At the end of World War I, Harlem was home to the largest black population in the world. It became a black cultural center, attracting immigrants from Cuba, Haiti, Puerto Rico, the British West Indies, and elsewhere, who each brought with them their languages, religions, foods, music and literature.
During the 1920s, the African-American community of Harlem in New York City seemed to come alive. The sounds of American jazz infiltrated the United States and the world. Black jazz musicians and composers like Duke Ellington became huge stars. Bessie Smith and other blues singers came onto the scene with bold lyrics. African-American religious music gained in popularity. African-American actress Ethel Waters was celebrated for her onstage performances. African-American dance, art, music, and drama flourished, while African-American literature carved out a niche for itself. During the 1920s, black authors wrote more books than they had in any previous decade in U.S. history. Despite the fact that life was complex and bittersweet because of social and economic inequality, or perhaps because of it, a talented community of individuals surfaced and delivered the unique and precious gifts of their art to the world. This time period came to be known as the “Harlem Renaissance.”
The poet Countee Cullen (1903–1946), a native of Harlem, wrote rhymed poetry that was much admired by whites. He strongly believed that a poet should not allow race to dictate the subject matter or the style of a poem.
Like Cullen, African-American fiction writer and poet Jean Toomer (1894–1967) envisioned an American identity that would transcend race. Perhaps for this reason, he employed traditional rhyme and meter in his poetry and did not strive to introduce any new “black” methods. His major work, Cane (1923), is ambitious and innovative. It incorporates poems, prose vignettes, stories, and autobiographical notes. In it, an African-American man struggles to discover his inner self, in and beyond black communities.
Langston Hughes (1902–1967) was a talented poet during the Harlem Renaissance. He embraced African-American jazz rhythms and was one of the first black writers to attempt to make a profitable career out of his writing. Hughes incorporated blues, spirituality, and colloquial speech in his poetry. One of his most beloved poems, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” (1921, 1925), embraces his African heritage in a grand epic catalogue.
An influential cultural organizer, Hughes published numerous black anthologies and started up black theater groups in Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York City. He also wrote effective journalism, creating the character Jesse B. Semple (“simple”) to express social commentary.
Richard Wright (1908–1960) was born into a poor Mississippi sharecropping family, whom his father deserted when Wright was just a five-year-old. Wright was the first African-American novelist to reach a general audience, even though he had only a ninth grade education. His harsh childhood is depicted in one of his best books, an autobiography, Black Boy (1945). He later said that his sense of deprivation and dejection due to racism was so great that reading was the only thing that kept him going.
During the 1930s, Wright joined the Communist party. In the 1940s, he moved to France, where he knew Gertrude Stein and Jean-Paul Sartre and became an anti-Communist. His outspoken writing blazed a path for subsequent African-American novelists.
His work includes Uncle Tom’s Children (1938), a book of short stories, and the novel Native Son (1940), in which an uneducated black youth mistakenly kills his white employer’s daughter, gruesomely burns the body, and then murders his black girlfriend fearing that she will betray him. Although some African Americans have criticized Wright for portraying a black character as a murderer, Wright’s novel was a necessary and overdue expression of the racial inequality existing in the United States.
Born in the small town of Eatonville, Florida, Zora Neale Hurston (1903–1960) became known as “one of the lights of the Harlem Renaissance.” She first came to New York City at the young age of sixteen as part of a traveling theater group. A gifted storyteller, Hurston studied anthropology at Barnard College and learned to study ethnicity and race from a more scientific perspective. In her writing, she used ideas and stories from the folklore of her native Florida. The distinguished folklorist, Alan Lomax, called her Mules and Men (1935) “the most engaging, genuine, and skillfully written book in the field of folklore.”
Hurston also spent time in Haiti, where she collected Caribbean folklore, which she put to use in the writing of Tell My Horse (1938). Her natural command of colloquial English puts her on par with Mark Twain. Her writing exudes colorful language and heartfelt stories from the African-American oral tradition.
Hurston was also a talented novelist. Her most important work, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), tells the story of a mulatto woman’s maturation. The novel vividly evokes the lives of African Americans working the land in the rural South. A forerunner of the women’s movement, Hurston inspired and influenced such contemporary writers as Alice Walker and Toni Morrison through books such as her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road (1942).
1. Which of the following best describes the Harlem Renaissance?
a. a sudden and tremendous increase in Harlem’s ethnic population
b. an explosion of emotionally-charged creativity
c. the first evidence of racism in America
d. New York City’s answer to the French Renaissance
2. How did Zora Neale Hurston view ethnicity?
a. She did not believe it existed.
b. She viewed it through a scientific lens.
c. She thought it was an unimportant part of life.
d. She viewed it as an impediment to great art.
3. How did Langston Hughes utilize black culture in his work?
a. He incorporated blues, jazz, and the black vernacular in his writing.
b. He followed classical and strict poetical styles.
c. He never included black colloquial speech so that white readers would not be confused.
d. He did not use black culture in his work because he felt that race should not matter in poetry.
4. Why was Richard Wright’s novel, Native Son, so important?
a. It was autobiographical.
b. It showed how an accidental murder could occur.
c. It did not gloss over the subject of racial inequality.
d. It was an accurate depiction of black male behavior.
5. How do you think that traveling to France may have affected Wright’s work?
a. It may have given him perspective on racial attitudes in America.
b. It probably helped him to write more fluently in French.
c. It gave him more leisure time to write.
d. It helped him to execute more discipline in his poetry.
Match each of the following African-American Harlem Renaissance artists with one of their important contributions:
6. Zora Neale Hurston
7. Jean Toomer
8. Richard Wright
9. Countee Cullen
10. Langston Hughes
a. incorporated colloquial language into poems; embraced the African heritageb. believed race was unimportant in poetry
c. hoped literature could transcend raced. was both a scientist and a gifted storyteller
e. wrote frankly about racial inequality
11. Explain why life in Harlem is described in this passage as bittersweet during this time.
12. In what way do politics and art sometimes overlap?
9. The Harlem Renaissance was filled with great African-American artists. How do you think the works of Harlem Renaissance artists may have affected other African Americans around the country? How do you think it affected white Americans?