Harlem Renaissance

The Harlem Renaissance Period (1919-1940) included many outstanding features and
writers which made for a wonderful cache of literary works by African American
writers. There was an unprecidented variety and scope of publications by African

Americans which brought about a new sense of purpose, confidence, and
achievement unusual to many black artists due to thier troubled history. This
led to thier irresistable impulse to create boldly expressive art of high
quality. The 1920's saw the first significant amount of publishing of works by
black artists since the turn of the century. Migration to the north seemed a
necessity due to the more and more intolerable hiring conditions for blacks in
the south. Industrial expansion and jobs left open by whites now serving in WWI
saw many blacks moving into the seriously overbuilt Harlem which was origionally
built for middle-class and upper-middle-class whites. It was soon labled the
"Negro capital of the world" by James Weldon Johnson, a prominent
writer and civil rights leader of the times, and thus soon became the
headquarters of such powerful groups as the NAACP, the National Urban League,
and Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association. During this period
of migration, several magazines and newspapers strived toward a kind of
"coming of age" for the black culture. The early 1920's also saw a
breakthrough for African Americans on the stage by finally having plays that
showed the complex humanity of blacks. James Weldon Johnson is much quoted in
relation to the uprising of the negro culture. He wrote that what the new black
artists needed to do was to find "a form expressing the imagery, the
idioms, the peculiar turns of thought, and the distinctive humor and
pathos" of the African American culture. There were many writers that
dominated the movement including Arna Bontemps, Wallace Thurman, Zora Neale

Hurston, Rudolph Fisher, Gwendolyn Bennett, Helene Johnson, her cousin Dorothy

West. Also much noted were Countee Cullen, who grew up in the city, and Langston

Hughes, who grew up in Kansas. Hughes came to the city on the pretext of going
to school, but swore that he really came for Harlem itself. Hughes tended to be
very blunt and straight-forward in his works, but one example, Dreams, shows an
uncommonly tender side: Hold fast to dreams For if dreams die Life is a
broken-winged bird That cannot fly. Hold fast to dreams For when dreams go Life
is a barren field Frozen with snow. Another publication which helped to define
the emerging spirit of the movement was The New Negro, a 1925 anthology edited
by Howard University professor Alain Locke. It combined stories, poems, essays,
and artwork by writers old and young, white and black, and defined the spirit of
the Harlem Renaissance with uncomparable clarity and flair. Many black writers
during the Harlem renaissance were at the mercy of white patrons. Two of the
most noted patrons were Carl Van Vechten and Charlotte Osgood Mason. Numerous
publishers and editors also played a quieter but still effective role in
breaking down the barriers between black writers and the major means of
publication in the United States. Occupational and generational tensions became
a significant part of the movement. Hughes once observed rather wryly that
almost all of the masses of blacks didn't even realize that the Harlem

Renaissance was going on around them. The essence of the renaissance to most of
the younger artists was freedom -- freedom to create origional, personal
expressions of art, without regard to politics. There was much growth and change
throughout the 1920's which led to a decisive shift, around 1928, from poetry to
fiction among the field of African American writers. After the crash of Wall

Street in 1929, the Great Depression of the early 30's was the movement toward
the end of the Harlem Renaissance which had depended on the prosperity of the
publishing industry, theater, and art world. In looking back on the Harlem

Renaissance of the 20's and 30's, there were so many contributing factors that
characterized this period of time as the true renaissance that it was for

African Americans in the United States. We should all rejoice in the amazing
work that was created during that time in our history.