Drop Me Off in Harlem
From the Kennedy Center, get to know the people behind the Harlem Renaissance
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
Listen to a segment on Langston Hughes
From NPR’s Tavis Smiley
Listen to a segment on Zora Neale Hurston
From NPR’s Morning Edition
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 
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
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.” In addition to asking strangers if she could measure their heads in the name of research to “disprove claims of racial inferiority,” 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. 
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.” And while
the era ended, its
impact on American literature and the arts was indelible.
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.
William and Flora Hewlett
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