18 What was the Harlem Renaissance?


In the introductory module for this course, it was suggested that literature is capable of performing a certain kind of work in the world. One of the ways that literature influences our lives is by providing us with ways of making sense of the complex experiences and challenges that we encounter in daily life.

Literature, like other representational art forms, uses metaphors to make connections between the concrete and the abstract, as well as between the known and the unknown. Metaphors can also be problematic depending upon the way that they are constructed and employed. African American writers such as James Baldwin and Toni Morrison have noted the ways in which the idea of “whiteness” in works of literature came to evoke ideas of safety, purity, and life, whereas images of “blackness” came to represent ideas of danger, uncleanliness, and even death.

These notions of blackness were often transposed onto portrayals of black people in works of fiction by white authors. For example, in his famous novel Heart of Darkness , the Polish-British novelist Joseph Conrad uses the image of darkness to describe the jungles surrounding the Congo River. Moreover, in the novel, African people are described with images that present them as beasts. In his critique of Conrad’s novel, the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe suggests that the story “projects the image of Africa as ‘the other world’ the antithesis of Europe and, therefore, of civilization, a place where man’s vaunted intelligence and refinement are finally mocked by triumphant bestiality.” Nevertheless, Conrad’s novel, among other works of English literature, have fundamentally shaped cultural attitudes to the present day.

Photo depicting the ivory trade in East Africa in the 1880s or 1890s. There are waist-high piles of elephant tusks with 14 African workers standing or sitting among them.
“Ivory 1880s” by UnknownWikimedia Commons is in the Public Domain, CC0

In this module, we will explore the important cultural, social, and political role that a literary movement like the Harlem Renaissance played in challenging a Western literary tradition that was to a great extent based upon the prejudices and cultural values of Anglo-European society in America. By doing so, we will explore the work that literature can do in helping to reshape the values and beliefs that give rise to the social world that we inhabit. (1)

What was the Harlem Renaissance?

The Harlem Renaissance was an artistic and political movement among African Americans that originated in the Harlem district of New York City. Although the precise dates are difficult to pinpoint, the period is typically dated from 1920 up to the mid to late 1930s. A number of important social and economic factors contributed to the movement’s emergence. Firstly, after World War I, America’s northern industrialized cities experienced a severe labor shortage.

At the same time, after a brief period of social and political reform in the South, which took place during the Reconstruction period, life for African Americans grew particularly difficult with the rise of Jim Crow laws and the resurgence of racial violence and segregation. Many African Americans left the South as part of what would become known as the Great Migration, a movement which ultimately led to migration of nearly six million African Americans from the South to the Northeast, and later the Midwest and West. In the Northeast, this mass migration of African Americans led to the emergence of urban cultural centers in Harlem, in addition to parts of Chicago, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis, among others (see Jacob Lawrence’s portrayal of the Great Migration in Figure 1).

Modern style painting of a crowd of faceless migrants about to embark on a journey to three large cities in the north: Chicago, New York, and St. Louis. The silhouetted shapes of the crowd, their clothing, hats, and luggage creates a sense of action as the crowd pushes toward the doors.
Figure 1 — “During World War I there was a great migration north by southern Negroes” by Jacob LawrenceWikimedia Commons is in the Public Domain, CC0

During the more than four centuries of Chattel slavery in America, African Americans were largely denied their own literary culture. Although some slave-owners chose to teach their slaves to read, writing was mainly forbidden. Reading was seen as a useful tool for instruction and religious indoctrination, but writing opened the possibility for slaves to communicate with one another covertly. Nevertheless, African American slaves brought with them a rich literary and artistic heritage that stemmed from the cultures of their ancestral homelands. The Harlem Renaissance was primarily a Modernist literary movement. In an effort to reclaim and to create their own distinct literary tradition, the work of many Harlem Renaissance artists is characterized by a fusion of African folk traditions with aspects of secular southern folkways, as well as aspects of Christianity, including spirituals, gospel music, and biblical imagery. However, other artists were deeply secular and non-traditionalist in their creative outlooks.

The Harlem Renaissance was not even exclusively a literary movement but an artistic movement that encompassed multiple art forms including musical composition, visual arts, and drama (see the silent, black and white documentary film, “Study of Negro Artists” in Figure 2).

Click on the image to watch the silent film.

This is Video (Ogg Theora)'' Silent, black and white documentary short from the 1930s about the Harlem Renaissance. Shows artists, Richmond Barthe, James Latimer Allen, Aaron Douglas, Palmer Hayden, and Augusta Savage.
Figure 2 — “Study of Negro Artists”Prelinger Archives is in the Public Domain, CC0

Although it is possible to identify some commonalities among Harlem Renaissance artists and writers, it is also important to emphasize that there was widespread debate among its key writers and thinkers about precisely how African American artists in the early twentieth century should go about creating their work, and many writers did not wish to be associated with any particular artistic movement. (1)


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