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art of the harlem renaissance

Drop Me Off in Harlem
From the Kennedy Center, get to know the people behind the Harlem Renaissance

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Find out more about the artists, writers and activists of the era

The Harlem Renaissance
An Online NewsHour forum covering the cultural legacies of the 1920s and 1930s

audio Listen to a segment on Langston Hughes
From NPR’s Tavis Smiley

audio Listen to a segment on Zora Neale Hurston
From NPR’s Morning Edition

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Power of Prose

Harlem Renaissance

The Harlem Renaissance & Beyond
American literature is unique in the number of voices and cultures it conveys, giving it the power to transform opinions and challenge stereotypes in both obvious and subtle ways. Christa Smith Anderson discusses how early 20th century writers associated with the “Harlem Renaissance” and the “New Negro Renaissance” movements broke with Standard American English and endowed literature with a rich new voice.

In the 1920s, a vibrant arts movement gave folk culture a literary voice. Though Langston Hughes wrote of the Harlem Renaissance as a time “When the Negro Was In Vogue,” Hughes was actually one of many writers who proved that its works were no passing fad. By looking to folk culture, many writers of the Harlem Renaissance such as Hughes’ contemporary Rudolph Fisher and New Negro Renaissance writers of the 1930s such as Sterling Brown proved that literary greatness was not the sole province of standard English. One had to go only as far as the club down the street in New York or New Orleans to find art:

In a deep song voice with a melancholy tone

I heard that Negro sing, that old piano moan-  ‘Ain’t got nobody in all this world,

Ain’t got nobody but ma self.

I’s gwine to quit ma frownin’

And put ma troubles on the shelf.’ Langston Hughes [1]

When Ma Rainey Comes to town, Folks from anyplace Miles aroun', From Cape Girardeau, Poplar Bluff, Flocks in to hear Ma do her stuff; Comes flivverin' in, Or ridin' mules, Or packed in trains, Picknickin' fools. . . . That's what it's like, Fo' miles on down, To New Orleans delta An' Mobile town, When Ma hits Anywheres aroun'. Sterling A. Brown[2]
zora neale hurtson

Of his fellow Harlem Renaissance luminary, Zora Neale Hurston, Hughes wrote, “Only to reach a wider audience, need she ever write books — because she is a perfect book of entertainment in herself.” Hughes praised Hurston's folklore-collecting skills and her “scorn for all pretensions, academic or otherwise.” He marveled at the fact that Zora could “stop the average Harlemite on Lenox Avenue and measure his head with a strange-looking, anthropological device and not get bawled out for the attempt.”[3] In addition to asking strangers if she could measure their heads in the name of research to “disprove claims of racial inferiority,”[4] Hurston also collected folklore for the Work Projects Administration and reportedly sold hot dogs in Washington D.C. just to hear the speech of African Americans in the nation’s capital. [5]

Hughes marks the end of the Harlem Renaissance with 1929’s stock-market crash, the crash that, in his words, “sent Negroes, white folks, and all rolling down the hill toward the Works Progress Administration.”[6] And while the era ended, its impact on American literature and the arts was indelible.

Suggested Reading/Additional Resources

  • Langston Hughes,This poet and writer became one of the foremost interpreters of the black experience in the United States.
  • Rudolph Fisher,  is considered one of the major literary figures of the Harlem Renaissance.
  • New Negro Renaissance, James Smethurst writes about the movement. 
  • Sterling Brown, His poetry was influenced by jazz, the blues, work songs, spirituals, and like other black poets from this period, his writing expresses his concerns about race in America.
  • Zora Neale Hurston, Best known for her books and short stories, Hurston captured the dialect, traditions, and history of southern blacks in the early 20th century.
  • Work Projects Administration,The Florida Folklife WPA Collections.
  • Boyd, Valerie. Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston. New York: Scribner, 2003.
  • Hughes, Langston. Selected Poems of Langston Hughes. New York: Vintage Classics, 1990.
  • Jones, Edward P. The Known World, New York: Harper Collins, 2003.
  • Lewis, David Levering, ed. The Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader. New York: Viking, 1994.

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Christa Smith Anderson holds an MFA in Creative Writing from George Mason University and received her Bachelor of Arts from the University of Virginia. After several years producing and writing television news, she is now a federal government employee by day and a fiction writer the rest of the time. She received the 2002 Cynthia Wynn Herman Scholarship from George Mason University and has published non-fiction in So to Speak, a Feminist Journal of Language and Arts.

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  1. “The Weary Blues.” A Poem by Langston Hughes. Selected Poems of Langston Hughes. New York: Vintage Classics,1959. 33.
  2. Brown, Sterling A.“Ma Rainey,” Southern Road.  New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1932.
  3. Hughes, Langston. “From The Big Sea.” Excerpt in The Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader. Ed. David Levering Lewis. New York:Viking,1994. p. 84-85.
  4. Boyd, Valerie. Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston. Scribner, 2003.114.
  5. Walker, Alice. "Zora Neale Hurston: A Cautionary Tale and a Partisan View." In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983. 88.
  6. Hughes, p. 77.  

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National Endowment for the Humanities Hewlett Foundation Ford Foundation   Arthur Vining Davis Foundations Carnegie Corporation

National Endowment
for the Humanities

William and Flora Hewlett
Foundation

Ford
Foundation

Rosalind P.
Walter

Arthur Vining
Davis Foundations

Carnegie
Corporation of New York