The 1920s was a decade of extraordinary creativity in the arts for black Americans called the Harlem Renaissance. Much of that creativity found its focus in the activities of African Americans living in New York City, particularly in the district of Harlem.
These years marked an especially brilliant moment in the history of blacks in America. Publications by African Americans became unprecedented in variety and scope. Poetry, fiction, drama, essays, music, dance, painting, and sculpture. There was a new sense of confidence and purpose; a sense of achievement.
Expressed in various ways, the creativity of black Americans undoubtedly came from a common source–the irresistible impulse of blacks to create boldly expressive art of high quality as a primary response to their social conditions, as an affirmation of their dignity and humanity in the face of poverty and racism. The influence of the Harlem Renaissance began to spread outward.
Serving in the armed forces contributed to a sense of worldliness. Exposure to new technologies and ideas. While Woodrow Wilson spoke of making the world safe for democracy, black people began asking why America was not safe for them. World War I and the Russian Revolution of 1917 proved that major change was possible, even in the face of a powerful autocracy and entrenched injustice.
Black writers and intellectuals were now being exposed to international ideas such as socialism and race consciousness. There were debates as to whether one should use direct political action or use the arts for social advancement. Should they work on African problems and develop Africa’s resources?
From its inception, the cultural flowering of the Renaissance was characterized by attempts to “reach out.” There was a Negritude movement among the generation of French Caribbean and African students who arrived in Paris in the late 1920s and early 1930s. The Renaissance was an international phenomenon due to the prominence of Caribbean writers.
Blacks began to be published by the white establishment.
Segregation and poverty continued after emancipation. Migration to the North increasingly seemed an absolute necessity for blacks seeking a better life for themselves and their children.
New York City had better housing and WWI needed workers.
Harlem and New York quickly became the headquarters of many of the most important African American cultural and political national organizations, including the NAACP, the National Urban League, and Marcus Garvey’s UNIA. Newspapers and magazines played a pivotal role in setting the Renaissance in motion. The 1920s saw the pinnacle of periodical circulation. The Northern papers actively promoted the gospel of migration. Major black political organizations used paper media to spread their ideas. A smaller number of publications were associated with the black radical movements in the city. Though each publication had its own focus, each was dedicated to political progress and social uplift for black Americans and to the development of literary and artistic traditions of which the typical readers might be proud. These periodicals had a profound effect on black writings during this period, not only in subject matter but in form. It is a major reason for the preponderance of one-act plays and short stories.
The New Writers
The first glimmerings of the new day in literature probably came not with the work of a black writer but with that of a white–Three Plays for a Negro Theater, by Ridgely Torrence. James Weldon Johnson called the premiere of these plays in 1917, “the most important single event in the entire history of the Negro in the American Theatre.” Overturning the tradition of depicting blacks in stereotypical minstrel forms, Torrence’s plays featured black actors representing complex human emotions and yearnings; in this sense, they anticipated not only plays of the 1920s about blacks such as The Emperor Jones (1920) and All God’s Chillun Got Wings (1925) by the celebrated dramatist Eugene O’Neill but also the work of African American playwrights, poets, and fiction writers breaking with traditions that diminished and often insulted black humanity. Another landmark came in 1919, a year marked by several national antiblack riots, with the publication of the Jamaican-born poet Claude McKay’s militant sonnet “If We Must Die.” Although the poem never alludes to race, to black readers it sounded a note of defiance against racism and racist violence unheard in black literature in many years. Then, in 1921, the musical revue Shuffle Along, written and performed by blacks, brought to the stage novel styles of song, dance, and comedy that captivated blacks and whites alike and underscored the emergence of a new generation of black artistry.
Blues and jazz blew up within the music industry. In the literature of the Renaissance, black music and dance became flash points in larger debates about “primitivism” and propaganda.
In 1922 came James Weldon Johnson’s anthology of verse, the Book of American Negro Poetry. Johnson preferred authors who spoke well while also using their own voice. Above all, Johnson set the manipulation of language and other patterns of signification, not the overt assertion of political ideals, as the heart of the African American poetic enterprise. In the preface, Johnson pointed out things created uniquely by African Americans: spirituals, folk tales, the cake walk, and ragtime.
Like most white poets of the age, most black poets were enthralled by traditional forms of verse as established by the major British and American Romantic poets and their admirers. Modernist verse that resembles the work of Pound, for example, would not appear until much later, and then on a highly restricted scale. Unrivaled optimism emphasizing the power of endurance and survival, of love and laughter, as the only efficacious response to the painful circumstances surrounding their lives.
The New Negro (1925) edited by Alain Locke. Merging racial awareness with a desire for literary and artistic excellence, the text exuded a sense of confidence in the black world emerging from generations of repression in the U.S. Fused ethnic pride or nationalism with a desire for a fresh achievement and independence in art, culture, and politics.
Patrons and Friends
There have been questions regarding the impact of white patronage on black arts during the Harlem Renaissance. The movement did need funding. Many saw nothing but benefits in an association between blacks and whites. The two best known white patrons of the Renaissance were Carl Van Vechten and Charlotte Osgood Mason. Vechten would have interracial parties. Other entities could be patrons such as grant-awarding philanthropies, publishers, and editors.
Many within the Harlem Renaissance knew they were out of touch with the rest of the blacks in America. There was also a generational gap characterized by the same issues as all generation gaps.
Most working within the movement saw the Renaissance as freedom and each expressed ideas of freedom in their own way. Some were political (with older artists falling more in this category) while others were anti-political. Sexuality was another way to express freedom although sexual exploits weren’t written about or displayed any more than the general modes of the day.
Drama, Poetry, Fiction
In the theater, a combination of song, dance and humor was popular. Willis Richardson’s best-known play is The Chip Woman’s Fortune (1923), the first serious play by an African American to be staged on Broadway.
In 1926 Du Bois established the Krigwa Little Theatre movement with four basic principles. The plays of a real Negro theatre must be 1) about us; 2) by us; 3) the theatre itself should be for us and 4) near us. Drama was almost certainly one of the weakest areas of achievement in the Harlem Renaissance although there were many great actors and entertainers.
Around 1928 there was a shift away from poetry to fiction.
The Great Depression and the Decline of the Harlem Renaissance
By 1937 the Renaissance was over. It had depended on a special prosperity in the publishing industry, the theater, and the art world. The crash of Wall Street. The Great Depression. Unemployment and the rise of crime damaged the image and the reality of Harlem as an artistic and cultural paradise. Harlem Riot of 1935.
The art of the Harlem Renaissance represents a prodigious achievement for a people hardly more than a half-century removed from slavery and enmeshed in the chains of dehumanizing segregation. The Harlem Renaissance can be understood as a conversation (and at times, a debate) among African American artists and intellectuals about the very meaning of modernity from a black perspective.
In this period, black American artists laid the foundations for the representation of their people in the modern world, with a complexity and a self-knowledge that have proven durable. The Renaissance created a body of art on which future writers and musicians and artists might build and in which the masses of blacks could see their own faces and features accurately and lovingly reflected.