Harlem Renaissance

Alain LeRoy Locke (September 13, 1885 – June 9, 1954), American writer, philosopher, educator, and patron of the arts. Photograph by Alfred Eisenstaedt, circa 1946.

During the 1920s and the early 1930s, Harlem, New York, became the chosen city for a new movement called the Harlem Renaissance or New Negro Movement.

It was a crucial time in American history, for it was an era that captured the essence of a socio-cultural awakening, metamorphic change and rapture of artistic expression. The movement gave way to new black voices in literature and provided testimony to the unwavering magnetic pull of Harlem as the new cultural capital of Black America.

“Harlem Negro life was seizing upon its first chances for group expression and self-determination,” wrote Alain Locke in his anthology The New Negro (1928). Locke was witnessing first-hand the deeply rooted renewal of consciousness among African Americans and was convinced that “Harlem was the greatest Negro city in the world.”

Harlem’s Appeal as the Cultural Capitol of Black America

While a renaissance was happening simultaneously in New Orleans, Washington D.C., Atlanta and other cities around the country, Harlem’s appeal grew more rapidly. The former home to white upper middle-class suburbanites, not unlike many African-American communities, became known rather quickly as a highly race-conscious and sophisticated community.

From all parts of the United States, West Indies and Africa, blacks gravitated to Harlem in record numbers. According to historians, Harlem grew from 14,000 blacks in 1914 to 175,000 by 1925. By the beginning of the depression, more than 200,000 African Americans inhabited Harlem.

The Renaissance Movement a Metamorphic Change

This was a symbolical movement of change in Africa-American life. Not only was it evidenced by the era’s artistic contributions, but also nurtured several civil rights organizations. For instance, the NAACP (although founded in 1910) was considered by many historians a significant contribution to this era. The National Urban League and the all-black Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and Maids (organized by A. Philip Randolph) also served this movement. But perhaps the most significant contribution of this era was Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association.

Garvey’s message gained millions of followers among the demoralized African-American masses in urban ghettos all over the country, as well as the educated middle-class Negro. “The most positive future for blacks lay in Africa, not America,” expressed the visionary. Garveyism was a vision that defined a true celebration of blackness and served a much needed outlet for race pride and self-assertion.

Garveyism Defines the True Celebration of Blackness

The New Negro movement was well on its way and had indeed defined the need for self-expression. Black journals such as the Crisis, Opportunity and the Messenger, as well as other leading journals such as the Nation, Modern Quarterly, New Republic, Survey Graphic, and Saturday Review were outlets for intellectual dialect and artistic expression

By the 1930s, the Renaissance movement had initiated many African-American writers, such as Sterling A. Brown, Countee Cullen, Ms. Jessie Redmon Fauset, Langston Hughes, Ms. Zora Neale Hurston, James Weldon Johnson, Alain Locke, Claude McKay, Jean Toomer, and Ms. Nella Larsen.

A Literary Explosion on the Rise

The first stage of the literary aspect of the Harlem Renaissance culminated in the December 1925, with a publication by Albert and Boni entitled The New Negro. This anthology had already sold 42,000 copies in its earlier incarnation as the March 1925, special issue on Harlem in the Survey Graphic magazine, a record unsurpassed by the Survey until World War II.

The individual most identified with the Harlem Renaissance is Howard University philosophy professor, Alain Locke. “Not only did Locke edit The New Negro, he was alsoinstrumental in propounding the concept of a Negro Renaissance, in negotiating the publishing contracts for and generally performing as mentor to aspiring writers and artists,” claims historians.

Another figure of special influence was sociologist, Charles S. Johnson, who later became the first black president of Fisk University. As the editor of the Opportunity, Johnson encouraged and stressed the need for African-Americans to advantageously understand the need to absorb the change from rural South to urban North. Johnson represented, “it is necessary to stimulate and foster a type of writing by Negroes which shakes itself free of deliberate propaganda and protest.” Johnson edited Ebony and Topaz, in 1927, and in many ways historians considered his work a companion volume to Locke’s The New Negro.

The third person most associated with the literary production of this movement was author Carl Van Vechten, whose success of Nigger Heaven (1926) was suggested to have given testimony to the awareness of many black writers of the commercial possibilities of this primitive formula. “The unusual success of Vechten’s Nigger Heaven and later of McKay’s Home to Harlem (1928) clearly indicates an eagerness for works exalting the exotic, the sensual, and the primitive,” wrote historians.

Writers, Alice Walker and Ntozake Shange Express Inspiration

Women writers of the Renaissance period became a source of inspiration and influence to many African-American writers of later day. Ntozake Shange, who birthed the choreopoem “For Colored Girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf,” expressed her appreciation for renaissance writers. She said, “Jessie Redman Fauset and Zora Neale Hurston, along with many other writers of that time, were very inspirational – widely read and admired by most African-American writers since the 1920s.” Alice Walker, author of “The Color Purple,” also portrayed in her work the life of poor southern blacks during the Renaissance period.

As early as the late 1920s, black authors in the West Indies and Africa expressed the positive inspiration they received from the spirit and individual works of the New Negro movement. Leopold Sedar Senghor of Senegal and Aime’ Ce’saire of Martinique, read Renaissance poetry and fiction in translation, and these two poets claimed to have developed their variant concepts of “Negritude,” referencing their esteemed recognition of black peoples, historical, cultural and social heritage.

Renaissance Renders more from Failings than Achievements

African Americans and enthusiasts all over the world continue to have heated discussions about the artistic and cultural contributions of the Harlem Renaissance era. These discussions embody the misrepresentation of black themes by whites and raise serious aesthetic criteria for the treatment, appreciation and evaluation of black writing.

“The Renaissance period probably rendered more from its failings than from its achievements,” claim some researches. Even though the attitudes of most renaissance writers may have been characterized by ambivalence and tension, many individual artists resolved their conflicting impulses about race and art with tentative solutions and moved on.

The contributors to this era trustingly left, especially blacks, with a significant legacy to appreciate. The Harlem Renaissance movement spawned a racial matrix of artistic expression that received critical attention and remains unprecedented in its courage of expression.