Finding a Voice during the Harlem Renaissance
No period of African American literary history receives as much attention as the Harlem Renaissance, which ranged roughly from the beginning of World War I to the Great Depression. For the first time, African American artists from various realms — literature, art, and music — formed a collective movement. Although Harlem still gets most of the credit, Washington, D.C., specifically Howard University, was another important site, mainly because of the significant role Howard University professor Alain Locke played in the movement.
The movement wasn’t originally dubbed the Harlem Renaissance. Alain Locke and others referred to it as the New Negro Movement, which reflected the sweeping changes African Americans all over the nation were experiencing. Jacksonville, Florida, native James Weldon Johnson, a writer who became a leader of the NAACP, actually coined the movement the “Harlem Renaissance,” and the moniker stuck.
A large number of artists representing various parts of the country participated in the Harlem Renaissance. The overwhelming majority were highly educated, hailing from some of the most prestigious black and mainstream universities in the nation.
Harlem Renaissance writers embraced a myriad of themes, but middle-class black America figured prominently in many of the works, as did the theme of passing, an expansion of the tragic mulatto theme first introduced in the mid-19th century. Nella Larsen’s Passing (1929), about a chance encounter that reunites two childhood female friends, one who is passing for white and another living as a black woman, is a seminal work. Another highly regarded book on the subject is James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man (1912). The book, written as a fictional autobiography about a man who ultimately chooses to pass as white to free himself from the mistreatment black people receive, achieved popularity when it was reissued in 1927.
Ultimately, class tensions created a sizable rift among many Harlem Renaissance writers, with Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston becoming the most famous advocates of the black folk. Both Hughes and Hurston rebuffed arguments that writing about the black middle class would improve race relations by showing white readers that many African Americans were like them. Critics of Hurston and Hughes felt that embracing the black folk would reinforce primitive stereotypes about black people instead of setting the record straight. Others had simply internalized feelings that African American life and culture was inferior to that of white Americans.
Jean Toomer’s background was racially mixed, and he didn’t identify himself as African American until time spent in Sparta, Georgia, brought him into intimate contact with black rural life. As much a reflection of Toomer’s own search for identity, his mixture of poems, short stories, and drama, Cane (1923) presents black Southern culture as well as the black Southerner’s adaptation to the urban North before reconciling those two realities in the black South.
In critical ways, Cane encapsulated the massive search for black identity that underscored the key debates of the Harlem Renaissance. Many artists and leaders, even those who embraced their racial heritage, weren’t quite sure how to incorporate their past into their present. While this tension wasn’t a new concern, rendering it in a distinctly artistic mode was unique. Cane demonstrated the artistic potential and merit of these tensions as grounding forces for great literary work.
One of the Harlem Renaissance’s first published writers, Hughes’s poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” appeared in the NAACP magazine The Crisis in 1921. Even though Harlem Renaissance artists were encouraged to depict black life, some advisors championed black middle-class life and values over those of the working class. Hughes disagreed, and in his influential 1926 essay, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountaintop,” he asserted that the black artist who ran away from himself couldn’t be great. Hughes championed black art that reflected black life, not just appropriate black life. Hughes was later known for his seminal 1951 poem “Harlem,” often erroneously labeled “A Dream Deferred” for its famous line, “what happens to a dream deferred?”
Zora Neale Hurston
Zora Neale Hurston never outgrew her Harlem Renaissance fame. A student of anthropology who studied with Columbia University’s Franz Boas, Hurston also worked for noted black historian Carter G. Woodson and accompanied Alan Lomax on some of his most celebrated folklore missions. Raised in the all-black town of Eatonville, Florida, Hurston was an outspoken supporter of rural African Americans and black folk traditions. Hurston’s white patronage did trouble many of her black contemporaries, who accused her of pandering to whites. Despite winning several contests for impressive short stories like “Spunk” and writing for a number of noted publications during the height of the Harlem Renaissance, Hurston published most of her acclaimed works in the 1930s, during the Harlem Renaissance’s decline. After Alice Walker’s rediscovery of Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) in the 1970s, the novel became an important text in the African American literary canon and in many Southern literature classes as well.
Other noteworthy artists
Other important Harlem Renaissance figures include Wallace Thurman, best known for The Blacker the Berry (1929); poet Countee Cullen, noted for his poem, “Heritage”; and poet Claude McKay, known for his poem “If We Must Die” and the novel Home to Harlem (1928).