Writers Of The Harlem Renaissance During the 1920’s, a “flowering of creativity,” as many have called it, began to sweep the nation. The movement, now known as “The Harlem Renaissance,” caught like wildfire. Harlem, a part of Manhattan in New York City, became a hugely successful showcase for African American talent. Starting with black literature, the Harlem Renaissance quickly grew to incredible proportions. W.E.B.
Du Bois, Claude McKay, and Langston Hughes, along with many other writers, experienced incredible popularity, respect, and success. Art, music, and photography from blacks also flourished, resulting in many masterpieces in all mediums. New ideas began to take wings among circles of black intellectuals. The Renaissance elevated black works to a high point. Beyond simply encouraging creativity and thought in the African American community, the writers of the Harlem Renaissance completely revolutionized the identity of African American society as a whole, leading black culture from slavery to its current place in America today.
There was no single cause which produced the Harlem Renaissance, but there are several historical developments which paved the way. The first set of contributing factors deal with the cultural background of Harlem from 1900 to 1920. At the turn of the century, Harlem first began to emerge as a distinctly black community. As black population increased, African American culture came to the surface and blacks started to hold prominent roles in this self-motivated community. This afro-centric atmosphere of Harlem appealed to many southern blacks, and as a result, “the Great Migration of southern rural blacks to the north began in 1915” (Haskins 15). Blacks left segregation-endorsing southern states to find newly opened jobs and opportunities in the north. This migration so greatly affected New York that, according to Negroes in the U.S., by 1930 over 52% of Manhattan’s black residents had migrated from South Atlantic states. This migration set the stage for a diverse and interesting Harlem flavor, which led to the Renaissance.
A second cluster of factors contributing to the Renaissance concerns the development of a sense of empowered community among black culture in the “twenties” and the preceding decade. The African American churches played a large role not only in religious thought, but also in building community and self-awareness among blacks. Organizations such as the Negro YMCA and African American lodges and social clubs began to emerge and flourish. In 1909 and 1910, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Urban League were formed. In 1916, Marcus Garvey began the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), which stressed nationalism among blacks and “urged blacks to be proud of their color and to build social and economic institutions of their own” (Haskins 29).
Although different in some of their ideals, these organizations led to black nationalism and community. The prohibition movement also contributed to a broadening awareness of emerging black culture, since prohibition led to illegal sales of alcohol and the flocking of both whites and blacks to the clubs of Harlem. This in turn led to a white interest in black culture, music, and literature. Another community builder for African Americans was the 1917 East St. Louis Massacre and the increase in lynching incidents, which led to thousands of blacks marching in New York to protest the actions of the whites in the anti-black riot. This event showed whites the strong presence of blacks in New York and opened the eyes of the African American community to see their strength in numbers and the power of a unified goal.
Behind every great movement in history, there are men and women who made their mark. So also the story of the Harlem Renaissance cannot be told without reference to some of the contributors. Carl Van Vechten, one of the few white authors associated with the movement, generated interest in the African American subculture of Harlem by publishing the very upsetting novel, Nigger Heaven. Almost all readers, both black and white, were offended, but the book helped the movement gain steam, and encouraged white interest in the culture of Harlem. W.E.B.
Du Bois, founder of the NAACP, writer, and editor of The Crisis magazine, advocated pride in the black heritage and endorsed many other young black writers. Alain Locke, who graduated from Harvard and Oxford, was the primary analyst and advisor for the movement. James Weldon Johnson both contributed to the success of many other writers and wrote many fine works of his own, including “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which later became known as the Negro National Anthem. These men can be considered founding fathers of the movement because, beyond their own literary works, they did numerous other things contributing to the Renaissance’s success. They pursued the philosophical goal of the movement and pushed for black expression and thought. They “exerted considerable influence ..
and control over aspiring black writers” and “served chiefly as critics, advisors, and liaisons between the younger black writers and the white literary establishment” (Wintz 2). Many leading authors of the movement played a key part in its results. The writers of the Harlem Renaissance showed a distinct black style and form. Claude McKay played a significant role in the beginning of the movement, publishing poems and stories on various subjects and writing the first black-authored bestseller of the time, a novel entitled Home to Harlem. Countee Cullen was an influential poet in the movement, known for his incredible lyrics.
He had been raised in Harlem and was highly esteemed among the elevated circles in New York. Jessie Fauset, a close friend of Du Bois and fellow editor of The Crisis, wrote mainly about upper class blacks, but is perhaps best known as the mentor of Jean Toomer. Toomer was a sensation with his early works in The Liberator and The Crisis, but following the 1923 publication of his novel, Cane, Toomer quickly faded to obscurity. Zora Neale Hurston, possibly the best known female poet of the time, based many of her works on folklore and won many literary awards. Langston Hughes, the most famous overall poet of the Harlem Renaissance, was known for his creativity and expression.
He won numerous awards and was able to sustain his literary career even after the movement had ended. As the Depression came, the Harlem Renaissance gradually ended. However, the ongoing effects of the movement are the reason the Harlem Renaissance has been described as revolutionary. The literature of the movement was one of its main accomplishments. One thing it immediately accomplished for American literature was to create a platform for new ideas.
Although the Renaissance’s literature was not intended to be primarily political, it did boldly confront political themes in its poetry and fiction. Renaissance authors “addressed issues of race, class, religion, and gender” (The Harlem Renaissance 2). One example was McKay’s response to race riots, which he voiced in his 1919 poem “If we Must Die.” James Weldon Johnson, Langston Hughes, and Arna Bontemps also wrote protest poems. Hughes’ poems of protest in the 1930’s went as far as to rally behind the communist societal ideals of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. Racial themes were a constant in the literatu …