An Introduction to the Harlem Renaissance

With the horrific death of George Floyd shaking not only America but the whole world, it is as important as ever to educate ourselves about African-American history and the hidden histories of those who are too often overlooked. To face such prejudice and ignorance, we need to be armed with the power of knowledge to recognise privilege and understand the oppression caused by institutional racism. (I’ve added a resource list at the end of this article with anti-racism books, charities and documentaries etc. to do so!)

Whilst educating ourselves about African-American history, from the legacy of the Civil War and Reconstruction era all the way to the current struggles posed by mass incarceration and structural disadvantages, we also need to celebrate African-American culture… and therefore the literature of the Harlem Renaissance is a great starting point!

George Floyd memorial mural

 

THE HARLEM RENAISSANCE: 

‘The Harlem Renaissance – what a complex and conflicted aura the term evokes! A vogue. A blossoming. […] A foundation. A few stars. A movement of black self-assertion against white supremacy’G. Hutchinson

The Harlem Renaissance was an African-American social and cultural movement between WW1 and WW2, which saw an explosion in racial pride through its art, literature and music. Following the Great Migration of African-Americans to northern states (from 1914 onwards), Harlem became a bold symbol of black modernism and the centre of a new unapologetic self-expression. Alain Locke (often called the ‘father of the Harlem Renaissance’) is credited with starting the movement with his publication of ‘The New Negro’ (1925), an anthology of African-American art and literature. Locke’s anthology defined the transition caused by the Great Migration as being ‘a spiritual emancipation’, re-defining African-American identity on their own terms rather than the restrictive stereotypes of white-American society.

 

Key ideas and themes of the Harlem Renaissance:

  • Racial pride
  • Black heritage revival and appreciation
  • Expressing the struggles and experiences of African-Americans
  • A new black identity referred to as ‘The New Negro’
  • Double consciousness – a term coined by W.E.B. Du. Bois to describe a multi-faceted identity e.g. a Dual Identity – African and American

 

 

CONTENTS: 

I am going to let these beautiful pieces of Harlem Renaissance literature speak for themselves...

 

Part I: Poetry

  • ‘If We Must Die’ -  Claude McKay
  • ‘I, Too’ - Langston Hughes
  • ‘My Little Dreams’ – Georgia Douglas Johnson

 

Part II: Essays

  • ‘How it Feels to be Colored Me’ - Zora Neale Hurston
  • ‘The Double Task: The Struggle…’ – Elise Johnson McDougald
  • ‘The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain’ – Langston Hughes

 

(Please note: these wonderful literary works of the Harlem Renaissance are of course not an exhaustive list. For more beautiful literature as well as art and music click here for a list of key figures!)

 

 

Part I: Poetry

 

‘If We Must Die’ -  Claude McKay (1919)

 

Claude McKay was born in Jamaica in 1889 and much of his work addressed the struggles of living as a black man in a racist and cruel America. McKay’s racial pride and love for his heritage was a key concept of the Harlem Renaissance as the movement expressed black autonomy and a defiant self-expression.

McKay’s sonnet (below) was a response to the ‘Red Summer’ of 1919, which was a series of racial attacks on African-Americans by white supremacists. In the sonnet, he declares African-Americans’ right to self-defence and with its profound self-assertion, it is widely considered to be ‘the inaugural address of the Harlem Renaissance’

 

If we must die, let it not be like hogs

Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,

While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,

Making their mock at our accursèd lot.

If we must die, O let us nobly die,

So that our precious blood may not be shed

In vain; then even the monsters we defy

Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!

O kinsmen! we must meet the common foe!

Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,

And for their thousand blows deal one death-blow!

What though before us lies the open grave?

Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,

Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!

 

 

I, Too’ - Langston Hughes (1925)

 

Langston Hughes is regarded as the ‘poet laureate’ of the Harlem Renaissance, being the first poet to pronounce himself as ‘black’ in his 1922 poem ‘Negro’. Hughes fully embraced both parts of being an African-American, seeing his dual identity (both African and American!) with hope and pride. For instance, Lindsay Patterson (a novelist, and Hughes’ assistant) regarded Hughes as being ‘unashamedly black at a time when blackness was démodé’.

In ‘I, Too’ (below), the speaker takes pride in being the ‘darker brother’ and reclaims his American identity with strength and optimism. However, as Cheryl Wall points out, he ‘cannot truly “sing” America until his identity as an American is recognised’, and thus with hope, he looks to ‘tomorrow’…

 

 

I, too, sing America.

 

I am the darker brother.

They send me to eat in the kitchen

When company comes,

But I laugh,

And eat well,

And grow strong.

 

Tomorrow,

I’ll be at the table

When company comes.

Nobody’ll dare

Say to me,

“Eat in the kitchen,”

Then.

 

Besides,

They’ll see how beautiful I am

And be ashamed—

 

I, too, am America.

 

 

 

‘My Little Dreams’ – Georgia Douglas Johnson (1918)

 

Following the publication of her first poetry collection ‘The Heart of a Woman’ in 1918, Georgia Douglas Johnson was the most widely read female poet of her time during the 1920s and 30s. Johnson home in Washington was referred to as the Half-Way-House, as she hosted open houses to the prominent writers of the Harlem Renaissance every Saturday - where writers like Jessie Fauset and Countee Cullen would often debut their work.

"Her word is simple.... It is singularly sincere and true, and as a revelation of the soul struggle of the women of a race it is invaluable." - W. E. B. Du Bois

 

 

I’m folding up my little dreams

   Within my heart tonight,

And praying I may soon forget

   The torture of their sight.

 

For time’s deft fingers scroll my brow

   With fell relentless art—

I’m folding up my little dreams

   Tonight, within my heart.

 

 

 

 

 

Part II: Essays

 

‘How it Feels to Be Colored Me’ - Zora Neale Hurston (1928)

 

Zora Neale Hurston was a bold, defiant writer from Eatonville, Florida which now hosts the ‘Zora! Festival!’ every year in her honour. Valerie Boyd remarks that Zora had a fiery intellect, an infectious sense of humor, and “the gift of walking into hearts.” Zora used these talents-and dozens more-to elbow her way into the Harlem Renaissance.’ 

The majority of Hurston’s work was only appreciated after her death, as Alice Walker’s article ‘Looking For Zora’ in 1979 revived interest in the forgotten author. However, she is now rightly seen as one of the most significant female writers of the Harlem Renaissance for her influential legacy of literature - which was fully infused with African-American folklore and culture.

 

 

“Someone is always at my elbow reminding me that I am the granddaughter of slaves. It fails to register depression with me. Slavery is sixty years in the past. The operation was successful and the patient is doing well, thank you. The terrible struggle that made me an American out of a potential slave said "On the line!" The Reconstruction said "Get set!" and the generation before said "Go!" I am off to a flying start and I must not halt in the stretch to look behind and weep. Slavery is the price I paid for civilization, and the choice was not with me. It is a bully adventure and worth all that I have paid through my ancestors for it. No one on earth ever had a greater chance for glory. The world to be won and nothing to be lost.

[…]

At certain times I have no race, I am me. When I set my hat at a certain angle and saunter down Seventh Avenue, Harlem City, feeling as snooty as the lions in front of the Forty-Second Street Library, for instance. So far as my feelings are concerned, Peggy Hopkins Joyce on the Boule Mich with her gorgeous raiment, stately carriage, knees knocking together in a most aristocratic manner, has nothing on me. The cosmic Zora emerges. I belong to no race nor time. I am the eternal feminine with its string of beads

I have no separate feeling about being an American citizen and colored. I am merely a fragment of the Great Soul that surges within the boundaries. My country, right or wrong.

Sometimes, I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It's beyond me.”

 

 

‘The Double Task: The Struggle of Negro Women for Sex and Race Emancipation’ – Elise Johnson McDougald (1925)

          

The writer, activist and educator Elise Johnson McDougald was the first African-American woman principal at a New York City public school. This essay by McDougald was included in Alain Locke’s ‘The New Negro’ (1925), which was one of the single most important publications of the Harlem Renaissance because it defined the very movement itself and provided a cohesive anthology of African-American essays, fiction and poetry.

 

“It is apparent from what has been said that even in New York City, Negro women are of a race which is free neither economically, socially nor spiritually. Like women in general, but more particularly like those of other oppressed minorities, the Negro woman has been forced to submit to overpowering conditions. Pressure has been exerted upon her, both from without and within her group. Her emotional and sex life is a reflex of her economic station. The women of the working class will react, emotionally and sexually, similarly to the working-class woman of other races. The Negro woman does not maintain any moral standard which may be assigned chiefly to qualities of race, any more than a white woman does. […] Sex irregularities are not a matter of race, but of socio-economic conditions.

[…]

We find the Negro woman, figuratively struck in the face daily by contempt from the world about her. Within her soul, she knows little of peace and happiness. But through it all, she is courageously standing erect, developing within herself the moral strength to rise above and conquer false attitudes. She is maintaining her natural beauty and charm and improving her mind and opportunity. She is measuring up to the needs of her family, community and race, and radiating a hope throughout the land.

The wind of the race’s destiny stirs more briskly because of her striving.”

 

 

 

 

The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain’ – Langston Hughes (1926)

 

Langston Hughes’ iconic essay is a symbol of the black cultural autonomy of the Harlem Renaissance, as he called on artists to express their heritage freely and openly. Hughes’ racial pride was unapologetic and repeatedly professed that African-Americans should take inspiration from their own history and should write independently - disregarding black stereotypes.

 

 

"One of the most promising of the young Negro poets said to me once, "I want to be a poet--not a Negro poet," meaning, I believe, "I want to write like a white poet"; meaning subconsciously, "I would like to be a white poet"; meaning behind that, "I would like to be white." And I was sorry the young man said that, for no great poet has ever been afraid of being himself. And I doubted then that, with his desire to run away spiritually from his race, this boy would ever be a great poet. But this is the mountain standing in the way of any true Negro art in America--this urge within the race toward whiteness, the desire to pour racial individuality into the mold of American standardization, and to be as little Negro and as much American as possible.

[…]

We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn't matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too. The tom-tom cries and the tom-tom laughs. If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn't matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves.

 

 

 

 

Black lives matter protest

 

Resource List: Black Lives Matter

Petitions: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1-0KC83vYfVQ-2freQveH43PWxuab2uWDEGolzrNoIks/preview?pru=AAABcpmzSSM*2Td3ykSyi-9IEwKhnHBRAw 

Books: https://www.goodhousekeeping.com/life/entertainment/g32745719/best-books-about-anti-racism/

Documentaries: http://www.pbs.org/black-culture/explore/10-black-history-documentaries-to-watch/

Anti-Racism Charities in the UK: https://www.stylist.co.uk/life/uk-anti-racism-charities-black-lives-matter-how-to-donate/395365

Donations for the US: https://nymag.com/strategist/article/where-to-donate-for-black-lives-matter.html

Bridging Gaps, a Bristol-based cultural competence charity: https://twitter.com/gapsbridging?lang=en

 

 

 

 

 

REFERENCES: