Black culture and resistance: the Harlem Renaissance



One hundred years ago, an arts movement was forming in a mainly-black district of New York City. Later known as the Harlem Renaissance, it was primarily cultural but also inescapably political. Literature, poetry, jazz, theatre, sculpture and more articulated the lives and demands of African-Americans no longer willing to be grateful that they were no longer enslaved.

O black and unknown bards of long ago.
How came your lips to touch the sacred fire?

How, in your darkness, did you come to know
The power and beauty of the minstrel’s lyre?
Who first from midst his bonds lifted his eyes?
Who first from out the still watch, lone and long.
Feeling the ancient faith of prophets rise
Within his dark-kept soul, burst into song?

James Weldon Johnson

Heading for Harlem

After the USA abolished slavery in 1865, white supremacism reasserted itself, particularly in southern states. The Ku Klux Klan formed, and “Jim Crow” laws (named after a caricature Negro) applied a “separate but equal” philosophy which delivered separation but not equality. White racist violence rampaged, with lynchings peaking in 1892.

In the early twentieth century, northern states saw an industrial surge. The push of southern racism and the pull of northern jobs propelled more than one-and-a-half million black Americans into the first “Great Migration” between 1916 and 1930,.

They moved to Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and to New York City, whose black population rose from 140,000 in 1910 to over 650,000 in 1940, their numbers boosted by immigration from the Caribbean. Many headed for Harlem, the part of Manhattan between Central Park and the Bronx, partly facilitated by black entrepreneur Philip Payton Junior, who acquired tenement blocks and rented homes to the new arrivals.

Formerly a white neighbourhood, by 1920 Harlem was the hub of a busy black community asserting its own culture and identity.

The New Negro

As the century turned, black America’s dominant leader was Booker T Washington. A formidable figure, Washington carried out great works to improve black people’s life chances. But he argued that blacks had to be educated before claiming equality, accepted Jim Crow laws and postponed demanding the vote. In 1900, Washington published A New Negro for a New Century, but twenty years later, “New Negro” had become the name of an assertive black identity counterposed to Washington’s conservatism.

The submissive “Old Negro” approach was challenged by, amongst others, W.E.B. Du Bois, a black academic from a poor background and member of the Socialist Party of America. The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois’ 1903 collection of essays, fiction and memoir, would inspire many Harlem Renaissance artists. In 1910, Du Bois moved to New York City to edit The Crisis, journal of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), formed the previous year.

Du Bois hoped that artistic achievement would prove black people’s equal place in society. The Crisis ran a competition for black writers and introduced America to Langston Hughes, publishing his totemic poem, The Negro Speaks of Rivers. Ultimately, Du Bois was too culturally conservative to keep up with the movement he inspired, but his role in its creation was crucial.

As the war ended, black aspirations to equality came up against a new wave of racist violence, in East St Louis in 1917, and across the USA in 1919’s “Red Summer”. Another totemic poem, Claude’s McKay’s sonnet If We Must Die, urged black Americans to die fighting rather than submit.

McKay visited Soviet Russia, reading poetry at Red Army camps and speaking at the Communist International Congress on the fifth anniversary of the 1917 Revolution. Writing about his visit in The Crisis, McKay praised the Bolsheviks for their prompt solidarity greetings to all the world’s oppressed peoples, and Lenin for addressing “the question of the American Negroes” and “the urgent necessity of propaganda and organizational work among the Negroes of the South”. McKay was a contributor to and editor of The Liberator, the radical socialist magazine run by Crystal and Max Eastman which became a Communist Party publication in 1922. He argued strongly both for cultural coverage, and for the communist movement to engage seriously with black liberation.

In August 1920, the editors of The Messenger, the self-styled “only radical Negro magazine in America”, asked rhetorically, “The New Negro — What Is He?” It answered that he demands universal suffrage, “the full product of his toil”, and “absolute and unequivocal social equality”. The New Negro is radical, rejects both Republican and Democratic parties, and joins a labor union and a working-class political party. Founded by A Philip Randolph and Chandler Owen with the help of the Socialist Party, The Messenger played a key role in building what was then known as the “Negro Renaissance”.

By the 1960s, “Negro” would be rejected as a racist word, associated with the conservatism that the New Negro movement and the Negro Renaissance defined themselves against in the 1920s.

Unearthing Black history and culture

In 1925, writer and philosopher Alain Locke published The New Negro, an anthology of essays, poems and short stories, but with little material arguing for socialist perspectives.

Arthur Schonburg contributed an essay, The Negro Digs Up His Past. He had collected a trove of books, manuscripts, photographs and memorabilia about African culture and history, and in 1926 sold them to the New York Public Library, which employed him to curate this precious resource. The story goes that one of Schonburg’s school teachers had told him that black people had no history, prompting him to a life’s work proving this wrong.

What is Africa to me:
Copper sun or scarlet sea,
Jungle star or jungle track,
Strong bronzed men, or regal black
Women from whose loins I sprang
When the birds of Eden sang?
One three centuries removed
From the scenes his fathers loved,
Spicy grove, cinnamon tree,
What is Africa to me?

Countee Cullen, Heritage

Several high-profile Renaissance artists integrated African culture into their work. Sargent Claude Johnson made carvings, ceramics, paintings, masks and murals influenced by African themes and using African styles. Augusta Savage and Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller centred African styles in their sculpture.

Pan-Africanists such as Du Bois promoted Africa’s liberation from colonialism as essential to black liberation, while fighting for full civil rights in the USA. But Jamaican-born Marcus Garvey, who based his Universal Negro Improvement Association in Harlem, argued that this would never happen and that therefore black people should instead return to Africa.

Garvey was a compelling speaker who attracted many followers, and regularly led parades of thousands through Harlem, waving from a motor car while dressed in the uniform of an imperial viceroy. Claude McKay believed that Garvey’s skill at propaganda was his “greatest contribution to the Negro movement” and hoped that “men of broader understanding and sounder ideas” would emulate it.

Other black socialists also disapproved of Garvey’s political message, rejecting racial separatism in favour of class-based, integrationist anti-racism. Du Bois described Garvey as “the most dangerous enemy of the Negro race in America and in the world”. Randolph and Owen ran a “Garvey Must Go” campaign.

Jazz, gangsters, and monied whites

In 1921, the musical revue “Shuffle Along” ran for over five hundred shows on Broadway. Featuring future stars Josephine Baker and Paul Robeson, it introduced white audiences to black music and theatre, and brought jazz to Broadway.

Jazz had travelled with the Great Migration, from New Orleans north to Chicago and other cities. It arrived in New York in the decade before the First World War, when the New York Herald already had its racist hackles raised by its predecessor, ragtime, describing it as “symbolic of the primitive morality and perceptible moral limitations of the Negro type”.

After the war, jazz clubs proliferated in Harlem. Jazz legends Joe “King” Oliver and Louis Armstrong moved north. In 1927, Duke Ellington began the run at the Cotton Club that would launch his career.

But Harlem’s Cotton Club also represented the enduring racism that still constrained and debased black culture. Black people were admitted only as performers or waiters — or, occasionally, celebrity guests. After Langston Hughes visited, he described it as “a Jim Crow club for gangsters and monied whites”.

Proprietor Owney Madden used the club to sell illegal liquor and to bring to a white audience “authentic black entertainment” that was too often trivial and stereotyped. The club decorated its interior with a plantation theme, promoted Ellington’s jazz orchestra as “jungle music”, and Hughes described white clients watching black entertainers as zoo visitors watch animals.

Many well-off white people came to Harlem to partake of its burgeoning black culture. Some came to listen to jazz and to learn dance moves. Many were genuine in their interest and support. Some put their money into the Renaissance as well.

White patron Charlotte Osgood Mason funded writer Zora Neale Hurston to travel across the southern states collecting folk tales, sermons, songs, children’s games and other nuggets of Negro culture, and also financed Hughes, Locke and others. But she has been criticised since for trying to control the artists she funded.

In his 1926 essay, The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain, Hughes recognised the pressure on black artists from white patrons (and from well-heeled black people) and urged black artists to be true to themselves. It was poor, working-class, young blacks who were building the cultural autonomy that Hughes advocated and which epitomised the Harlem Renaissance.

Telling life through art

Hughes’ essay asserted that “We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our dark-skinned selves without fear or shame”, and James Weldon Johnson spoke of the “young, gifted and black” artists. Weldon Johnson compiled the highly significant Book of American Negro Poetry in 1922 and was the Executive Secretary of the NAACP.

Illustrator Aaron Douglas urged black artists to “bare our arms and plunge them deep through laughter, through pain, through sorrow, through hope, through disappointment, into the very depths of the souls of our people and drag forth material crude, rough, neglected. Then let’s sing it, dance it, write it, paint it”.

Some did so using classic forms and language, some used Negro vernacular or tradition. Jean Toomer’s landmark work, Cane (1923), combined modern styles with folk forms. Inspired by Toomer’s visit to Georgia, Cane mixes imagery, free verse and stream-of-consciousness writing to portray urban alienation and the deprivation of blacks living in beautiful southern landscapes.

Langston Hughes developed a “Blues poetry” that bore both the painful lyrical content and the compelling rhythm of the blues. Photographer James van de Zee chronicled the development of the new black identity, recording scenes of Harlem life and portraits of both celebrated locals and ordinary folk.

Sex and sexuality

Novelist Wallace Thurman lit a flame under political and cultural conservatism with Fire!!, “a Quarterly Devoted to the Younger Negro Artists”. It published Smoke, Lilies and Jade, a monologue written by Richard Bruce Nugent, whose protagonist has two lovers, a man and a woman. Nugent’s work was not overtly political, but it was overtly pleasure-seeking and overtly gay. In an era when homosexuality was illegal, this was political in itself, both rebelling against mainstream “morality” and challenging the Harlem Renaissance to accept that pride in your identity encompassed issues beyond race.

Singer Ma Rainey’s Prove It On Me implied a sexual relationship with a woman while defying anyone to actually prove it. Together with others including Ida Cox and (the unrelated) Clara, Bessie and Mamie Smith, they sang songs of the highs, lows and labours of working-class black women’s lives.

Jessie Fauset, Literary Editor of The Crisis, wrote confident, assertive, black women characters, who were not the servant-girls or “mammies” of popular stereotype. When the publisher of her novel, There is Confusion (1925), asked James Weldon Johnson to host a dinner to mark its launch, he agreed on condition that the event be broadened to include many more black writers. Over a hundred black artists and white publishers attended the resulting Civic Club dinner, a landmark event of the Renaissance movement.

Beyond Harlem

Despite the name “Harlem Renaissance”, the movement was not confined to this Manhattan district. Its artists were active in various US cities, and many travelled abroad. A similar movement blossomed in Paris. Just as the US had its Negro Renaissance and its New Negro, so France had its mainly-musical “Paris Noir” and its more academic “Négritude”.

In the 1920s, France’s empire was at its peak, and black artists in its colonies were developing a similar cultural assertion to their American counterparts’. Many black artists, intellectuals and leaders moved from the colonies to Paris. Moreover, two hundred thousand African-American soldiers served in France in the 1914-18. Between them, they built a movement.

Some black American artists met with success in Europe that the stricter racism of the USA had denied them. Musical performer Josephine Baker became hugely popular for her shows in Paris, but on returning to New York City, was turned away from a hotel on the grounds of her colour.

The legacy of the Renaissance

Baker was one of many Renaissance artists to become a civil rights activist, and was a speaker at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in August 1963. The Renaissance and the New Negro movement were midwives to future struggles and were major steps forward in collective black self-assertion. They explored and expressed the politics of oppression and liberation, sometimes explicitly, sometimes less so. The movement contained different political perspectives, and the battle between integrationist socialism and nationalist separatism played out on its terrain.

During the course of the 1920s, the Harlem Renaissance shifted from the radical politics of its early days towards a more cultural romanticism. The 1929 Wall Street crash dealt it a heavy blow, leaving many blacks too poor to produce art and many whites no longer able to afford to patronise it. Six years later, a bloody race riot in Harlem killed the movement, and Harlem became the neglected and impoverished district that it is known as today.

The Harlem Renaissance was a historic decade of expression by black, mainly working-class people through many forms of art. It reveals a lot about the relationship between economics, politics, oppression and struggle. Its legacy is still felt, and recent studies continue to reconsider its significance and its politics.

• Sources and further reading: cited works; Arna Bontemps, American Negro Poetry; Cheryl A Watt, The Harlem Renaissance; Charles River Editors, The Harlem Renaissance.

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