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African American Author book Leslie Pinckney Hill Harlem Renaissance HBCU
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HILL , LKESLIE PINCKNEY TOUSSAINT L’OUVERTURE
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LESLIE PINCKNEY HILL, FIRST PRESIDENT OF AMERICA’S FIRST HBCU Hill was the son of a former slave, he was born in Lynchburg, Virginia where he attended primary school locally, and played the trumpet. His family moved to East Orange, New Jersey, where he attended high school. Hill excelled in his studies so much in school that he skipped his junior year, and was accepted to Harvard University his senior year. He entered Harvard University in 1899, supplementing his scholarship by working as a waiter. There he attended the classes of William James and was active in debating. He was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and graduated with Cum Laude. After graduation in 1903 he stayed another year for a masters in education. Hill taught at Tuskegee Institute from 1904 to 1907, and was principal of the Manassas Industrial Institute from 1907 to 1913. In 1913 he became principal at the Cheyney, Philadelphia Institute for Colored Youth, overseeing changes in name and status and staying there until 1951 and its establishment as Cheyney State Teachers College. In 1928, Hill published a play about Toussaint L’Ouverture. In 1944, he founded Camp Hope, a camp for underprivileged children in Delaware County
Cheyney University, originally known as the Institute for Colored Youth, was founded by Quaker philanthropist, Richard Humphrey in 1837. After years of reconstruction and internal challenges, the school officially reopened in 1902.
Leslie Pinckney Hill was hired as the principal of the Institute for Colored Youth and would eventually become the first president of the university.
Hill was born in Lynchburg, Virginia in 1880. In 1904, he received his master’s degree in education at Harvard University. He then became a teacher at Tuskegee Institute. From 1907 to 1913, Hill was principal of Manassas Industrial School, in Manassas, Virginia before getting hired to lead the Institute for Colored Youth.
One of Hill’s first official influences, as lead of administration, was his proposal to change the school’s name from Institute for Colored Youth to Cheyney Training School for Teachers in 1914. This was only the start of accomplishments the school would experience while under Hill’s administration.
Throughout his time at Cheyney, Hill raised funds for the school, updated its curriculum, and even directed the chorus. He grew the school’s enrollment from 20 students to about 500, and it became an accredited state college under his leadership. After his retirement, he lectured at the University of California at Los Angeles.
Other accomplishments include receiving the Seltzer Award for distinguished service after serving as administrator of Mercy-Douglass Hospital in Philadelphia. Also, his poem “The Teacher”, was translated into several languages.
We salute Leslie Pinckney Hill for his contributions to America’s first HBCU.
Leslie Pinckney Hill was an educator, author, poet, dramatist, and community leader. He was born in Lynchburg, Virginia on May 14, 1880 to Samuel H. Hill, a former slave, and Sarah E. Hill. He received his primary education in Lynchburg, where as a child he played the trumpet and visualized a career in music. His family eventually moved to East Orange, New Jersey, where he transferred to the local high school. Due to accelerated study, he was able to skip his junior year and graduated close to the top of his class in 1898.
In 1899 Hill enrolled at Harvard University where he had a scholarship and also worked as a writer and waiter. On the debate team, during his junior year he won second place in the Boylston Prize oratory competition. In 1903 Hill was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and graduated cum laude in his class. In 1904, he also received his master’s degree in education from Harvard.
Between 1904 and 1907 Hill taught at Tuskegee Institute. From 1907 to 1913 he served as principal of the Industrial Institute in Manassas, Virginia and then became the head the Institute for Colored Youth in Cheyney, Pennsylvania (the school was renamed the Cheyney State Teachers College in 1951). During his time at Cheyney State Teachers College (1913-1951), Hill raised funds for the school, updated its curriculum, and encouraged interracial understanding, most notably by working with the Quakers. Drawing in his musical skills, he also directed the Cheyney Chorus which performed at colleges around the country. Under his administration, the school grew from 20 students to nearly 500 students and became an accredited state college.
After retirement, Hill lectured at the University of California at Los Angeles for two summers. He received the Seltzer Award for distinguished service after he served as administrator of Mercy-Douglass Hospital in Philadelphia for three years. In addition to his career in education, Hill was also a dramatist, poet and wrote several essays. He authored Jethro which was performed in 1931. He also wrote the poem, “the Teacher” which was translated into several languages. His most well known play, Toussaint L’ Ouverture, A Dynamic History was published in 1928 and had thirty-five scenes. In his essays, Hill expressed his views as an activist. In “What the Negro Wants and How to Get It” (1944), he described the aims of African Americans in the quest for citizenship and declared how to achieve that goal.
Throughout his career and after his retirement, Hill proved to be a talented community organizer and leader who believed education could be used to fight racism. In 1944, he founded Camp Hope for underprivileged children in Delaware County. He was also active in organizations such as the Interracial Committee of Pennsylvania and the National Education Association’s Committee on the Defense of Democracy through Education.
Leslie Pinckney Hill died of a stroke in Philadelphia in 1960.
eslie Pinckney Hill (14 May 1880 – 15 February 1960) was an American educator, writer and community leader.
3 Further reading
5 External links
The son of a former slave, Hill was born in Lynchburg, Virginia. He attended primary school locally, and played the trumpet. His family moved to East Orange, New Jersey, where he attended high school. He excelled so much in school that he skipped his junior year, and was accepted to Harvard University his senior year. He entered Harvard University in 1899, supplementing his scholarship by working as a waiter. There he attended the classes of William James and was active in debating. He was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and graduated with Cum Laude. After graduation in 1903 he stayed another year for a master’s degree in education.
Hill taught at Tuskegee Institute from 1904 to 1907, and was principal of the Manassas Industrial Institute from 1907 to 1913. In 1913 he became principal at the Cheyney, Philadelphia Institute for Colored Youth, overseeing changes in name and status and staying there until 1951 and its establishment as Cheyney State Teachers College. In 1928 Hill published a play about Toussaint L’Ouverture. In 1944, he founded Camp Hope, a camp for underprivileged children in Delaware County. Hill was a part of the Harlem Renaissance. He died from a stroke in 1960.
‘Negro ideals: their effect and their embarrassments’, Journal of race development, Vol. 6, No. 1 (July 1915)
‘Introduction’, in Alice Moore Dunbar-Nelson, ed., The Dunbar speaker and entertainer, containing the best prose and poetic selections by and about the Negro race, with programs arranged for special entertainments, 1920
The wings of oppression, 1921
Toussaint L’Ouverture: a dramatic history, 1928
Jethro; A Biblical Drama, 1931
Charline Howard Conyers (1 January 1990). A Living Legend: The History of Cheyney University, 1837-1951. Cheyney University Press. ISBN 978-0-9625828-0-6.
John P. Spencer (16 August 2012). In the Crossfire: Marcus Foster and the Troubled History of American School Reform. University of Pennsylvania Press. pp. 21–49. ISBN 0-8122-0766-1.
Charline Fay Howard Conyers (1960). A history of the Cheyney State Teachers College, 1837-1951, (EdD). New York University.
Koreem R. Bell (2015). An historical analysis of the effects of transformational leadership – Dr. Leslie Pinckney Hill and the creation of a sense of community among black supporters of the West Chester Community Center, (EdD). St. Joseph’s University.
Sulayman Clark (1984). The educational philosophy of Leslie Pinckney Hill – a profiles in black educational leadership, 1904-1951 (EdD). Harvard.
H. Viscount Nelson Jr (1969). Race and class consciousness of Philadelphia negroes with special emphasis on the years between 1927 and 1940 (PhD). History, University of PA.
Laura A. Peake (1995). The Manassas Industrial School for colored youth 1894-1916 (MA). American Studies, College of Willam and Mary.
Charline Howard Conyers (1 January 1990). A Living Legend: The History of Cheyney University, 1837-1951. Cheyney University Press. ISBN 978-0-9625828-0-6.
Dr. Leslie Pinckney Hill earned his reputation as an educator, but he also excelled as a dramatist, poet, lecturer, choir director, and public servant. He spent the majority of his career as the head executive of Cheyney Training School, overseeing its development from a small establishment to one of Pennsylvania’s most important African-American educational institutions. Hill authored a book of poems titled Wings of Oppression in 1921 and the play Toussaint L’Ouverture, A Dramatic History in 1928. Besides his educational and literary endeavors, he helped found Camp Hope in Delaware County, a site for underprivileged children, and received the Seltzer Award for public service.
Leslie Pinckney Hill was born on May 14, 1880, in Lynchburg, Virginia, the son of Samuel H. and Sarah E. (Brown) Hill. Hill attended Lynchburg public schools and organized the Virginia Seminary Band while he was still in elementary school. He moved with his family to Orange, New Jersey, where he excelled in high school, leading his teachers to recommend him to Harvard University. Hill graduated cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Harvard in 1903, and was named class orator. These achievements were even more impressive considering the long hours he worked as a waiter at the college dining hall. Hill earned his master’s degree from Harvard in 1904.
After graduation, Hill served as the director of the English Department at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama from 1904 to 1907. He met and married Jane Ethel Clark in 1907 at Tuskegee, and would later express his love for her in the poem, “Christmas at Melrose.” Hill then moved to Manassas, Virginia, where he worked to restructure the financial development of Industrial Institute between 1907 and 1913.
In 1913 Hill accepted a principal’s position at the Institute for Colored Youth (renamed Cheyney Training School for Teachers in 1914) in Cheyney, Pennsylvania. Founded in 1837 by Quaker philanthropist Richard Humphreys, the school was the oldest African-American intuition of higher learning in the United States. During Hill’s tenure, the small school grew into a respectable state accredited college. When he first accepted the position of principal, the institution consisted of six buildings and 20 students; when he retired
At a Glance…
Born on May 14, 1880, in Lynchburg, VA; died on February 15, 1960, in Philadelphia, PA; son of Samuel H. and Sarah E. (Brown) Hill; married Jane Ethel Clark, 1907; six children. Education: Harvard University, BA, 1903, MA, 1904.
Career: Department of Education, Tuskegee Institute, AL, director, 1904-07; Manassas Institute, VA, financial officer, 1907-13; Institute for Colored Youth (later Cheyney Training School for Teachers), PA, principal-president, 1913-51; writer, 1921 -44.
Memberships: Association of Pennsylvania Teachers; National Education Association Commission on the Defense of Democracy through Education; West Chester Community Center; Delaware County Board of Assistance.
Awards: Seltzer Award for distinguished service.
in 1951, the school was an accredited teacher’s college with 16 buildings and 89 graduating students. Hill worked tirelessly to update the school’s curriculum and publicize the institution to the outside world by featuring prominent speakers from the African-American community including W. E. B. DuBois and Langston Hughes. Following his retirement in 1951, he was named president emeritus.
Throughout 38 years of service at Cheyney, Hill worked tirelessly to gather funds for the school, build goodwill and interracial harmony with local communities, and visit other colleges as a lecturer. He worked closely with the neighboring Quaker population and, because of his extensive experience as a musician, directed the Cheyney Chorus as it toured colleges throughout the United States. Hill lectured at the Claremont College in California for two summers, and served as administrator for the Mercy-Douglass Hospital in Philadelphia for several years. Hill also wrote for a number of educational journals.
In 1921 Hill published The Wings of Oppression, a book of poems exploring race, current events, and inspiration. “The Teacher,” which remains his most popular and frequently translated poem, is an educator’s prayer to God as he attempts to bestow knowledge and a love for humankind on his pupils. Another lesser-known Hill poem, “So Quietly,” is based on an actual lynching of an African-American in Smithville, Georgia, in 1919. The victim had been traveling when his attackers kidnapped him from the train without the knowledge of those around him: “So quietly they stole upon their prey // And dragged him out to death, so without flaw // Their black design, that they to whom the law // Gave him in keeping, in the broad, bright day // Were not aware when he was snatched away; // And when the people, with a shrinking awe, // The horror of that mangled body saw, // ‘By unknown hands!’ was all that they could say.”
“The poem,” wrote Melvin G. Williams in Black American Literature Forum, “turns out to be about something more than just that single vicious act, however.” Indeed, it speaks to the condition of African Americans in general.
In 1928 Hill wrote a narrative drama titled Toussaint L’Ouverture: A Dramatic History. The five-part, 35-scene play mixes blank verse and lyricism to cover the revolution in Haiti in 1791. “It was in Hayti [sic] that the greatest of Negroes rose up to strike the shackles of slavery from the limbs and minds of his race forever….” Hill wrote in the play’s introduction. He also wrote the biblical drama Jethro, a play performed for the first time in 1931.
In 1944 Hill wrote a hard-hitting article titled “What the Negro Wants and How to Get It,” published in What the Negro Wants, a collection of essays edited by Rayford W. Logan. Hill stated bluntly that African Americans wanted the same freedoms available to all citizens who lived in democracies. This message had a special poignancy during World War II, for even though African-American soldiers participated in the war, troops remained segregated and Jim Crow laws remained prevalent in the South. Hill believed that African Americans deserved equal protection under the law, a right to vote, equal education and healthcare, and equal pay for equal work. “In every emergency,” Hill wrote, “the Negro race in America must give to the nation its unreserved allegiance. Wrongs will remain, but increasing opportunities and obligations will surpass them. Our democracy is not yet a satisfying reality, but Negroes are still free to live, strive and die to make it come in God’s unhurried time. All else by comparison is trivial.”
Hill served on a number of boards and received several honorary degrees. He served as founder to the Pennsylvania State Negro Council and the Association of Pennsylvania Teachers. He also helped found the West Chester Community Center and was a member of the Delaware County Board of Assistance and the National Education Association Commission on the Defense of Democracy through Education. Hill held honorary degrees from the Rhode Island College of Education, Lincoln University, Haver ford College, and Morgan State College. Hill died on February 15, 1960, at Mercy-Douglass Hospital in Philadelphia, and was buried beside his wife in Kennett Square, Philadelphia. The library at Cheyney University was named in Hill’s honor.
Wings of Oppression (poems), Stratford, 1921.
Toussaint L’Ouverture, A Dramatic History, Christopher, 1928.
“What the Negro Wants and How to Get It,” in What the Negro Wants, Rayford W. Logan, ed., University of North Carolina Press, 1944; reprinted, University of Notre Dame Press, 2001.
Logan, Rayford W., and Winston, Michael R., eds., Dictionary of American Negro Biography, W.W. Norton, 1982.
Logan, Rayford W., ed., What the Negro Wants, University of North Carolina Press, 1944, p. 77.
Black American Literature Forum, Autumn 1977, pp. 104-108.
New York Times, February 16, 1960, p. 40.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from the privately printed booklet, “Dr. Leslie Pinckney Hill: A Remembrance.”
Reflecting the fundamental goals of the New Negro movement, Leslie Pinckney Hill devoted his professional life to the pursuit of “freedom, justice, and fundamental equality,” in short, full citizenship for the African American. After receiving his elementary education in the town of his birth, Lynchburg, Virginia, and his secondary education in East Orange, New Jersey, Hill attended Harvard University, where he earned his BA (1903) and MA (1904) degrees, and began to pursue politics through education. In 1904 Hill began his career in education at Tuskegee Institute, teaching English and education under Booker T. Washington. He was subsequently appointed principal at the Manassas Industrial Institute in Manassas, Virginia, from 1907 to 1913. In 1913 Hill began his thirty-eight-year administration of the Institute for Colored Youth, which, through his leadership, became Cheyney Training School for Teachers (1914), State Normal School (1920), and Cheyney State Teachers College (1951).
Though Hill emphasizes education as the key to racial progress, his essay “What the Negro Wants and How to Get It: The Inward Power of the Masses” articulates the philosophy that informs his educational models and artistic works. That “the human family is one” for Hill summarizes his vision of universal brotherhood, a vision that ultimately negates racial difference in celebration of transcendent commonalities.
Hill’s two artistic publications, The Wings of Oppression (1921), a collection of sixty-nine poems in standard verse, and Toussaint L’Ouverture: A Dramatic History (1928), a dramatic portrait in verse, reveal his didactic leanings and his commitment to universalities. His collection reviews racial, political, and deeply personal themes, all pointing toward the perpetual resilience of the human spirit. Likewise, Hill’s drama celebrates Toussaint L’Ouverture’s heroism and that of black Haitians, while lamenting L’Ouverture’s tragic betrayal and demise. Although little known, Hill’s works and career effectively illustrate the unequivocal New Negro claim to full participation in American political, social, and intellectual life.
Milton M. James, “Leslie Pinckney Hill,” Negro History Bulletin 24 (Mar. 1937): 135–137.Patsy B. Perry, “Leslie Pinckney Hill,” in DLB, vol. 51, Afro-American Writers from the Harlem Renaissance to 1940, ed. Trudier Harris, 1987, pp. 101–105.
The Harlem Renaissance was the development of the Harlem neighborhood in New York City as a black cultural mecca in the early 20th Century and the subsequent social and artistic explosion that resulted. Lasting roughly from the 1910s through the mid-1930s, the period is considered a golden age in African American culture, manifesting in literature, music, stage performance and art.
The northern Manhattan neighborhood of Harlem was meant to be an upper-class white neighborhood in the 1880s, but rapid overdevelopment led to empty buildings and desperate landlords seeking to fill them.
In the early 1900s, a few middle-class black families from another neighborhood known as Black Bohemia moved to Harlem, and other black families followed. Some white residents initially fought to keep African Americans out of the area, but failing that many whites eventually fled.
Outside factors led to a population boom: From 1910 to 1920, African American populations migrated in large numbers from the South to the North, with prominent figures like W.E.B. Du Bois leading what became known as the Great Migration.
In 1915 and 1916, natural disasters in the south put black workers and sharecroppers out of work. Additionally, during and after World War I, immigration to the United States fell, and northern recruiters headed south to entice black workers to their companies.
By 1920, some 300,000 African Americans from the South had moved north, and Harlem was one of the most popular destinations for these families.
This considerable population shift resulted in a Black Pride movement with leaders like Du Bois working to ensure that black Americans got the credit they deserved for cultural areas of life. Two of the earliest breakthroughs were in poetry, with Claude McKay’s collection Harlem Shadows in 1922 and Jean Toomer’s Cane in 1923. Civil rights activist James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of An Ex-Colored Man in 1912, followed by God’s Trombones in 1927, left their mark on the world of fiction.
Novelist and du Bois protege Jessi Redmond Fauset’s 1924 novel There Is Confusion explored the idea of black Americans finding a cultural identity in a white-dominated Manhattan. Fauset was literary editor of the NAACP magazine The Crisis and developed a magazine for black children with Du Bois.
Sociologist Charles Spurgeon Johnson, who was integral in shaping the Harlem literary scene, used the debut party for There Is Confusion to organize resources to create Opportunity, the National Urban League magazine he founded and edited, a success that bolstered writers like Langston Hughes.
Hughes was at that party along with other promising black writers and editors, as well as powerful white New York publishing figures. Soon many writers found their work appearing in mainstream magazines like Harper’s.
Zora Neale Hurston
Anthropologist and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston courted controversy through her involvement with a publication called FIRE!!
Helmed by white author and Harlem writers’ patron Carl Van Vechten, the magazine exoticized the lives of Harlem residents. Van Vechten’s previous fiction stirred up interest among whites to visit Harlem and take advantage of the cultural and nightlife there.
Though Van Vechten’s work was condemned by older luminaries like DuBois, it was embraced by Hurston, Hughes and others.
Poetry, too, flourished during the Harlem Renaissance. Countee Cullen was 15 when he moved into the Harlem home of Reverend Frederick A. Cullen, the pastor of Harlem’s largest congregation, in 1918.
The neighborhood and its culture informed his poetry, and as a college student at New York University, he obtained prizes in a number of poetry contests before going onto Harvard’s masters program and publishing his first volume of poetry: Color. He followed it up with Copper Sun and The Ballad of the Brown Girl, and went on to write plays as well as children’s books.
Cullen received a Guggenheim fellowship for his poetry in and married Nina Yolande, the daughter of W.E.B. DuBois. Their wedding was a major social event in Harlem. Cullen’s reviews for Opportunity magazine, which ran under the column “Dark Tower,” focused on works from the African-American literati and covered some of the biggest names of the age.
The music that percolated in and then boomed out of Harlem in the 1920s was jazz, often played at speakeasies offering illegal liquor. Jazz became a great draw for not only Harlem residents, but outside white audiences also.
Some of the most celebrated names in American music regularly performed in Harlem—Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Bessie Smith, Fats Waller and Cab Calloway, often accompanied by elaborate floor shows. Tap dancers like John Bubbles and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson were also popular.
With the groundbreaking new music came a vibrant nightlife. The Savoy opened in 1927, an integrated ballroom with two bandstands that featured continuous jazz and dancing well past midnight, sometimes in the form of battling bands helmed by Fletcher Henderson, Jimmie Lunceford and King Oliver.
While it was fashionable to frequent Harlem nightlife, entrepreneurs realized that some white people wanted to experience black culture without having to socialize with African Americans and created clubs to cater to them.
The most successful of these was the Cotton Club, which featured frequent performances by Ellington and Calloway. Some in the community derided the existence of such clubs, while others believed they were a sign that black culture was moving toward greater acceptance.
The cultural boom in Harlem gave black actors opportunities for stage work that had previously been withheld. Traditionally, if black actors appeared onstage, it was in a minstrel show musical and rarely in a serious drama with non-stereotypical roles.
At the center of this stage revolution was the versatile Paul Robeson, an actor, singer, writer, activist and more. Robeson first moved to Harlem in 1919 while studying law at Columbia University and continually maintained a social presence in the area, where he was considered an inspirational but approachable figure.
Robeson believed that arts and culture were the best paths forward for Black Americans to overcome racism and make advances in a white-dominated culture.
Black musical revues were staples in Harlem, and by the mid-1920s had moved south to Broadway, expanding into the white world. One of the earliest of these was Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle’s Shuffle Along, which launched the career of Josephine Baker.
White patron Van Vechten helped bring more serious black stage work to Broadway, though largely the work of white authors. It wasn’t until 1929 that a black-authored play about black lives, Wallace Thurman and William Rapp’s Harlem, played Broadway.
Playwright Willis Richardson offered more serious opportunities for black actors with a several one-act plays written in the 1920s, as well as articles in Opportunity magazine outlining his goals. Stock companies like the Krigwa Players and the Harlem Experimental Theater also gave black actors serious roles.
The visual arts were never welcoming to black artists, with art schools, galleries and museums shutting them out. Sculptor Meta Warrick Fuller, a protégé of Auguste Rodin, explored African American themes in her work and influenced Du Bois to champion black visual artists.
The most celebrated Harlem Renaissance artist is Aaron Douglas, often called “the Father of Black American Art,” who adapted African techniques to realize paintings and murals, as well as book illustration.
Sculptor Augusta Savage’s 1923 bust of Du Bois garnered considerable attention. She followed that up with small, clay portraits of everyday African Americans, and would later be pivotal to enlisting black artists into the Federal Art Project, a division of the Work Progress Administration (WPA).
James VanDerZee’s photography captured Harlem daily life, as well as by commissioned portraits in his studio that he worked to fill with optimism and separate philosophically from the horrors of the past.
Black nationalist and leader of the Pan-Africanism movement Marcus Garvey was born in Jamaica but moved to Harlem in 1916 and began publishing the influential newspaper Negro World in 1918. His shipping company, Black Star Line, established trade between Africans in America, the Caribbean, South and Central America, Canada and Africa.
Garvey is perhaps best known for founding the Universal Negro Improvement Association, or UNIA, which advocated for “separate but equal” status for persons of African ancestry with the goal of establishing black states around the world. Garvey was famously at odds with W.E.B. DuBois, who called him “the most dangerous enemy of the Negro race in America.” His outspoken views also made him a target of J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI.
Harlem Renaissance Ends
The end of Harlem’s creative boom began with the stock market crash of 1929 and The Great Depression. It wavered until Prohibition ended in 1933, which meant white patrons no longer sought out the illegal alcohol in uptown clubs.
By 1935, many pivotal Harlem residents had moved on to seek work. They were replaced by the continuous flow of refugees from the South, many requiring public assistance.
The Harlem Race Riot of 1935 broke out following the arrest of a young shoplifter, resulting in three dead, hundreds injured and millions of dollars in property damage. The riot was a death knell for the Harlem Renaissance.
Impact of the Harlem Renaissance
The Harlem Renaissance was a golden age for African American artists, writers and musicians. It gave these artists pride in and control over how the black experience was represented in American culture and set the stage for the civil rights movement.
The Harlem Renaissance was an intellectual, social, and artistic explosion centered in Harlem, Manhattan, New York City, spanning the 1920s. At the time, it was known as the “New Negro Movement”, named after The New Negro, a 1925 anthology edited by Alain Locke. The movement also included the new African-American cultural expressions across the urban areas in the Northeast and Midwest United States affected by the Great Migration, of which Harlem was the largest.
Though it was centered in the Harlem neighborhood, many francophone black writers from African and Caribbean colonies who lived in Paris were also influenced by the movement, which spanned from about 1918 until the mid-1930s. Many of its ideas lived on much longer. The zenith of this “flowering of Negro literature”, as James Weldon Johnson preferred to call the Harlem Renaissance, took place between 1924—when Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life hosted a party for black writers where many white publishers were in attendance—and 1929, the year of the stock-market crash and the beginning of the Great Depression. The Harlem Renaissance is considered to have been a rebirth of the African-American arts.
2.1 Mainstream recognition of Harlem culture
3 Characteristics and themes
4.1 A new Black identity
4.2 Criticism of the movement
5 See also
6 Notes and references
6.3 Further reading
7 External links
A map of Upper Manhattan with pink sections for Harlem
Harlem in Upper Manhattan.
Until the end of the Civil War, the majority of African Americans had been enslaved and lived in the South. During the Reconstruction Era, the emancipated African Americans, freedmen, began to strive for civic participation, political equality and economic and cultural self-determination. Soon after the end of the Civil War the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871 gave rise to speeches by African-American Congressmen addressing this Bill. By 1875 sixteen African Americans had been elected and served in Congress and gave numerous speeches with their newfound civil empowerment. The Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871 was denounced by black Congressmen[why?][dubious – discuss] and resulted in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1875, part of Reconstruction legislation by Republicans. By the late 1870s, Democratic whites managed to regain power in the South. From 1890 to 1908 they proceeded to pass legislation that disenfranchised most African Americans and many poor whites, trapping them without representation. They established white supremacist regimes of Jim Crow segregation in the South and one-party block voting behind southern Democrats. The Democratic whites denied African Americans their exercise of civil and political rights by terrorizing black communities with lynch mobs and other forms of vigilante violence as well as by instituting a convict labor system that forced many thousands of African Americans back into unpaid labor in mines, on plantations, and on public works projects such as roads and levees. Convict laborers were typically subject to brutal forms of corporal punishment, overwork, and disease from unsanitary conditions. Death rates were extraordinarily high. While a small number of African Americans were able to acquire land shortly after the Civil War, most were exploited as sharecroppers. As life in the South became increasingly difficult, African Americans began to migrate north in great numbers.
Most of the African-American literary movement arose from a generation that had memories of the gains and losses of Reconstruction after the Civil War. Sometimes their parents or grandparents had been slaves. Their ancestors had sometimes benefited by paternal investment in cultural capital, including better-than-average education. Many in the Harlem Renaissance were part of the early 20th century Great Migration out of the South into the African-American neighborhoods of the Northeast and Midwest. African Americans sought a better standard of living and relief from the institutionalized racism in the South. Others were people of African descent from racially stratified communities in the Caribbean who came to the United States hoping for a better life. Uniting most of them was their convergence in Harlem.
File:Study of negro artists.ogv
Contemporary silent short documentary on the Negro Artist. Richmond Barthé working on Kalombwan (1934).
During the early portion of the 20th century, Harlem was the destination for migrants from around the country, attracting both people seeking work from the South, and an educated class who made the area a center of culture, as well as a growing “Negro” middle class. These people were looking for a fresh start in life and this was a good place to go. The district had originally been developed in the 19th century as an exclusive suburb for the white middle and upper middle classes; its affluent beginnings led to the development of stately houses, grand avenues, and world-class amenities such as the Polo Grounds and the Harlem Opera House. During the enormous influx of European immigrants in the late 19th century, the once exclusive district was abandoned by the white middle class, who moved farther north.
Harlem became an African-American neighborhood in the early 1900s. In 1910, a large block along 135th Street and Fifth Avenue was bought by various African-American realtors and a church group. Many more African Americans arrived during the First World War. Due to the war, the migration of laborers from Europe virtually ceased, while the war effort resulted in a massive demand for unskilled industrial labor. The Great Migration brought hundreds of thousands of African Americans to cities such as Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, and New York.
Despite the increasing popularity of Negro culture, virulent white racism, often by more recent ethnic immigrants, continued to affect African-American communities, even in the North. After the end of World War I, many African-American soldiers—who fought in segregated units such as the Harlem Hellfighters—came home to a nation whose citizens often did not respect their accomplishments. Race riots and other civil uprisings occurred throughout the US during the Red Summer of 1919, reflecting economic competition over jobs and housing in many cities, as well as tensions over social territories.
Mainstream recognition of Harlem culture
The first stage of the Harlem Renaissance started in the late 1910s. In 1917, the premiere of Granny Maumee, The Rider of Dreams, Simon the Cyrenian: Plays for a Negro Theater took place. These plays, written by white playwright Ridgely Torrence, featured African-American actors conveying complex human emotions and yearnings. They rejected the stereotypes of the blackface and minstrel show traditions. James Weldon Johnson in 1917 called the premieres of these plays “the most important single event in the entire history of the Negro in the American Theater”. Another landmark came in 1919, when the poet Claude McKay published his militant sonnet, “If We Must Die”, which introduced a dramatically political dimension to the themes of African cultural inheritance and modern urban experience featured in his 1917 poems “Invocation” and “Harlem Dancer” (published under the pseudonym Eli Edwards, these were his first appearance in print in the United States after immigrating from Jamaica). Although “If We Must Die” never alluded to race, African-American readers heard its note of defiance in the face of racism and the nationwide race riots and lynchings then taking place. By the end of the First World War, the fiction of James Weldon Johnson and the poetry of Claude McKay were describing the reality of contemporary African-American life in America.
The Harlem Renaissance grew out of the changes that had taken place in the African-American community since the abolition of slavery, as the expansion of communities in the North. These accelerated as a consequence of World War I and the great social and cultural changes in early 20th-century United States. Industrialization was attracting people to cities from rural areas and gave rise to a new mass culture. Contributing factors leading to the Harlem Renaissance were the Great Migration of African Americans to northern cities, which concentrated ambitious people in places where they could encourage each other, and the First World War, which had created new industrial work opportunities for tens of thousands of people. Factors leading to the decline of this era include the Great Depression.
In 1917 Hubert Harrison, “The Father of Harlem Radicalism,” founded the Liberty League and The Voice, the first organization and the first newspaper, respectively, of the “New Negro Movement.” Harrison’s organization and newspaper were political, but also emphasized the arts (his newspaper had “Poetry for the People” and book review sections). In 1927, in the Pittsburgh Courier, Harrison challenged the notion of the renaissance. He argued that the “Negro Literary Renaissance” notion overlooked “the stream of literary and artistic products which had flowed uninterruptedly from Negro writers from 1850 to the present,” and said the so-called “renaissance” was largely a white invention.
Nevertheless, with the Harlem Renaissance came a sense of acceptance for African American writers; as Langston Hughes put it, with Harlem came the courage “to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame.” Alain Locke’s anthology The New Negro was considered the cornerstone of this cultural revolution. The anthology featured several African American writers and poets, from the well-known, such as Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Claude McKay, to the lesser-known, like the poet Anne Spencer. Many poets of the Harlem Renaissance were inspired to tie in threads of African American culture into their poems; as a result, jazz poetry was heavily developed during this time. “The Weary Blues” was a notable jazz poem written by Langston Hughes. Through their works of literature, black authors were able to give a voice to the African American identity, as well as strive for a community of support and acceptance.
Christianity played a major role in the Harlem Renaissance. Many of the writers and social critics discussed the role of Christianity in African-American lives. For example, a famous poem by Langston Hughes, “Madam and the Minister”, reflects the temperature and mood towards religion in the Harlem Renaissance. The cover story for The Crisis magazine′s publication in May 1936 explains how important Christianity was regarding the proposed union of the three largest Methodist churches of 1936. This article shows the controversial question of unification for these churches. The article “The Catholic Church and the Negro Priest”, also published in The Crisis, January 1920, demonstrates the obstacles African-American priests faced in the Catholic Church. The article confronts what it saw as policies based on race that excluded African Americans from higher positions in the church.
Religion and Evolution Ad
Various forms of religious worship existed during this time of African-American intellectual reawakening. Although there were racist attitudes within the current Abrahamic religious arenas many African Americans continued to push towards the practice of a more inclusive doctrine. For example, George Joseph MacWilliam presents various experiences, during his pursuit towards priesthood, of rejection on the basis of his color and race yet he shares his frustration in attempts to incite action on the part of The Crisis magazine community.
There were other forms of spiritualism practiced among African Americans during the Harlem Renaissance. Some of these religions and philosophies were inherited from African ancestry. For example, the religion of Islam was present in Africa as early as the 8th century through the Trans-Saharan trade. Islam came to Harlem likely through the migration of members of the Moorish Science Temple of America, which was established in 1913 in New Jersey. Various forms of Judaism were practiced, including Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Judaism, but it was Black Hebrew Israelites that founded their religious belief system during the early 20th century in the Harlem Renaissance. Traditional forms of religion acquired from various parts of Africa were inherited and practiced during this era. Some common examples were Voodoo and Santeria.
Religious critique during this era was found in literature, art, and poetry. The Harlem Renaissance encouraged analytic dialogue that included the open critique and the adjustment of current religious ideas.
One of the major contributors to the discussion of African-American renaissance culture was Aaron Douglas who, with his artwork, also reflected the revisions African Americans were making to the Christian dogma. Douglas uses biblical imagery as inspiration to various pieces of art work but with the rebellious twist of an African influence.
Countee Cullen’s poem “Heritage” expresses the inner struggle of an African American between his past African heritage and the new Christian culture. A more severe criticism of the Christian religion can be found in Langston Hughes’ poem “Merry Christmas”, where he exposes the irony of religion as a symbol for good and yet a force for oppression and injustice.
A new way of playing the piano called the Harlem Stride style was created during the Harlem Renaissance, and helped blur the lines between the poor African Americans and socially elite African Americans. The traditional jazz band was composed primarily of brass instruments and was considered a symbol of the south, but the piano was considered an instrument of the wealthy. With this instrumental modification to the existing genre, the wealthy African Americans now had more access to jazz music. Its popularity soon spread throughout the country and was consequently at an all-time high. Innovation and liveliness were important characteristics of performers in the beginnings of jazz. Jazz performers and composers at the time such as Eubie Blake, Noble Sissle, Jelly Roll Morton, Luckey Roberts, James P. Johnson, Willie “The Lion” Smith, Fats Waller, Ethel Waters, Adelaide Hall, Florence Mills and bandleaders Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Fletcher Henderson were extremely talented, skillful, competitive and inspirational. They are still considered as having laid great parts of the foundations for future musicians of their genre. Duke Ellington gained popularity during the Harlem Renaissance. According to Charles Garrett, “The resulting portrait of Ellington reveals him to be not only the gifted composer, bandleader, and musician we have come to know, but also an earthly person with basic desires, weaknesses, and eccentricities.” Ellington did not let his popularity get to him. He remained calm and focused on his music.
During this period, the musical style of blacks was becoming more and more attractive to whites. White novelists, dramatists and composers started to exploit the musical tendencies and themes of African Americans in their works. Composers used poems written by African-American poets in their songs, and would implement the rhythms, harmonies and melodies of African-American music—such as blues, spirituals, and jazz—into their concert pieces. African Americans began to merge with Whites into the classical world of musical composition. The first African-American male to gain wide recognition as a concert artist in both his region and internationally was Roland Hayes. He trained with Arthur Calhoun in Chattanooga, and at Fisk University in Nashville. Later, he studied with Arthur Hubbard in Boston and with George Henschel and Amanda Ira Aldridge in London, England. He began singing in public as a student, and toured with the Fisk Jubilee Singers in 1911.
During the Harlem Renaissance, the black clothing scene took a dramatic turn from the prim and proper. Many young women preferred- from short skirts and silk stockings to drop-waisted dresses and cloche hats. Woman wore loose-fitted garments and accessorized with long strand pearl bead necklaces, feather boas, and cigarette holders. The fashion of the Harlem Renaissance was used to convey elegance and flamboyancy and needed to be created with the vibrant dance style of the 1920s in mind. Popular by the 1930s was a trendy, egret-trimmed beret.
Men wore loose suits that led to the later style known as the “Zoot,” which consisted of wide-legged, high-waisted, peg-top trousers, and a long coat with padded shoulders and wide lapels. Men also wore wide-brimmed hats, colored socks, white gloves, and velvet-collared Chesterfield coats. During this period, African Americans expressed respect for their heritage through a fad for leopard-skin coats, indicating the power of the African animal.
The extraordinarily successful black dancer Josephine Baker, though performing in Paris during the height of the Renaissance, was a major fashion trendsetter for black and white women alike. Her gowns from the couturier Jean Patou were much copied, especially her stage costumes, which Vogue magazine called “startling.” Josephine Baker is also credited for highlighting the “art deco” fashion era after she performed the “Danse Sauvage”. During this Paris performance she adorned a skirt made of string and artificial bananas. Ethel Moses was another popular black performer, Moses starred in silent films in the 1920s and 30s and was recognizable by her signature bob hairstyle.
Characteristics and themes
A jazz combo playing
Trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie is emblematic of the mixture of high class society, popular art, and virtuosity of jazz.
Characterizing the Harlem Renaissance was an overt racial pride that came to be represented in the idea of the New Negro, who through intellect and production of literature, art, and music could challenge the pervading racism and stereotypes to promote progressive or socialist politics, and racial and social integration. The creation of art and literature would serve to “uplift” the race.
There would be no uniting form singularly characterizing the art that emerged from the Harlem Renaissance. Rather, it encompassed a wide variety of cultural elements and styles, including a Pan-African perspective, “high-culture” and “low-culture” or “low-life,” from the traditional form of music to the blues and jazz, traditional and new experimental forms in literature such as modernism and the new form of jazz poetry. This duality meant that numerous African-American artists came into conflict with conservatives in the black intelligentsia, who took issue with certain depictions of black life.
Some common themes represented during the Harlem Renaissance were the influence of the experience of slavery and emerging African-American folk traditions on black identity, the effects of institutional racism, the dilemmas inherent in performing and writing for elite white audiences, and the question of how to convey the experience of modern black life in the urban North.
The Harlem Renaissance was one of primarily African-American involvement. It rested on a support system of black patrons, black-owned businesses and publications. However, it also depended on the patronage of white Americans, such as Carl Van Vechten and Charlotte Osgood Mason, who provided various forms of assistance, opening doors which otherwise might have remained closed to the publication of work outside the black American community. This support often took the form of patronage or publication. Carl Van Vechten was one of the most noteworthy white Americans involved with the Harlem Renaissance. He allowed for assistance to the black American community because he wanted racial sameness.
There were other whites interested in so-called “primitive” cultures, as many whites viewed black American culture at that time, and wanted to see such “primitivism” in the work coming out of the Harlem Renaissance. As with most fads, some people may have been exploited in the rush for publicity.
Interest in African-American lives also generated experimental but lasting collaborative work, such as the all-black productions of George Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess, and Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein’s Four Saints in Three Acts. In both productions the choral conductor Eva Jessye was part of the creative team. Her choir was featured in Four Saints. The music world also found white band leaders defying racist attitudes to include the best and the brightest African-American stars of music and song in their productions.
The African Americans used art to prove their humanity and demand for equality. The Harlem Renaissance led to more opportunities for blacks to be published by mainstream houses. Many authors began to publish novels, magazines and newspapers during this time. The new fiction attracted a great amount of attention from the nation at large. Among authors who became nationally known were Jean Toomer, Jessie Fauset, Claude McKay, Zora Neale Hurston, James Weldon Johnson, Alain Locke, Omar Al Amiri, Eric D. Walrond and Langston Hughes.
Richard Bruce Nugent (1906–1987) who wrote “Smoke, Lilies, and Jade” is an important contribution, especially in relation to experimental form and LGBT themes in the period.
The Harlem Renaissance helped lay the foundation for the post-World War II protest movement of the Civil Rights Movement. Moreover, many black artists who rose to creative maturity afterward were inspired by this literary movement.
The Renaissance was more than a literary or artistic movement, as it possessed a certain sociological development—particularly through a new racial consciousness—through ethnic pride, as seen in the Back to Africa movement led by Marcus Garvey. At the same time, a different expression of ethnic pride, promoted by W. E. B. Du Bois, introduced the notion of the “talented tenth”: the African Americans who were fortunate enough to inherit money or property or obtain a college degree during the transition from Reconstruction to the Jim Crow period of the early twentieth century. These “talented tenth” were considered the finest examples of the worth of black Americans as a response to the rampant racism of the period. (No particular leadership was assigned to the talented tenth, but they were to be emulated.) In both literature and popular discussion, complex ideas such as Du Bois’s concept of “twoness” (dualism) were introduced (see The Souls of Black Folk; 1903). Du Bois explored a divided awareness of one’s identity that was a unique critique of the social ramifications of racial consciousness. This exploration was later revived during the Black Pride movement of the early 1970s.
A new Black identity
Langston Hughes, novelist and poet, photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1936
“Sometimes I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can anyone deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It’s beyond me.” – Zora Neale Hurston
The Harlem Renaissance was successful in that it brought the Black experience clearly within the corpus of American cultural history. Not only through an explosion of culture, but on a sociological level, the legacy of the Harlem Renaissance redefined how America, and the world, viewed African Americans. The migration of southern Blacks to the north changed the image of the African American from rural, undereducated peasants to one of urban, cosmopolitan sophistication. This new identity led to a greater social consciousness, and African Americans became players on the world stage, expanding intellectual and social contacts internationally.
The progress—both symbolic and real—during this period became a point of reference from which the African-American community gained a spirit of self-determination that provided a growing sense of both Black urbanity and Black militancy, as well as a foundation for the community to build upon for the Civil Rights struggles in the 1950s and 1960s.
The urban setting of rapidly developing Harlem provided a venue for African Americans of all backgrounds to appreciate the variety of Black life and culture. Through this expression, the Harlem Renaissance encouraged the new appreciation of folk roots and culture. For instance, folk materials and spirituals provided a rich source for the artistic and intellectual imagination, which freed Blacks from the establishment of past condition. Through sharing in these cultural experiences, a consciousness sprung forth in the form of a united racial identity.
However, there was some pressure within certain groups of the Harlem Renaissance to adopt sentiments of conservative white America in order to be taken seriously by the mainstream. The result being that queer culture, while far-more accepted in Harlem than most places in the country at the time, was most fully lived out in the smoky dark lights of bars, nightclubs, and cabarets in the city. It was within these venues that the blues music scene boomed, and since it had not yet gained recognition within popular culture, queer artists used it as a way to express themselves honestly. Even though there were factions within the Renaissance that were accepting of queer culture/lifestyles, one could still be arrested for engaging in homosexual acts. Many people, including author Alice Dunbar-Nelson and “The Mother of Blues” Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, had husbands but were romantically linked to other women as well. Ma Rainey was known to dress in traditionally male clothing and her blues lyrics often reflected her sexual proclivities for women, which was extremely radical at the time. Ma Rainey was also the first person to introduce blues music into vaudeville. Rainey’s protégé, Bessie Smith was another artist who used the blues as a way to express herself with such lines as “When you see two women walking hand in hand, just look em’ over and try to understand: They’ll go to those parties – have the lights down low – only those parties where women can go.”
Blues singer Gladys Bentley
Another prominent blues singer was Gladys Bentley, who was known to cross-dress. Bentley was the club owner of Clam House on 133rd Street in Harlem, which was a hub for queer patrons. The Hamilton Lodge in Harlem hosted an annual drag ball that attracted thousands to watch as a couple hundred young men came to dance the night away in drag. Though there were safe havens within Harlem, there were prominent voices such as that of Abyssinian Baptist Church’s minister Adam Clayton who actively campaigned against homosexuality.
The Harlem Renaissance gave birth to the idea of The New Negro. The New Negro movement was an effort to define what it meant to be African-American by African Americans rather than let the degrading stereotypes and caricatures found in black face minstrelsy practices to do so. There was also The Neo-New Negro movement, which not only challenged racial definitions and stereotypes, but also sought to challenge gender roles, normative sexuality, and sexism in America in general. In this respect, the Harlem Renaissance was far ahead of the rest of America in terms of embracing feminism and queer culture. These ideals received some push back as freedom of sexuality, particularly pertaining to women (which during the time in Harlem was known as women-loving women), was seen as confirming the stereotype that black women were loose and lacked sexual discernment. The black bourgeoisie saw this as hampering the cause of black people in America and giving fuel to the fire of racist sentiments around the country. Yet for all of the efforts by both sectors of white and conservative black America, queer culture and artists defined major portions of not only the Harlem Renaissance, but also defined so much of our culture today. Author of “The Black Man’s Burden”, Henry Louis Gates Jr. wrote on this very subject matter, the Harlem Renaissance “was surely as gay as it was black”.
Criticism of the movement
Many critics point out that the Harlem Renaissance could not escape its history and culture in its attempt to create a new one, or sufficiently separate from the foundational elements of White, European culture. Often Harlem intellectuals, while proclaiming a new racial consciousness, resorted to mimicry of their white counterparts by adopting their clothing, sophisticated manners and etiquette. This “mimicry” may also be called assimilation, as that is typically what minority members of any social construct must do in order to fit social norms created by that construct’s majority. This could be seen as a reason that the artistic and cultural products of the Harlem Renaissance did not overcome the presence of White-American values, and did not reject these values. In this regard, the creation of the “New Negro” as the Harlem intellectuals sought, was considered a success.
The Harlem Renaissance appealed to a mixed audience. The literature appealed to the African-American middle class and to whites. Magazines such as The Crisis, a monthly journal of the NAACP, and Opportunity, an official publication of the National Urban League, employed Harlem Renaissance writers on their editorial staffs; published poetry and short stories by black writers; and promoted African-American literature through articles, reviews, and annual literary prizes. As important as these literary outlets were, however, the Renaissance relied heavily on white publishing houses and white-owned magazines. A major accomplishment of the Renaissance was to open the door to mainstream white periodicals and publishing houses, although the relationship between the Renaissance writers and white publishers and audiences created some controversy. W. E. B. Du Bois did not oppose the relationship between black writers and white publishers, but he was critical of works such as Claude McKay’s bestselling novel Home to Harlem (1928) for appealing to the “prurient demand[s]” of white readers and publishers for portrayals of black “licentiousness”. Langston Hughes spoke for most of the writers and artists when he wrote in his essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” (1926) that black artists intended to express themselves freely, no matter what the black public or white public thought. Hughes in his writings also returned to the theme of racial passing, but during the Harlem Renaissance, he began to explore the topic of homosexuality and homophobia. He began to use disruptive language in his writings. He explored this topic because it was a theme that during this time period was not discussed.
African-American musicians and writers were among mixed audiences as well, having experienced positive and negative outcomes throughout the New Negro Movement. For musicians, Harlem, New York’s cabarets and nightclubs shined a light on black performers and allowed for black residents to enjoy music and dancing. However, some of the most popular clubs (that showcased black musicians) were exclusively for white audiences; one of the most famous white-only nightclubs in Harlem was the Cotton Club, where popular black musicians like Duke Ellington frequently performed. Ultimately, the black musicians who appeared at these white-only clubs became far more successful and became a part of the mainstream music scene.
Similarly, black writers were given the opportunity to shine once the New Negro Movement gained traction as short stories, novels, and poems by black authors began taking form and getting into various print publications in the 1910s and 1920s. Although a seemingly good way to establish their identities and culture, many authors note how hard it was for any of their work to actually go anywhere. Writer Charles Chesnutt in 1877, for example, notes that there was no indication of his race alongside his publication in Atlantic Monthly (at the publisher’s request). A prominent factor in the New Negro’s struggle was that their work had been made out to be “different” or “exotic” to white audiences, making a necessity for black writers to appeal to them and compete with each other to get their work out. Famous black author and poet Langston Hughes explained that black-authored works were placed in a similar fashion to those of oriental or foreign origin, only being used occasionally in comparison to their white-made counterparts: once a spot for a black work was “taken”, black authors had to look elsewhere to publish.
Certain aspects of the Harlem Renaissance were accepted without debate, and without scrutiny. One of these was the future of the “New Negro”. Artists and intellectuals of the Harlem Renaissance echoed American progressivism in its faith in democratic reform, in its belief in art and literature as agents of change, and in its almost uncritical belief in itself and its future. This progressivist worldview rendered Black intellectuals—just like their White counterparts—unprepared for the rude shock of the Great Depression, and the Harlem Renaissance ended abruptly because of naive assumptions about the centrality of culture, unrelated to economic and social realities.
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Harlem Renaissance, a blossoming (c. 1918–37) of African American culture, particularly in the creative arts, and the most influential movement in African American literary history. Embracing literary, musical, theatrical, and visual arts, participants sought to reconceptualize “the Negro” apart from the white stereotypes that had influenced black peoples’ relationship to their heritage and to each other. They also sought to break free of Victorian moral values and bourgeois shame about aspects of their lives that might, as seen by whites, reinforce racist beliefs. Never dominated by a particular school of thought but rather characterized by intense debate, the movement laid the groundwork for all later African American literature and had an enormous impact on subsequent black literature and consciousness worldwide. While the renaissance was not confined to the Harlem district of New York City, Harlem attracted a remarkable concentration of intellect and talent and served as the symbolic capital of this cultural awakening.
What was the Harlem Renaissance?
Who were notable people of the Harlem Renaissance?
When did the Harlem Renaissance occur?
Why was the Harlem Renaissance significant?
The Harlem Renaissance was a phase of a larger New Negro movement that had emerged in the early 20th century and in some ways ushered in the civil rights movement of the late 1940s and early 1950s. The social foundations of this movement included the Great Migration of African Americans from rural to urban spaces and from South to North; dramatically rising levels of literacy; the creation of national organizations dedicated to pressing African American civil rights, “uplifting” the race, and opening socioeconomic opportunities; and developing race pride, including pan-African sensibilities and programs. Black exiles and expatriates from the Caribbean and Africa crossed paths in metropoles such as New York City and Paris after World War I and had an invigorating influence on each other that gave the broader “Negro renaissance” (as it was then known) a profoundly important international cast.
The Harlem Renaissance is unusual among literary and artistic movements for its close relationship to civil rights and reform organizations. Crucial to the movement were magazines such as The Crisis, published by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); Opportunity, published by the National Urban League; and The Messenger, a socialist journal eventually connected with the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, a black labour union. Negro World, the newspaper of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association, also played a role, but few of the major authors or artists identified with Garvey’s “Back to Africa” movement, even if they contributed to the paper.
The renaissance had many sources in black culture, primarily of the United States and the Caribbean, and manifested itself well beyond Harlem. As its symbolic capital, Harlem was a catalyst for artistic experimentation and a highly popular nightlife destination. Its location in the communications capital of North America helped give the “New Negroes” visibility and opportunities for publication not evident elsewhere. Located just north of Central Park, Harlem was a formerly white residential district that by the early 1920s was becoming virtually a black city within the borough of Manhattan. Other boroughs of New York City were also home to people now identified with the renaissance, but they often crossed paths in Harlem or went to special events at the 135th Street Branch of the New York Public Library. Black intellectuals from Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and other cities (where they had their own intellectual circles, theatres, and reading groups) also met in Harlem or settled there. New York City had an extraordinarily diverse and decentred black social world in which no one group could monopolize cultural authority. As a result, it was a particularly fertile place for cultural experimentation.
While the renaissance built on earlier traditions of African American culture, it was profoundly affected by trends—such as primitivism—in European and white American artistic circles. Modernist primitivism was inspired partly by Freudian psychology, but it tended to extol “primitive” peoples as enjoying a more direct relationship to the natural world and to elemental human desires than “overcivilized” whites. The keys to artistic revolution and authentic expression, some intellectuals felt, would be found in the cultures of “primitive races,” and preeminent among these, in the stereotypical thinking of the day, were the cultures of sub-Saharan Africans and their descendants. Early in the 20th century, European avant-garde artists had drawn inspiration from African masks as they broke from realistic representational styles toward abstraction in painting and sculpture. The prestige of such experiments caused African American intellectuals to look on their African heritage with new eyes and in many cases with a desire to reconnect with a heritage long despised or misunderstood by both whites and blacks.