The New Negro Renaissance

Maryemma Graham – University of Kansas

When Langston Hughes left his native Midwest to attend Columbia University in 1921, he was excited about his new school's location in the Harlem community. Hughes had already heard about a place that was the "Negro capital of the world," and he knew that if ever he wanted to be a writer, his career would have to begin in Harlem. Hughes would become one of the major figures in the New Negro Renaissance—or Harlem Renaissance, as it is familiarly known. After his arrival, he would never call anyplace else home, and in many ways Hughes typifies what the Renaissance meant and what it allowed. Today his residence at 20 East 127th Street continues to attract young writers committed to producing the kind of art that made Hughes famous.

The Renaissance was many things to many people, but it is best described as a cultural phenomenon in which the high level of black artistic and cultural production demanded and received mainstream recognition, where racial solidarity was equated with social progress, and where the idea of blackness became a commodity in its own right. As a result, the New Negro Renaissance is the most widely discussed period of African-American literary history not only because of ongoing scholarly debates over its origins, beginning, and end, but also because of its fundamental importance to twentieth-century thought and culture. The Renaissance coincided with the Jazz Age, the Roaring Twenties, and the Lost Generation, and its impact was keenly felt on an individual and collective level within the African-American community as well as on America's robust cultural industries, music, film, theater—all of which fully benefited from the creativity and newly discovered contributions of African Americans.

It remains the period to which we attribute the development, if not the birth, of every major artistic and literary form that we now associate with African-American life and culture. During the Renaissance African-American visual art came of age, and the list of names is a who's who in the field of modern black painting, sculpture, printmaking, and photography. Artists such as Aaron Douglas, William H. Johnson, Archibald Motley, Hale Woodruff, Lois Mailou Jones, Meta Warrick Fuller, Palmer Hayden, Richmond Barthé, Dox Thrash, Augusta Savage, Sargent Claude Johnson, Laura Wheeler Waring, Beauford Delaney, and James VanDerZee all belong to the period. Blacks appeared in films and on Broadway in popular musicals, frequently playing on stereotype and exaggeration, as in "Shuffle Along," "Coontown," "Darktown Follies," and "Blackbirds," but the first black filmmakers also emerged at this time, men like Oscar Micheaux, who produced more than thirty films, most of them between 1919 and 1935, during the height of the Renaissance.

The visibility and intensity of the period symbolized a major shift in the degree to which black people could and did claim the authority to speak about and represent themselves and their experience. Black business leaders like Madame C. J. Walker and others, owners of funeral homes, insurance companies, and newspapers helped to create a new black business base, just as organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and The Crisis magazine, the National Urban League, Garveyism, and the African Blood Brotherhood all made the needs and concerns of African-American migrants and black emigrants from other parts of the Diaspora known to all.


The Great Migration

By 1910 as a result of the Great Migration, the largest in U.S. history, African Americans and others started to arrive in large numbers in urban areas from many parts of the rural South. New York absorbed the largest numbers, but they also settled in Philadelphia, St. Louis, Chicago, Detroit, the Washington-Baltimore corridor, and other major cities that became identifiably black, often because racial discrimination restricted them to certain areas dubbed "ghettos." They came with their hopes and their dreams of a new and different life, seeking relief from labor exploitation and white violence. This applied even to those who had managed to get an education or who had served in the armed services, where their patriotism and valor abroad did not translate into employment opportunities upon returning home from war. Some came as the latest wave of immigrants from the Caribbean, Puerto Rico, and Cuba, to a country that appealed to their sense of dignity and worth, where their work ethic would help them advance. None could escape the race consciousness that bound together a people sharing a history of oppression.

Thrust between two world wars, inspired by an economic boom, and surrounded by an atmosphere of artistic revolt, blacks became a collective, critical mass whose culture and spirit were quickly recognized for newness and difference . . . and for financial rewards. Those who came did not represent a blank slate, for they brought with them dynamic cultural forms that could now find full expression. Although they were forced to adapt during their enslavement, there was a visible link to their African heritage, one that had sustained them through far more difficult times. It was left to the young artists who joined this mass exodus from the South and those who supported them to build upon this foundation of creativity and expressive culture, which quickly gained access to mainstream networks of distribution, albeit controlled by others. The art was unique because it was drawn directly from a communal lifestyle, the rituals, folk, oral, and musical customs of Africa, which held the memory and often the form of the original. It was unique also because it had developed for the most part in isolation, apart from the mainstream, transforming and adapting the very culture that sought to suppress it.

These New Negro Renaissance art forms were innovative, experimental, and intentional: the most recognized black leaders believed this production would permit a people to transcend racial difference, that their excellence in the artistic domain would ensure their acceptance into the human race in no uncertain terms. They would, or so they thought, finally receive the full benefits of America's promised democracy. One of their wisest was perhaps more realistic. The art, like the vision that inspired it, would exhibit a characteristic double consciousness, said the venerable W. E. Du Bois in Souls of Black Folk. He knew their hopes and dreams might not be fulfilled, that they might forever be those "two unreconciled strivings…two warring souls…in one dark body."

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Mixing Various Traditions

Various failed expectations notwithstanding, the achievements of the Harlem Renaissance remain highly significant and figure prominently in subsequent developments. Most important, perhaps, it is possible to highlight ways in which artists, intellectuals, and socially conscious individuals used their newfound authority to mark a shift in a highly diversified field of artistic expression. The best example may be in literature, where both African-American and Caribbean-born transplants exhibited extraordinary talent. Novels published after 1910 show their authors drawing on three distinct traditions, including British Romanticism, American experimentalism, and black folk (vernacular) culture.

The results of this union varied widely in terms of theme, stylistic innovation, and meaning. Poets could embrace the conventional styles of genteel poetry, as Countee Cullen did for Color, Copper Sun, Caroling Dusk, and The Ballad of the Brown Girl; or as Georgia Douglas Johnson did in The Heart of a Woman and Bronze. Although Jamaican-born Claude McKay wrote traditional Romantic poetry in Harlem Shadow, he did not abandon his connection to the African-American experience, a point he made clear in "If We Must Die," his best-known poem. Still others sought to retain a strong presence of a black folk tradition, a tradition that was itself undergoing transformation from its southern rural roots into an urban vernacular. Langston Hughes, the most prolific Renaissance writer, led the way by applying these forms to formal written expression. His early reputation for poetic radicalism in form and content rests on his first volume, The Weary Blues, which appeared at the height of the Renaissance, in 1926. Hughes borrowed the blues matrix to create a new aesthetic and became the "Negro Poet Laureate." He always remained in touch with the "low down folk," whose experiences were at the heart of his poetry and prose. One of his most memorable characters is Mrs. Alberta K. Johnson, the brutally honest Harlem tenant in the landlord poems, among other Harlem familiars. Most important, there was Jesse B. Semple, his most successful creation, a legendary everyman through whom Hughes could address a wide range of concerns in his Chicago's Daily Defender newspaper column. Though never critically acclaimed during his own lifetime, Hughes was perhaps the most representative writer to emerge from the New Negro Renaissance because of his work in and beyond the period and his sustained commitment to an art for the people.

Many Renaissance writers felt some ambivalence about the use of the black vernacular as well as an obligation to maintain the separation between high and low art, an issue that continues to be debated. How to confront questions of race generally had to be more nuanced and subtle as well. James Weldon Johnson, who became known for his fictional and ironic Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, transformed Negro dialect sermons into a volume of poetry, God's Trombones, demonstrating that the features of black oral performance could be adapted to standard English poetry. Sterling Brown and Zora Neale Hurston, both leaders in black folklore, found ways to make art reflect their academic research. Brown produced a poetry volume entitled Southern Road, and Hurston sought to transmit the traditions of southern black folk, traditions she believed were in danger of being lost. Hurston's novels Their Eyes Were Watching God, and Moses, Man of the Mountain are in the tradition of the folk novel, saturated with black folk speech and oral practices, but call our attention to the sharp distinction between what was viewed as high and low culture. Similarly, Haitian-born Jacques Roumain made the lives of toiling laborers and peasants of Haiti, known through his novel Masters of the Dew. Attitudes toward southern black rural culture, which many believed was too closely associated with the "low culture" of slavery, were complex indeed. As a result, Hurston would have to wait for nearly seventy years before receiving the critical acclaim she well deserved.

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Social Class and Gender

New Negro Renaissance writers of fiction demonstrated a similar ambivalence in their representation of social class and gender. The sentimental romances of Jessie Redmon Fauset, There Is Confusion, Plum Bun, and Comedy, American Style, expose larger questions about identity, connect race to social status and gender—issues that often hark back to miscegenation. Nella Larsen brought the question of color to the surface in her novels Quicksand and especially in Passing. Wallace Thurman, however, chose to use satire to tackle color questions in his novel The Blacker the Berry: A Novel of Negro Life. Key moments from black Diaspora history appear in novels like Arna Bontemps's Black Thunder. Claude McKay, who had already established himself as a poet, wrote Home to Harlem and Banjo, showing the connection between the Caribbean and the United States.

Although he was not personally connected to the New Negro Renaissance or to the spirit of the age, Jean Toomer produced one of the most heralded works of the period. While Hughes was an experimental writer working within self-contained modes, Toomer's Cane is a series of lyrical narratives that blur the boundaries between poetry, fiction, and drama. What makes Cane different, especially from the work of leading white experimental writers, is its unique blend of traditional black folk culture's ethos, which Toomer was discovering for the first time, and the improvisational techniques of jazz. Toomer set a new standard in terms of literary innovation and for a long time was the only African-American writer considered by mainstream critics to be a true "modernist." But it was Hughes's phenomenal output that has had a far greater impact on readers and writers in his own and subsequent generations.

All the Renaissance writers shared a concern with a sense of place, capturing the peculiar flavor of the regions their characters inhabited, the dialects and customs, dress and landscape. The characters were sometimes social outcasts, either because of their lack of education or gentility, and hence they could be more easily accepted by the average member of the middle class and, perhaps more important, by the large number of white readers who were embracing black literature for the first time. What folk novelists understood and projected was that one could locate the universal within the local, and reaffirm all of humanity through the lived experience of black folk.

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Short Stories and Theater

The short story allowed Renaissance writers to display the regional diversity of the period. Marita Bonner and Dorothy West were among the most astute observers of African American life, making significant contributions to the form. Although Bonner began writing plays as a regular member of Georgia Douglas Johnson's S Street Salon in Washington, D.C., she is known primarily for the stories she wrote after moving to Chicago in 1926, stories later collected as Fry Street & Environs. Frye Street is the name Bonner gave the imaginary Chicago locale where her characters experienced social and emotional disintegration, reconstruction, and community solidarity in their efforts to survive in a new urban environment.

Similarly, Dorothy West chose her native Boston to explore the social and racial environment in her stories and later in The Living Is Easy, a novel about color consciousness that was published in 1948, long after the Renaissance was thought to be over. West continued to write short stories well into her eighties, since it had been the form that earned her a prestigious award in the 1920s when she lived in Harlem. Women are her focus, their lives and challenges, which she described with a high degree of skill and nuance. West was very much aware of the role that the Renaissance played for her generation. She founded and edited New Challenge (1937–38), a magazine that she hoped would "revive the spirit of the Renaissance," as she stated in the inaugural issue.

Less talked about as a product of the New Negro Renaissance is drama, which had to take a backseat to the vastly popular black musicals, written by white authors and performed by all-black casts. Serious black drama had to compete for a place in this commercial environment that continued as a highly lucrative form of white entertainment—and black employment—during the period. Having grown so accustomed to black comedic and/or musical stage performances, white audiences did not find it easy—nor did American theater—to acknowledge black life as subjects for serious drama. Nevertheless, Renaissance playwrights existed: Katherine Davis Tillman, Helene Johnson, Willis Richardson, and Randolph Edmonds were among the many who would wait until the creation of the Works Progress Administration's Federal Theatre Project in the mid-1930s to find an audience. Other more established Renaissance writers—Arna Bontemps, Rudolph Fisher, Wallace Thurman, and Langston Hughes—saw their plays, written earlier, produced through the support of the WPA as well.

However, off-Broadway, regional theater, and the theater and drama departments at historically black colleges all provided solid venues for black theater, which was one of the important ways in which the New Negro Renaissance extended itself after it all but disappeared from the main centers of urban America.

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The Music

Developments in black music were somewhat more successful because of the high demand for black talented performers like Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Ethel Waters, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, and Ma Rainey. New York nightclubs regularly featured black musicians, whose innovations in jazz represented America's first original music form. Black women vocalists also found success as the music industry quickly discovered the commercial advantages of race music, a phenomenon that turned out to be a double-edged sword. White record owners actively recruited women performers, many desperate to sing the new blues music, straight from the South. They recorded their songs and were then paid little to go on tour promoting the music that was now on vinyl, a new technology that radicalized music production. Women especially were subjected to the worst conditions as they traveled to the South, where segregation in public accommodations prevented them from enjoying any of the benefits afforded entertainers.

Nor was black music limited to secular music forms, for the Renaissance saw a range of black musical performance; the classical music of Roland Hayes, Paul Robeson, and Marian Anderson was introduced to the world during the era. A new urban sensibility also demanded a new sound; it came in the form of gospel music that began to emerge from the storefronts serving as worship centers for newly arriving blacks. These were typical of the kinds of adjustments that were made in a community experiencing the disruptions of migration, where space was at a premium but the need for community was no less great.

While the New Negro Renaissance was not a single phenomenon or located in a single location, it had its most visible expression in Harlem. It is considered by many as the "golden age" of black art because of level of cultural production that was achieved. Its role as a catalyst for great art within the period and beyond cannot be overestimated.

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