The first major movement of African-American literature, beginning around 1923 and flourishing until the depression, but providing a stimulus that lasted through the 1940s.
The renaissance mainly involved a group of writers and intellectuals associated (often loosely) with Harlem, the district of Manhattan that, during the migration of African Americans from the rural South, became the major center for urbanized blacks. Harlem was described by Alain Locke (1886-1954) as "not merely the largest Negro community in the world, but the first concentration in history of so many diverse elements of Negro life." The renaissance was associated with the New Negro Movement, so called because of the anthology THE NEW NEGRO (1925) edited by Locke, whose introductory essay "The New Negro" is the closest to a manifesto or statement of ideals that the Harlem Renaissance has. In it he writes of the Negro who is no longer apologetic for blackness but who takes a new pride in a racial identity and heritage, of the "renewed self-respect and self-dependence" felt in the contemporary black community, which is "about to enter a new phase."
Elsewhere Locke urged writers to examine the meaning of an African past and to utilize this in their art. This urging coincided with a growing interest among whites at the time in primitivism, evident for example in Eugene O'Neill's plays "The Emperor Jones" (1920) and "All God's Chillun Got Wings" (1924). The Harlem Renaissance was partly fostered by the existence of this interest, and by the concurrent development of American modernism and the readiness to accept experimentation and to expand the breadth of artistic expression. The renaissance was greatly assisted by several whites, especially Carl Van Vechten (1880-1964), whose enthusiasm for African-American culture was reflected in his popular 1926 novel NIGGER HEAVEN. Locke had explicitly called for social and artistic interracial cooperation in "The New Negro," commenting that, "The fiction is that the life of the races is separate, and increasingly so. The fact is that they have touched too closely at the unfavorable and too lightly at the favorable levels."
One characteristic of the Harlem Renaissance was a move toward so-called "high art" in black writing, rather than the use of folk idioms, comic writing, and vernacular that had often been considered the special realm of African-American writing up to that time. In some respects this shift mirrors the change from rural to urban life for many blacks in this period. However, several of the Harlem writers made powerful use of folk idioms such as the blues, particularly Langston Hughes (1902-67). The Harlem writers also engaged in an intense debate regarding the place of the African American in American life, and on the role and identity of the African-American artist. In this sense the Harlem Renaissance is by no means a monolithic movement with a single purpose. For example, the artistic differences between Hughes and the poet Countee Cullen (1903-46) are instructive. Cullen believed that an African-American poet should be free to write in mainstream established traditions, and need not racialize poetry. "I want to be a poet, not a Negro poet," he said, and wrote in forms such as the sonnet and became a translator of Euripides. Hughes, on the other hand, saw this attitude as a betrayal of racial identity, an aping of white European-ness, and sought in his work to accept and explore his blackness using forms and idioms that he associated with it. Both are major poets but their differences point to the relative breadth of the movement and to the development of quite different kinds of African-American writing in the Harlem Renaissance.
Prominent Harlem Renaissance writers include James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938), Jessie Redmon Fauset (1882-1961), the Jamaican-born Claude McKay (1889-1948), Zora Neale Hurston
, Nella Larsen (1893-1964), Jean Toomer (1894-1967), Arna Bontemps (1902-73), Gwendolyn Bennett (1902-81), and Helene Johnson (1907-95). In addition to the NEW NEGRO anthology, key works produced during the period of the renaissance or during its influence include Toomer's multigeneric CANE (1923), Hughes' WEARY'S BLUES (1926), Larsen's QUICKSAND (1928) and PASSING (1929), and Hurston's THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD
COLOR, SEX AND POETRY: THREE WOMEN WRITERS OF THE HARLEM RENAISSANCE (1987) by Gloria Hull; THE HARLEM RENAISSANCE IN BLACK AND WHITE (1995) by George Hutchinson; WHEN HARLEM WAS IN VOGUE (1989) by David Levering Lewis, and WOMEN OF THE HARLEM RENAISSANCE (1995) by Cheryl A. Wall. HARLEM RENAISSANCE: A HISTORICAL DICTIONARY FOR THE ERA (1984), edited by Bruce Kellner, is a valuable resource.
From THE ESSENTIAL GLOSSARY: AMERICAN LITERATURE by Stephen Matterson. © 2003 Stephen Matterson
. Reprinted by permission of the author.