Harlem Renaissance

The new negro has no fear - A parade in Harlem 1924
The new negro has no fear - A parade in Harlem 1924

The Harlem Renaissance is the name that was attached to the African-American literary, artistic, and intellectual movement that was centered in Harlem, a neighborhood in Upper Manhattan, New York.

Many African Americans had migrated from the South to northern cities in the years after 1916 in what is known as the Great Migration, and Harlem, which had been developed as a residential area for whites, became the cultural capital of the African-American United States during the 1920s.

The movement's participants knew it as "The New Negro Movement," after the title of art historian Alain Locke's book The New Negro (1925), in which Locke expressed the hope that the black artist would become "a collaborator and participant in American civilization."


Like any cultural movement, the Harlem Renaissance had antecedents, as the cultural life of African Americans in New York City was already well developed. Harlem, acknowledged as the black capital of the United States, was home to advocacy groups such as Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association, the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), and the National Urban League, and most nationally known African Americans, including Garvey, W. E. B. DuBois, and A. Philip Randolph, lived there. The intellectual center of Harlem was the local branch of the New York Public Library, which had the most extensive collection of material concerning African Americans in existence.

Scholars of the movement have placed its onset in 1910, when the NAACP began to publish Crisis, edited by W. E. B. DuBois. Others argue that it began in 1919, when black soldiers returned from World War I and U.S. cities experienced an unprecedented amount of racial violence, or in the early 1920s, which saw the publication of James Weldon Johnson's Book of American Negro Poetry (1922), Jean Toomer's Cane (1923), and the launching of the newspaper Opportunity (1923), edited by sociologist Charles S. Johnson for the National Urban League. Both Crisis and Opportunity published fiction and poetry and sponsored contests to encourage African-American writers.

The Harlem Renaissance is remembered as a chiefly literary movement. Poetry constituted its first literary output, but prose forms, notably fiction, replaced poetry as the dominant literary form after 1924. Although the movement included visual arts, it excluded jazz, which, although it was performed in Harlem, had other antecedents (it should be noted that the 1920s dance craze the Charleston was first performed in Harlem).

Louis Armstrong Cotton Club
Louis Armstrong Cotton Club

As artists and writers began to speak in terms of a "New Negro," they developed a definition of African Americans as a militant, self-assertive, and urbane group of people capable of speaking for themselves.

Some writers, like Langston Hughes, were at the beginning of long and distinguished careers, and some, like Jean Toomer, never wrote anything else of significance. The literary movement did not have a consistent recognizable style, as it encompassed a debate over tradition and the nature of African-American culture.

Wallace Thurman, Claude McKay, Arthur Huff Fauset, and Zora Neale Hurston, among others, stressed the distinctiveness and vitality of black ethnicity, particularly among working-class African Americans, while James Weldon Johnson, Jessie Fauset, Nella Larsen, and Alain Locke were more likely to write about middleclass African-American life as a means of ensuring that it would be seen as an integral part of U.S. culture as a whole. Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen found themselves agreeing with both sides of this debate.

Hughes (1902–67) and Hurston (1891[?]–1960) are the best-known writers of the movement. Hughes, born James Langston Hughes in Joplin, Missouri, worked at a variety of jobs, traveled in the Americas and Europe, and published his first volume of poetry, The Weary Blues, in 1926.

Seen as the prototypical New Negro, Hughes used the rhythms and language of jazz and blues in his poems, and his essay "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain" (1926) stands with The New Negro as a principal statement of the movement's ideology.

Hurston, who grew up in the all-black hamlet of Eatonville, Florida, graduated from Barnard College, where she studied with the anthropologist Franz Boas. Hurston's literary output interpreted African-American folktales she had gathered in the rural South in collections and novels published during the 1930s.

Visual artists connected with the Harlem Renaissance are less renowned. Aaron Douglas is best known for his illustrations in The New Negro and in James Weldon Johnson's God's Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse. Palmer Hayden, who was trained in both New York and Paris, is best known for his paintings of African subjects.

Other artists associated with the movement were Malvin G. Johnson and William H. Johnson. The best known sculptor is Augusta Savage, and photographers James Van Der Zee and Roy DeCarava are also associated with the movement.

The Harlem Renaissance contributed to placing black art and literature at the center of American life, but the incorporation was not entirely the work of African Americans. For African Americans, the movement was a response to calls from critics like Randolph Bourne and Van Wyck Brooks for a U.S. culture independent of European tradition. For white literary America, Harlem was exotic. When Harlem was embraced by white critics like H. L. Mencken and Carl Van Vechten, it was in part as a result of their own iconoclasm.

Van Vechten's book Nigger Heaven (1926) "promoted" Harlem to white Americans (and caused anger and resentment among many African Americans), but Van Vechten also served as a patron to Langston Hughes and introduced other black writers to patrons such as Mrs. R. Osgood (Charlotte) Mason, Albert Barnes, Louise Bryant, the William E. Harmon Foundation, the Julius Rosenwald Fund, and the General Education Fund. Mencken published the work of African-American artists in the American Mercury.

As the Great Depression set in, resources available to African Americans in Harlem dwindled, making cultural activities even harder to maintain. The end of the Harlem Renaissance came in 1935, when a racially based riot convulsed Harlem.

There has been a good deal of debate concerning what was seen as the failure of African American artists and writers to create and maintain independent cultural institutions, but it is generally agreed that the movement provided subsequent African-American writers and artists with a cultural base upon which later generations could build.