The Harlem Renaissance Period (1919-1940) included many outstanding features and writers which made for a wonderful cache of literary works by African American writers. There was an unprecidented variety and scope of publications by African Americans which brought about a new sense of purpose, confidence, and achievement unusual to many black artists due to thier troubled history. This led to thier irresistable impulse to create boldly expressive art of high quality. The 1920’s saw the first significant amount of publishing of works by black artists since the turn of the century.
Migration to the north seemed a necessity due to the more and more intolerable hiring conditions for blacks in the south. Industrial expansion and jobs left open by whites now serving in WWI saw many blacks moving into the seriously overbuilt Harlem which was origionally built for middle-class and upper-middle-class whites. It was soon labled the “Negro capital of the world” by James Weldon Johnson, a prominent writer and civil rights leader of the times, and thus soon became the headquarters of such powerful groups as the NAACP, the National Urban League, and Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association. During this period of migration, several magazines and newspapers
strived toward a kind of “coming of age” for the black culture.
The early 1920’s also saw a breakthrough for African Americans on the stage by finally having plays that showed the complex humanity of blacks. James
Weldon Johnson is much quoted in relation to the uprising of the negro culture. He wrote that what the new black artists needed to do was to find “a form
expressing the imagery, the idioms, the peculiar turns of thought, and the distinctive humor and pathos” of the African American culture. There were many writers that dominated the movement including Arna Bontemps, Wallace Thurman, Zora Neale Hurston, Rudolph Fisher, Gwendolyn Bennett, Helene Johnson, her cousin Dorothy West. Also much noted were Countee Cullen, who grew up in the city, and Langston Hughes, who grew up in Kansas. Hughes came to the city on the pretext of going to school, but swore that he really came for
Harlem itself. Hughes tended to be very blunt and straight-forward in his works, but one example, Dreams, shows an uncommonly tender side:
Another publication which helped to define the emerging spirit of the movement was The New Negro, a 1925 anthology edited by Howard University professor
Alain Locke. It combined stories, poems, essays, and artwork by writers old and young, white and black, and defined the spirit of the Harlem Renaissance with
Many black writers during the Harlem renaissance were at the mercy of white patrons. Two of the most noted patrons were Carl Van Vechten and
Charlotte Osgood Mason. Numerous publishers and editors also played a quieter but still effective role in breaking down the barriers between black writers and the major means of publication in the United States.
Occupational and generational tensions became a significant part of the movement. Hughes once observed rather wryly that almost all of the masses of
blacks didn’t even realize that the Harlem Renaissance was going on around them. The essence of the renaissance to most of the younger artists was freedom
— freedom to create origional, personal expressions of art, without regard to politics. There was much growth and change throughout the 1920’s which led to
a decisive shift, around 1928, from poetry to fiction among the field of African American writers.
After the crash of Wall Street in 1929, the Great Depression of the early 30’s was the movement toward the end of the Harlem Renaissance which had
depended on the prosperity of the publishing industry, theater, and art world.
In looking back on the Harlem Renaissance of the 20’s and 30’s, there were so many contributing factors that characterized this period of time as the
true renaissance that it was for African Americans in the United States. We should all rejoice in the amazing work that was created during that time in our
The Norton Anthology – African American Literature