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The Significance Of The Harlem Renaissance Essay, Research Paper

Throughout American Literature there have been many genres of writing eras. The Harlem Renaissance was one of such genres of writing. The Harlem Renaissance was an African American cultural movement of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s that was centered in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City. Although it was primarily a literary movement, it was closely related to developments in African American music, theater, art, and politics.

The Harlem Renaissance had a number of different names. It was also referred to as the New Negro movement, the New Negro Renaissance, and the Negro Renaissance. The movement emerged toward the end of World War I in 1918 and bloomed in the mid- to late 1920’s, and then later faded in the mid-1930’s. The Harlem Renaissance was a giant step for African American writers and poets. It was such an accomplishment because it marked the first time that mainstream publishers and critics took these writers seriously. Not only was it the publishers who gave recognition to African American literature and arts, but also the nation as a whole.

The Harlem Renaissance emerged both socially and intellectually in the African American community in the early twentieth century. Several factors contributed to the movement. There had been a large black middle class developed by the turn of the century. This was a result of increased education and employment opportunities following the American Civil War. During

what was known as the Great Migration, black Americans moved by the thousands from a poor rural South to the industrialized cities of the North to take advantage of the employment opportunities created by World War I. As more and more educated and socially sensible African Americans settled in New York’s neighborhood of Harlem, it generated into the political and cultural center of black America.

African American literature and arts had begun a steady development just before the turn of the century. In the performing arts, black musical theater featured such accomplished artists as songwriter Bob Cole and composer J. Rosamond Johnson, brother of writer James Weldon Johnson. Jazz and blues music moved with black populations from South and Midwest into the bars and cabarets of Harlem.”Harlem offered a kaleidoscope of literary, political, and hedonistic activity than anywhere in the United States”. In literature, the poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar and the fiction of Charles W. Chestnutt in the late 1890’s 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 poetry of Claude McKay anticipated the literature that would follow in the late 1920’s by describing the reality of black life in America and the struggle for racial identity. There are a few reasons for the movement such as from the quote “Africa as a source of race pride, black American heroes, and the black folk tradition”.

In the early 1920’s three works signaled the new creative energy in African American literature. McKay’s volume of poetry, Harlem Shadows, became one of the first works by a black writer to be published by a mainstream, national publisher. Cane, by Jean Toomer, was an experimental novel that combined poetry and prose in documentary in the life of American Blacks in the rural south and urban north. Finally, There is Confusion, the first novel by writer and editor Jessie Fauset, depicted middle class life among Black Americans from a woman’s


With these early works as the foundation, three events between 1924 and 1926 started the Harlem Renaissance. First, on March 21, 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 a magazine of social analysis and criticism that was interested in cultural pluralism,

produced the Harlem issue in March 1925 known as The Survey Graphic. Devoted to defining the culture of the black literature and art, the Harlem issue featured work by black writers and edited by the black philosopher and scholar, Alain Leroy Locke. The second event was the publication of Nigger Heaven by white novelist, Carl Van Vechten. The book was a spectacularly popular expose of Harlem life. Although the book offered some members of the black community, its coverage of both the elite and the baser side of Harlem helped create

“Negro vogue” that drew thousands sophisticated New Yorkers, black and white, to Harlem’s exotic and exciting night life and stimulated a national market for African American literature and music. Finally, in the autumn of 1926, a groupof young black writers produced their literary magazine, Fire!! With Fire!! A new generation of young writers and artists including Langston Hughes, Wallace Thurman, and Zora Neale Hurston took ownership of the literary


Langston Hughes, an American writer, was known for his use of jazz and black folk rhythms in his poetry. He published his first poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” in Crisis Magazine in 1921 and studied at Columbia University from 1921 to 1922. Hughes wrote in many genres, but he is best known for his poetry, in which he disregards classical forms in favor of musical rhythms and oral and improvisatory traditions of Black culture. In the 1920’s, when he lived in New York City, he was a prominent figure during the Harlem Renaissance and was referred to as the Poet Laureate of Harlem. His innovations in form and voice influenced many writers. He also wrote the drama Mulatto, which was performed on Broadway 373 times.

Zora Neale Hurston, an American writer and folklorist, whose anthropological study of her racial heritage, at a time when Black culture was not a popular field of study, influenced the Harlem Renaissance writers of the 1930’s as well as such later Black American authors as Ralph Ellison, Alice Walker, and Toni Morrison. As a fiction writer, Hurston is noted for her metaphorical language, her story telling abilities, and her interests in and celebration of Southern Black culture in the United States. Her best known novel is Their Eyes Were Watching God, in which she tracked a Southern black woman’s search, over twenty-five years and three marriages, for her true identity in a community in which she could develop that identity. Hurston’s prolific literary output also includes such novels as Jonas Gourd Vine and Seraph on the Suwanee; short stories, plays, journal articles, and an autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road. Hurston’s work

was not political, but her character’s use of dialect, her manner of portraying Black culture, and her conservatism created controversy within the Black community. No common literary style or political ideology defined the Harlem Renaissance period. What united participants was their

sense to taking part in a common endeavor and their commitment to giving artistic expression to the African American experience.”From the beginning in Color to the end of his poetic career, Cullen was a lyricist, best when writing subjectively and most effective when his feelings derived from subjects sufficiently universal to encourage a reader’s interest and possibly

identification”. Some common themes, such as an interest in the roots of the twentieth century African American experience in Africa and 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 from the mid-1920’s through the mid-1930’s. Some sixteen black writers published more than fifty volumes of poetry and fiction,

while dozens of other African American artists made their mark in painting, music, and theater.

A diverse literary expression of the Harlem Renaissance ranged from Langston Hughes’ weaving of the rhythms of African American music into his poems of ghetto life, as in The Weary Blues, to Claude McKay’s use of sonnet form as a vehicle for his impassioned poems attacking racial violence, as in “If We Must Die.” McKay also presented glimpses of glamour and the gift of Harlem life in Harlem Shadows. Countee Cullen used both African and European

images to explore the African roots of Black American life. But some disagree as in this quote, “some of his contemporaries criticized his failure to assume a more positive role as spokesman for Afro-Americans”. In the poem “Heritage,” for example, Cullen discusses being both a Christian and an African yet not belonging fully to either tradition. Quicksand, by a novelist, Nella Larsen, offered a powerful psychological study of an African American woman’s loss of identity, while Zora Neale Hurston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God used folk life of the Black rural south to create a brilliant study of race and gender in which a woman finds her true identity.

A number of factors contributed to the decline of the Harlem Renaissance in the mid-1930’s. The Great Depression of the 1930’s increased the economic pressure on all sectors of life. Organizations such as the NAACP and Urban League, which had actively promoted the Renaissance in the 1920’s, shifted their interest to economic and social issues in the 1930’s. “The energy of the Harlem Renaissance began to wane after the stock market crash of 1929, and by 1931 the era was over”. Many influential writers and literary promoters including Hughes, James Johnson, Charles Johnson, and Du Bois, left New York City in the early 1930’s. Finally, a riot in Harlem in 1934 set off in part by the growing economic hardship of The Depression and mounting tension between the Black community and the White shop owners in Harlem who profited from that community shattered the notion of Harlem as the “Mecca” of the New Negro. In spite of these problems the Renaissance did not disappear overnight. Almost one-third of the books published during the Renaissance appeared after 1929.

In the last analysis, the Harlem Renaissance ended when most of those associated with it left Harlem or stopped writing, while new young artists who appeared in the 1930’s and 1940’s never associated with the movement. Although it was primarily a literary movement, it was closely related to developments in African American music, theater, art, and politics proven to be a correct assumption on the Harlem Renaissance. The Harlem Renaissance changed forever the dynamics of African American art and literature in the United States. The writers that followed in the 1930’s and 1940’s 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 Renaissance-inspired writers such as Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright to pursue literary careers in the late 1930’s and the 1940’s. The outpouring of African American literature of the 1980’s and 1990’s with 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 was not confined to the United States. Writers McKay, Hughes, and 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

had achieved in the United States. South African writer, Peter Abrams, cited his useful discovery of the Harlem Renaissance anthology, The New Negro, as the vent that turned him toward a career as a writer. For thousands of Blacks around the world, the Harlem Renaissance was proof that the White race did not hold a monopoly on literature and culture.


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