and to the South generally, these elite critics nonetheless thought highly of the Jamaican poet Claude McKay. Though none could have known that one of his sonnets, If We Must Die would be circulated among the men involved in the Attica Prison uprising of 1971, this fact alone makes it hard to judge the Harlem Renaissance as an elite solipsistic enclave. So does the fact that the Harlem Renaissance, or perhaps perceptions of the same, increased the literary opportunities given to, or won by, black writers such as Ann Petry, Richard Wright, and Margaret Walker. Even more important because of their effect on a greater number of lives, poems such as The Negro Speaks of Rivers and The Weary Blues (both the work of Langston Hughes) had a huge impact among diasporic artists searching for expressive traditions that would be modern and race-conscious in a cultural-nationalist sense. Decades later poet Amiri Baraka would acknowledge Hughes again.

The groundwork for the burst of African American art and financial patronage that was dubbed a renaissance has been traced to the skill with which Booker T. Washington solicited wealthy whites' support for the Tuskegee Institute. More commonly the Harlem Renaissance is understood as a development of the mingling of artistic heritages that gifted people brought to Harlem from many parts of the United States and the Caribbean. Thus, a determinative condition for this slice of U.S. cultural history, and its powerful newness, is the movement of families and individual questers that historians have named the Great Migration North. Mandated by extreme poverty, lynchings, and other race-based oppression, this migration made rural people—many of whom had been raised in relatively close contact with African folkways—neighbors of Northerners, black and white. The result was a reshaping of U.S. art and life that made racial identity, rather than resistance to race-based oppression, central. In fact a useful way to think about the progress of the Harlem Renaissance is to chart the work that resulted from it in terms of confidence about asserting an Africanist heritage inflected by specific regional, gender, sexual, artistic, financial, and political contingencies.

Beginning at the beginning, early works associated with the Harlem Renaissance, such as James Weldon Johnson's Lift Every Voice and Sing (the putative Negro national anthem), are heavily indebted to European traditions. This hymn's emphasis on Western lyric and musical traditions is consonant with the talented tenth argument that art was a realm in which African Americans could demonstrate expressive talent, as well as a civic capacity for education and assimilability. Johnson relied less on European modes in such later works as God's Trombones, an appreciation and revisiting of the sermon format. In this work Johnson was close in spirit to writers such as Toomer, Hughes, and Eric Walrond, and such painters as Aaron Douglas. All were eager to explore the stylistic experimentations of European modernism as it made possible powerful new statements of African American presence. Just as complex but spiced with a wicked wit, novelists Wallace Thurman and George Schuyler crafted acute satires that recall African folktales' upsets of assumed power and authority. In contrast, delicacy and indirection were the hallmarks of female Harlem Renaissance artists such as Fauset, Dorothy West, Anne Spencer, and Georgia Johnson. The exception to this rule, the exuberant Hurston was an academy-trained ethnographer who developed a complicated relationship to the role of griot.

African American editorial control of the magazines Survey Graphic, the Crisis, and Opportunity explain the literary bent of the Harlem Renaissance. Just as important is discomfort on the part of privileged African Americans with performance art such as dance, jazz, the blues, and Broadway musicals, which were thought low. Strong distaste for arts deemed vulgar or crude sprang from a commitment by leading black Americans away from so-called brutish appetites that were seen as the degrading result of poor and limited educational opportunities. Cary Wintz shows that the same outlook fueled elite critics' distaste for ghetto realism and younger Harlem Renaissance artists' depictions of the sensual vitality that could be found in African America's expressive art. In books about the music of the Harlem Renaissance, Jon Michael Spencer and Samuel A. Floyd ponder the related tendency, on the part of elite African Americans, to distinguish between high cultural products and popular hits, such as the Broadway show Shuffle Along.

Turning to the intellectual and aesthetic premises debated by artists associated with the Harlem Renaissance, privileged race men such as Alain Locke and W. E. B. Du Bois agreed that the New Negro was ready to repudiate racist stereotypes such as the mild old uncle and white-oriented mammy. In addition the New Negro was determined to live a life of the mind and spirit, which distanced struggles to earn self-respect from the financial programs espoused by Jamaican orator Marcus Garvey. Since Du Bois made no secret of his opposition to the charismatic Garvey, some have seen the Harlem Renaissance as an arrant attempt to quash a populist and popular political theorist with great appeal for the black masses. Locke is usually the main target of this argument, since he emphasized that the task for New Negro artists was to show that African Americans could write poetry that deserved a place beside Shelley's and paint as well as, or better than, Matisse. Just as focused on high-culture products but openly intending to use them for didactic purpose, Du Bois offered art as an alternative to Garvey's return to Africa visions. To advance their inspirational (some would say, naive) agenda, Locke and Du Bois published searching position-statements on the artist's role in a community, the merits and demerits of didactic art, and the intricacies of art for art's sake. Both men wanted black creative talents expended on sophisticated appreciations of Africa's cultural heritage in the West, the sort that would be clearly distinguishable from folk art. Locke and Du Bois's clear and repeated calls for talent to show itself and willingness to find financial support for struggling young artists were crucial encouragement for many. Locke was especially good at finding patronage for aspiring writers, even if problems sometimes arose with the arrangements he brokered.

Once patronage was established, many writers associated with the Harlem Renaissance chose to travel to Europe, Africa, and the Soviet Union. Concentrating on racial identity, few produced travel literature; instead, fiction and poetry were mainstays, followed by autobiography and memoir, with less attention to drama, anthologies of African American cultural expression (for example, humor or folklore), and children's books. White patrons' interests probably influenced the themes of interest to Harlem Renaissance authors: these included the working and recreational life of poor black Americans; the complexities of passing; the strength and courage, but also the deprivation and disease, encountered among African Americans in the rural South; the charm and insight of folk culture; racial discrimination between darker- and lighter-skinned black Americans; and the beauty experienced in the struggles and selflessness of family life. Many of these topics were handled differently by Harlem Renaissance artists who found ways to do without patrons, such as when the brilliant Wallace Thurman tried scriptwriting in Hollywood and the talented Rudolph Fisher wrote gem-like short stories while studying medicine. Stylistic innovation in matters such as the use of black dialect, a phonic or aural emphasis, evocations of African American religious practices, and a supremely lyrical prose were more common among younger Harlem Renaissance artists. A strong statement of the younger generation's position is Hughes's The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain. This essay served as a prospectus for the art magazine Fire!! During its short life, this periodical was edited by those Hurston dubbed the Niggerati: herself, Thurman, Hughes, Douglas, and Gwendolyn Bennett.

Scholars' schemata of the Harlem Renaissance vary. Literary critic Houston Baker, Jr., sees the Renaissance as a modernism guided by African expressive theory rather than Freudianism or secular despair. Critic J. Martin Favor views it as a chance to probe race- or culture-based understandings of authentic blackness. Historian David Levering Lewis identifies three phases of the Harlem Renaissance. The first, and most brief, Lewis finds the most obviously red, because bohemians and socialists grew interested in the art produced by such writers as McKay and Toomer. When this interest was supported by white-owned and -operated publishing houses, the Harlem Renaissance's second phase drew attention from prominent whites such as Carl Van Vechten and Eugene O'Neill. The third and last of Lewis's phases was the longest (indeed, its end point is hard to date); more important, it was the most fully self-authorizing. Since none of the cited studies makes gender issues central, it is important that scholars such as Cheryl Wall have tried to discern a feminist perspective on the art of the Harlem Renaissance. Similar work could be done on same-sex orientation among Renaissance writers, with particular attention to black masculinity, the artist's relationship to an audience (and creation thereof), and the patron-protégé nexus.

Turning to American studies, the rise of African American studies programs brought the Harlem Renaissance to scholarly attention. This shift resulted in many fine individual author studies and preliminary work on gender. With trends toward interdisciplinary, internationalist, and cross-race scholarship dominating American studies at the end of the twentieth century, subsequent work attends to the journalists, sociologists, historians, and performance artists who were often financed by the patrons, prizes, and grants that have been analyzed only as they affected literary work. Future work on the Harlem Renaissance could probe the institutional factors that led to a congregation of artistic talent in one corner of Manhattan; African American faith in, and contestations of, an Arnoldian gospel of culture; and the extent to which a group of artists born in Jim Crow America enriched the artistic culture of Négritude.

Portrait of Langston Hughes. 1943. Gordon Parks, photographer. FSA/OWI, Library of Congress.

Portrait of Zora Neale Hurston. 1938. Carl Van Vechten, photographer. Carl Van Vechten Collection, Library of Congress.

Portrait of James Weldon Johnson. 1932. Carl Van Vechten, photographer. Carl Van Vechten Collection, Library of Congress.

Portrait of George S. Schuyler. 1942. Carl Van Vechten, photographer. Carl Van Vechten Collection, Library of Congress.

Bibliography
  • Baker, Houston A. Jr., Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance (Univ. of Chicago Press 1987).
  • Bernard, Emily, Carl Van Vechten and the Harlem Renaissance: A Portrait In Black and White (Yale Univ. Press 2012).
  • Favor, Martin J., Authentic Blackness: The Folk in the New Negro Renaissance (Duke Univ. Press 1999).
  • Feith, Michel; Genevieve Fabre, eds., Temples for Tomorrow: Looking Back at the Harlem Renaissance (Ind. Univ. Press 2001).
  • Floyd, Samuel A. Jr., ed., Black Music in the Harlem Renaissance: A Collection of Essays (Greenwood Press 1990).
  • Huggins, Nathan Irvin, Harlem Renaissance, new ed.(Oxford 2007).
  • Lewis, David Levering, When Harlem Was in Vogue (1981; Penguin 1997).
  • Schwarz, A. B. Christa, Gay Voices of the Harlem Renaissance (Ind. Univ. Press 2003).
  • Smith, Katharine Capshaw, Children's Literature of the Harlem Renaissance (Ind. Univ. Press 2006).
  • Spencer, Jon Michael, The New Negroes and Their Music: The Success of the Harlem Renaissance (Univ. of Tenn. Press 1997).
  • Tarver, Australia; Paula C. Barnes, eds., New Voices on the Harlem Renaissance: Essays on Race, Gender, and Literary Discourse (Fairleigh Dickinson Univ. Press 2006).
  • Vogel, Shane, The Scene of Harlem Cabaret: Race, Sexuality, Performance (Univ. of Chicago 2009).
  • Wall, Cheryl, Women of the Harlem Renaissance (Ind. Univ. Press 1995).
  • Wilson, James F., Bulldaggers, Pansies, and Chocolate Babies: Performance, Race, and Sexuality in the Harlem Renaissance (Univ. of Mich. Press 2010).
  • Wintz, Cary, Black Culture and the Harlem Renaissance (Rice Univ. Press 1988).
  • Wintz, Cary D.; Bruce A. Glasrud, The Harlem Renaissance in the American West: The New Negro's Western Experience (Routledge 2011).
  • Barbara Ryan
    Copyright 2018 The American Studies Association

    Related Articles


    Full text Article Harlem Renaissance
    Encyclopedia of American Poetry: The Twentieth Century

    A t the height of the Harlem Renaissance, Lester A. Walton, a black journalist, wrote that art was in a position to establish a kind of unity...

    Full text Article Harlem Renaissance
    African-American Writers: A Dictionary

    (1919–1940) Within the African-American community, a cultural movement called the Harlem Renaissance emerged in the United States during the...

    Full text Article HARLEM RENAISSANCE
    Africa and the Americas: Culture, Politics, and History

    The Harlem Renaissance, also called New Negro movement, refers to the period of outstanding literary and artistic creativity among African...

    See more from Credo