Guest Scholars

In this guest editorial, Venetria K. Patton and Maureen Honey examine the Harlem Renaissance in their revised introduction to Double-Take: A Revisionist Harlem Renaissance Anthology (2001 and 2008).

The Harlem Renaissance

While there is general agreement about the significance of the Harlem Renaissance, there is less accord on when the movement begins and ends, since it is not marked by a consistent set of aesthetics or recognizable style. Literature from the period covered a wide range of forms from classic sonnets to modernist verse to blues and jazz aesthetics to folklore. The movement is associated with the 1920s, the Jazz Age, and modernism, but just when it emerged and disappeared is a source of debate.

Despite this lack of clarity, writers and scholars have sought to impose order and meaning on this rather organic surge in African American artistic creativity. In The Harlem Renaissance Remembered, Arna Bontemps divides the period into two phases: black propaganda (1921–1924) and the connection of black writers to the white intelligentsia and publishing establishment (1924–1931), ending with the Depression of the 1930s. Nathan Huggins in Voices from the Harlem Renaissance follows Bontemps's lead by dating the era's beginnings to the end of World War I and its demise to the Depression. The editors of the more recent Call and Response echo these assessments in their preference for the terms "Harlem Renaissance" and the "Reformation," the Reformation referring to the post-Renaissance aftermath of the thirties and forties.

However, for others, the 1930s are an extension of the Harlem Renaissance, and they think work produced in that decade should be considered part of it. For example, in his 1931 discussion, "This Year of Grace," Alain Locke describes the thirties as the "second and truly sound phase of the cultural development of the Negro in American literature and art." This extension of the movement into the 1930s is embraced by The Norton Anthology of African American Literature edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Nellie Y. McKay. According to its time line, 1919–1940, the years of the Harlem Renaissance traverse two decades. David Levering Lewis also uses a more comprehensive time frame. In The Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader, he ascribes the years 1917–1935 to the movement, from the opening of American theater to black actors with the Broadway productions of Ridgeley Torrence in 1917 to the Harlem Riot of 1935, and he places a great deal of importance on World War I and the race riots of 1919 as watershed events ushering in the concept of the New Negro.

Feminist scholars tend to favor a wider time frame for the movement. Cheryl Wall and Gloria Hull note that narrower time and geographical parameters for the Harlem Renaissance work against women, most of whom published in a scattered way across a continuum of time and from regions outside of Harlem. Venetria Patton and Maureen Honey in Double-Take (2001) locate the movement's parameters in two landmark works by women, neither of which was written in Harlem nor in the 1920s: Angelina Weld Grimké's play, Rachel (1916), and Zora Neale Hurston's novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937). Bracketing the Harlem Renaissance with these two texts not only opens up debates about gender and the movement's vast literary range, but it pins the period to African American authored creative literature rather than to political events, economic events, expository prose, or texts generated by whites.

There is widespread consensus that the death of the movement occurred somewhere between 1935 and 1940. The Great Depression had a devastating impact on publication opportunities for black writers. In addition, there was an ascendancy of urban realism and naturalism in African American letters with the publication of Richard Wright's Black Boy (1939) and Native Son (1940). Indeed, it was Wright's highly critical review of Hurston's novel in New Masses when it first appeared that helped bury the Renaissance. Wright's perspective sounded the death knell for rural folk vernacular as the basis of an authentic African American aesthetic, one of the central constructs of Harlem Renaissance literature.

There is also widespread agreement that the success of white playwright Ridgely Torrence's Three Plays for a Negro Theatre on Broadway sparked mainstream interest in African American life. Produced in the fall of 1917 by Torrence's wife, Emily Hapgood, at the Garden Street Theatre, The Rider of Dreams, Simon the Cyrenian, and Granny Maumee were considered daring for the time because the cast was not only all black, but the parts were dignified and served as a counter-narrative to stereotypes in minstrel shows. The success of these plays was followed by several dramas, musicals, and novels about African Americans throughout the following decade.

Notable among these was Richardson's 1923 production of The Chip Woman's Fortune, the astounding Broadway run of Harlem (1929), co-authored by Wallace Thurman and white writer William Jourdan Rapp, and the 1921 musical Shuffle Along, written by African Americans Aubry Lyles and Flournoy Miller with songs by Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle. Shuffle Along was the first all-black musical, and its impact on the Harlem Renaissance was immediate and long-lasting; its imitators helped to promote the notion of the arts as a new approach to race relations. The era's most famous black star, Josephine Baker, was in the play along with the celebrated Florence Mills. Tellingly, songwriter Eubie Blake composed the musical's central number, "Love Will Find a Way," with some trepidation, because he feared white audiences would not accept a romantic lyric sung by black actors. Yet he was determined to break out of the buffoon straightjacket of minstrel shows and to portray African Americans as capable of operating within mainstream art forms.

Many key figures of the Harlem Renaissance were involved in the production and promotion of drama. For example, Langston Hughes was one of the many admirers of Shuffle Along and said he came to Harlem in large part to see the production. He became seriously involved with drama during the 1930s when he wrote plays, such as the record-breaking Mulatto, written in 1930 and performed on Broadway in 1935 for the longest run of any African American authored serious play. Demonstrating the importance he attached to the stage, Hughes established several theaters: the Suitcase Theatre in Harlem, the Negro Theatre of Los Angeles, and the Skyloft Players in Chicago. Zora Neale Hurston also dedicated much of her creative life to dramatic performances of African American folk culture. In 1926 W. E. B. Du Bois originated the Krigwa Little Theatre movement in response to the lack of serious drama in New York about blacks, with its four principles of "About us, By us, For us, and Near us." Montgomery Gregory, a drama professor at Howard University, established the first National Negro Theatre in the United States when he organized the Department of Dramatic Arts at Howard University in 1921 which brought national attention to the Howard Players. Du Bois advocated "race" or "propaganda plays" on the order of Angelina Grimké's Rachel, while Gregory and Locke promoted "folk plays" such as Willis Richardson's The Chip Woman's Fortune or Georgia Douglas Johnson's prize-winning Plumes (1927).

Many argue that music was the genre most at the heart of the Harlem Renaissance, particularly blues and jazz. Certainly it functioned as social glue to the movement's movers and shakers in cabarets and speakeasies while providing inspiration for the most innovative poets of the era, such as Langston Hughes. The blues of the Harlem Renaissance grew out of spirituals and work songs of the South by borrowing their harmonic and structural devices and vocal techniques. Unlike these earlier forms, however, blues were sung by a single person and played on one or more instruments, rather than emerging from a chorus. The blues were also secular. There was no promise of heaven—only complaints about earthly troubles with an occasional promise of a good time or fine loving. During the Great Migration of African Americans from the South to cities of the North from 1910 to 1930, the blues evolved from country blues to classic city blues. By 1920 the recording industry along Tin Pan Alley in New York City made blues the latest craze, replacing ragtime. For example, Mamie Smith's "Crazy Blues" sold 75,000 copies in one month in 1920. Most of the city blues were sung by women, with Mamie Smith, Ma Rainey, Gladys Bentley, and Bessie Smith being the most well known.

Jazz was another music idiom that had a tremendous effect on both blacks and whites during the Harlem Renaissance. Jazz was a blending of the rhythm and melodies of Africa with the harmonic forms of Europe. J. A. Rogers describes jazz as "[African Americans'] explosive attempt to cast off the blues and be happy, carefree happy, even in the midst of sordidness and sorrow." Rogers describes jazz as "atavistically African. . . . In its barbaric rhythm and exuberance there is something of the bamboula, a wild, abandoned dance of the West African and the Haitian Negro." African American jazz differed from African music, according to Rogers, by being faster and more complex: "With its cowbells, auto horns, calliopes, rattles, dinner gongs, kitchen utensils, cymbals, screams, crashes, clankings and monotonous rhythm it bears all the marks of a nerve-strung, strident, mechanized civilization." Jazz and blues, as well as their predecessor, ragtime, came to be considered quintessentially American music, and the genesis of all three was African American.

Visual art played a major role in the Harlem Renaissance as well. A large number of illustrations and photographs inspired by African art appeared throughout the pages of periodicals and anthologies of the period. One of the reigning influences of art was what African intellectual Léopold Senghor termed "Negritude," the "soulful and artistic qualities of native peoples." This was a concept that described the impact of African sculpture on abstract impressionist European artists, such as Picasso and Matisse, in a movement that came to be known as "primitivism." In his essay, "The Legacy of the Ancestral Arts," Alain Locke articulates the connection as follows: "The African art object, a half generation ago the most neglected of ethnological curios, is now universally recognized as a 'notable instance of plastic representation,' a genuine work of art, masterful over its material in a powerful simplicity of conception, design and effect." He then links the new modernist respect for African art with the need to develop a specifically African American art aesthetic. The powerful black and white Art Deco images of Aaron Douglas, which appeared in all the period's major journals and anthologies, define visual art in the movement's hey-day. Other prominent African American artists include sculptor Augusta Savage, painters Archibald J. Motley Jr. and William H. Johnson, and illustrators Gwendolyn Bennett, Laura Wheeler (Waring), Louise Latimer, Vivian Schuyler (Key), and Richard Bruce Nugent.

In its eclectic presentation of multiple voices, the importance of Alain Locke's landmark text The New Negro (1925) in defining the Harlem Renaissance cannot be overstated. Whites, blacks, men, women, older as well as younger artists and intellectuals were all included in a multigenre anthology that covered poetry, fiction, photographs, music, and essays. Locke's philosophy of racial cooperation and the celebration of art for art's sake are reflected in his selections as is his belief that whites would gain a new understanding of black humanity by a rich display of the race's intelligence and artistic talents. W. E. B. Du Bois shared this belief, and the two men became the intellectual leaders of the New Negro movement. Both distanced themselves from the militant working class movement generated by Marcus Garvey whose following in Harlem was immense. Du Bois and Locke supported the notion of a "Talented Tenth" of African American leaders, writers, artists, and thinkers who would erase forever demeaning stereotypes embedded in minstrelsy and Jim Crow segregation. Success in the arts would usher in a new era of equality and civil rights.

Du Bois played a major role in establishing the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909, and he edited one of the most influential journals of the Harlem Renaissance, The Crisis, a Harlem magazine founded in 1911. Equally powerful was the 1923 magazine, Opportunity, which was based in Washington, D.C., and edited by Charles S. Johnson, founder of the National Urban League (NUL) in 1910. Other prominent Harlem Renaissance journals were A. Philip Randolph's and Charles Owen's The Messenger (1917), Marcus Garvey's Negro World (1918), the single issue of Fire!! (1926) edited by Wallace Thurman, and Dorothy West's Challenge (1934) and New Challenge (1937) out of Chicago. Key anthologies of the era, along with Locke's The New Negro, include James Weldon Johnson's The Book of American Negro Poetry (1922), Countee Cullen's Caroling Dusk (1927), and Charles S. Johnson's Ebony and Topaz (1927).

Although Harlem is the place most closely associated with the Harlem Renaissance, London and Paris also served as centers for black emigrants from the British Empire, Martinique, Haiti, and Senegal. The cultural growth of all these cities was propelled by migration of blacks from the West Indies and Africa after World War I dislodged them from various homelands, helping to foster a Pan-Africanist dream of worldwide black unity. The era of the New Negro was not just an African American concept, in other words, but a wordwide expression of black self-assertion. This in part grew out of the atrocities of World War I, which undermined Western society's claim to a higher standard of civilization and encouraged people of African descent to reject a white supremacist ideology. On this side of the Atlantic, Jamaican Claude McKay, Eric Walrond of Barbadian and Guyanese parentage, Sierra Leone poet Gladys May Casely Hayford (a.k.a. Aquah Laluah), and Jamaicans Marcus Garvey and W.A. Domingo are all important figures in the Harlem Renaissance.

Despite the global nature of the New Negro movement and the variety of locations inhabited by its writers, Harlem served as its ideological center. The Great Migration between 1910 and1930 entailed massive population shifts as southern blacks migrated north in hopes of better social and economic opportunities, but most of them came to Harlem where housing was relatively good. By 1930, one million African Americans were believed to have left the South, but only 333,000 were shown to have migrated to places other than Harlem, and by the end of the 1920s it was the most densely populated black area in the world. Thus, according to Patricia Liggins Hill, "Harlem became both center and symbol of black culture and thought."

Because of the large and growing black population and the city's history of African American excellence in the arts, New York was a natural center for the Harlem Renaissance. New York was America's culture capital, and it was the center of publishing, drama, music, and painting. It was also the headquarters for the three biggest civil rights organizations: the NAACP; the NUL; and Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). As David Levering Lewis notes: "The Harlem Renaissance was a somewhat forced phenomenon, a cultural nationalism of the parlor, institutionally encouraged and directed by leaders of the national Civil Rights Establishment for the paramount purpose of improving race relations." Leaders of the movement believed that whites would best be persuaded to accept the humanity of African Americans if blacks were shown to be artistically accomplished. The NAACP and the NUL sought to encourage interracial collaboration between liberal whites and Du Bois's "Talented Tenth," the best and brightest of African American artists and intellectuals. They worked actively to connect black writers with white publishers.

The relative paucity of African American literature produced before the launching of the Harlem Renaissance points to the lack of a cultural agenda for African Americans, in the view of many civil rights leaders. According to David Levering Lewis, between 1908 and 1923 only a handful of significant literary works by African Americans appeared: Sutton Griggs's Pointing the Way (1908), W. E. B. Du Bois's The Quest of the Silver Fleece (1908), James Weldon Johnson's The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912), Du Bois's Darkwater (1920), McKay's Harlem Shadows (1922), and Jean Toomer's Cane (1923). Leaders like Du Bois and Locke felt it was necessary to create a modern African American aesthetic, one that would convince white America that African American writing was worthy of publication and that the race had the intellectual fortitude necessary to create such work. According to Du Bois, "until the art of black folk compels recognition they will not be regarded as human." James Weldon Johnson also argued that the arts were a useful means for asserting the cultural dignity of African Americans: "No people that has produced great literature and art has ever been looked upon by the world as distinctly inferior...And nothing will do more to change the mental attitude and raise his status than a demonstration of intellectual parity by the Negro through the production of literature and art." These were the core beliefs that fueled the Harlem Renaissance.

Although Du Bois and Locke were the primary architects of the Harlem Renaissance, they were challenged by a group of young writers who took Locke's position of art for art's sake much further than he had intended. Langston Hughes spoke for them in his 1926 essay, "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain," which appeared in The Nation: "We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn't matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too. The tom-tom cries and the tom-tom laughs. If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn't matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves." Following this manifesto of artistic freedom, Hughes and openly gay writer Bruce Nugent envisioned a new magazine that they named Fire!! They, along with Zora Neale Hurston, Gwendolyn Bennett, Aaron Douglas, and John Davis, selected the multitalented, gay writer Wallace Thurman as editor.

The editorial board was determined to express their own sensibilities and to break free of the notion of art as propaganda and to instead express the multiple dimensions of being African American. Fire!! promised "to burn up a lot of old, dead conventional Negro-white ideas of the past." The foreword to the first and only issue of November 1926 proclaimed to weave "vivid, hot designs upon an ebon bordered loom and...satisfy pagan thirst for beauty unadorned." In other words, this would be a daring and controversial journal. In fact, in order to underline its radical nature, Thurman decided that they needed to include at least one piece on homosexuality and another on prostitution. He and Nugent flipped a coin to determine who would write which story. Nugent's "Smoke, Lilies, and Jade," about homoerotic attraction, and Thurman's "Cordelia the Crude," about a young prostitute, were the result.

Both pieces outraged middle-class African American sensibilities. Rean Graves of the Baltimore Afro-American was incensed by the magazine and wrote in his review, "I have just tossed the first issue of Fire!! into the fire." Benjamin Brawley went so far as to say that if the U.S. Post Office found out about Thurman's "Cordelia the Crude," the magazine might be barred from the mail. Locke, although more balanced in his review, disapproved of the "effete echoes of contemporary decadence" he found throughout the issue. For a time the writers associated with the project were ostracized by the middle-class black community. However, the real source of the magazine's demise was financial. The magazine was expensive to buy ($1) and expensive to produce ($1,000), lacked institutional support, and was poorly distributed. Ironically, hundreds of unsold copies burned in an actual apartment fire.

In many ways Fire!! was the antithesis of The New Negro, and it is telling that Locke was not among its nine editors. Less than a year after appearing in his anthology, the younger writers had moved on without Locke. Symbolizing their upstart independence from the NAACP and NUL was Hurston's impudent dubbing of the influential whites that supported their contests and attended their parties as "Negrotarians," and her referral to black writers as the "Niggerati." In hopes of ironing out the differences between the younger and older generations, in late 1926 Du Bois organized a symposium entitled, "The Criteria of Negro Art." He feared that politics were disappearing from the Harlem Renaissance and that whites would point to the success of a handful of writers as evidence that there was no color line. However, the fissure remained and the rebelling younger artists gained momentum, particularly with the publication of Claude McKay's Home to Harlem in 1928. This first best-seller of the Renaissance embodied the values of the younger generation as did Langston Hughes's daring poetry.

The tensions around art and politics during the Harlem Renaissance point to continuing fault lines in current presentations of the Harlem Renaissance: How should it be assessed? What lessons can we draw from its meteoric heights and rapid descent? Did African American writers escape the ghetto of plantation dialect and the colonization of Eurocentric art forms only to fall into another trap of essentialized Western fantasies about primitive sensual Africa? Were black women betrayed by their male mentors and colleagues? Which texts should we privilege for study—those considered artistically superior, those advancing positive images of black people, or those representing concerns of the time? How do we sort out the thorny tangle of aesthetics and voice when it comes to women's texts and those by closeted gay and lesbian writers? Should we dispense with the categories of "major" and "minor" writers? If not, how do we judge the accomplishments of black women in an era when so many opportunities were unavailable because of the double disadvantages they faced? Should the Harlem Renaissance be cordoned off in its own literary category when it belongs within the larger artistic movement known as modernism? These are some of the questions animating current debates among Harlem Renaissance scholars, and they will provide many years more of investigation, revision, and recuperation of this central arts movement in American life.

Further Reading

Baker, Houston. Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance (1987).

Bontemps, Arna, ed. The Harlem Renaissance Remembered (1972).

Brown, Sterling, Arthur P. Davis, and Ulysses Lee, eds. The Negro Caravan (1941).

Chauncey, George. Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890–1940 (1994).

Cullen, Countee, ed. Caroling Dusk: An Anthology of Verse by Negro Poets (1927).

Davis, Arthur P. From the Dark Tower: Afro-American Writers, 1900–1960 (1974).

Du Bois, W. E. B. "Criteria of Negro Art." The Crisis, October 1926.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., and Nellie Y. McKay, eds. The Norton Anthology of African American Literature (1997).

Harris, Trudier, and Thadious M. Davis, eds. Afro-American Writers from the Harlem Renaissance to 1940. vol. 51 of Dictionary of Literary Biography (1987).

Harrison, Daphne Duval. Black Pearls: Blues Queens of the 1920s (1988).

Hill, Patricia Liggins, et al., eds. Call and Response: The Riverside Anthology of the African American Literary Tradition (1998).

Honey, Maureen, ed. Shadowed Dreams: Women's Poetry of the Harlem Renaissance (1989 and 2006).

Huggins, Nathan, ed. Voices from the Harlem Renaissance (1976).

Hughes, Langston. "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain." The Nation, June 1926.

Hull, Gloria. Color, Sex, and Poetry: Three Women Writers of the Harlem Renaissance (1987).

Hutchinson, George. The Harlem Renaissance in Black and White (1996).

Johnson, Charles S., ed. Ebony and Topaz: A Collectanea (1927).

Johnson, James Weldon, ed. The Book of American Negro Poetry (1922 and 1931).

Lewis, David Levering. When Harlem Was In Vogue (1981).

Lewis, David Levering, ed. The Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader (1994).

Locke, Alain, ed. The New Negro: Voices of the Harlem Renaissance (1925).

Locke, Alain. "The Legacy of the Ancestral Arts." The New Negro, 1925.

Locke, Alain, and Montgomery Gregory, eds. Plays of Negro Life (1927).

Martin, Tony. Literary Garveyism: Garvey, Black Arts, and the Harlem Renaissance (1983).

Patton, Venetria, and Maureen Honey, eds. Double-Take: A Revisionist Harlem Renaissance Anthology (2001).

Rampersad, Arnold. Introduction to The New Negro ed. Alain Locke (1992).

Rogers, Joel A. "Jazz at Home." The New Negro ed. Alain Locke (1925).

Roses, Lorraine, and Ruth Randolph, eds. The Harlem Renaissance and Beyond: Literary Biographies of 100 Black Women Writers 1900–1945 (1990).

Roses, Lorraine, and Ruth Randolph, eds. Harlem's Glory: Black Women Writing, 1900–1950 (1996).

Singh, Amritjit. The Novels of the Harlem Renaissance (1976).

Thurman, Wallace, ed. Fire!! November 1926. Reprint, Westport, Conn.: Negro Universities Press, 1970.

Wall, Cheryl. Women of the Harlem Renaissance (1995).

Wright, Richard. "Between Laughter and Tears." New Masses, October 1937.

Wright, Richard. "Blueprint for Negro Writing." The New Challenge, 1937.