The Harlem Renaissance

The Harlem Renaissance was a renewal and flourishing of black culture, art, music and social activism during the years after World War I which started approximately around 1917 and ended around 1935, in the Harlem section of New York City. The period was originally called the “New Negro Movement.” African-Americans used the arts to display their humanity and push for equality. Many famous figures began publishing novels, magazines, and newspapers during this era. Even mainstream publishing houses provided more opportunities for black writers to be exposed to a national and global audience. One such writer is Langston Hughes, who became one of the most important writers of the Harlem Renaissance, and his literary works have help shape African-American lives from the time he wrote and down to the present.

There were many brave pioneers who made it possible for the Harlem Renaissance to be so effective and for it to become a significant and historical movement. George C. Wright states that the major participants in the Harlem Renaissance inspired others through their love of arts. One of the most inspirational authors of the Harlem Renaissance was Langston Hughes. Hughes was a popular poet, novelist, playwright, and columnist who wrote on African American freedom, and equality, and other aspects of black involvement in American political life and culture. Charles S. Johnson and E. Franklin Frazier, sociologists and strong advocates for the advancement of the African American civil rights movement, also encouraged blacks in the Harlem Renaissance. Charles S. Johnson, an editor, influenced blacks during this time through a magazine called Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life. He used this magazine to support young black writers and to elevate themselves. E. Franklin Frazier studied in Clark University with a scholarship in sociology, later became the Director of School of Social Work in Atlanta. He wrote the article, “A Note on Negro Education,” with the “aim . . . to evaluate the past education of the Negro in relation to the culture complex in which he has been placed, and indicate the direction its future development should take” (Johnson & Carter, 1923). Rudolph Fisher, known for several things but mostly for being a radiologist and writer, influenced through arts during the Harlem Renaissance. Fisher is significant in the Harlem Renaissance for being the first black writer to publish in The Atlantic Monthly. His article entitled, “The City of Refuge”. Fisher’s short stories offers, “vibrant tales that deal with the problems faced by newcomers to the city, ancestor figures who struggle to instill a sense of integrity in the young, problems of violence and vengeance, and tensions of caste and class” (Fisher, 1987).

Lastly, but only among the many more successful African Americans during this time, is Hubert T. Delaney, a judge and an advocate for the civil rights movement who only inclined the Harlem Renaissance to make more essential. However, these few people that have been identified here have been influenced by other important pioneers. In a speech in 1903 W. E. B Dubois. He encouraged the whole African-American citizenry. He said that for blacks to become successful in this dominant culture’s society, they had to pursue higher education. In his essay, “The Talented Tenth,” also published in 1903, he asserts that a few exceptional men, “the talented tenth,” would lead African-Americans towards a civilization based on racial equality, “The Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men. The problem of education, then, among Negroes must first of all deal with the Talented Tenth; it is the problem of developing the Best of its race that they may guide the Mass away from the contamination and death of the Worst, in their own and other races” (Du Bois, n.p.). Du Bois explains that, in order to generate these persons, “[t]he best and most capable of their youth must be schooled in the colleges and universities of the land” (Du Bois, n.p). He believed that institutions of higher education will cultivate the talented tenth. These, in turn, he believed will create a firm group to challenge the racial problems in America. Black people took his speech into consideration and interpreted it in different ways. Black advocates and activists, and pioneers of the Harlem Renaissance such as Langston Hughes, Charles S. Johnson, E. Franklin Frazier, Rudolph Fisher, and Hubert T. Delaney used what W.E.B Dubois said. They educated other blacks in the community to be the best they could be. Not only did they say it, but they said it through their actions. They showed the black community and the world that African-American could succeed and fit into the dominant society.

The Harlem Renaissance allowed African Americans to express their ideas and feelings through music and literature, but it also gave African-Americans a greater sense of self. In actuality blacks did not know who they were. Fresh out of slavery, not really knowing the ins and outs of the real world and of life, but only knowing the condition of being someone else’s property they were in a search of identity as a culture, community, and member of society. They knew who they were to someone else, but they did not know who they were to themselves. The Harlem Renaissance is essential to history because it heleped African-Americans to find themselves. It gave them the opportunity to find out who that person really was. After a person goes through something it can be hard to gain strength, and during the time of struggle one can lose their way and themselves. So, therefore identity really needed to be found because they were the inferior and the minority of society who did not “fit in” so to speak. The legacy of the Harlem Renaissance helped redefine how the world viewed AfricanAmericans, morphing from a stereotypical under-educated to a more educated and sophisticated image. This new identity led to AfricanAmericans becoming players on the world stage.

Langston Hughes was a pioneers who preferred to depict black life without any restraints. First of all, and most significantly, Hughes was the most talented writer with regard to the integration and portrayal of the African heritage. As mentioned earlier he was a popular poet, novelist, playwright, and columnist, who wrote on African American freedom and equality. Hughes became most famous for his poems that were mostly about blues, jazz, and other African-American music styles. Hughes, like Du Bois, considered colored citizens to be both African and American. As a result, he attempted to represent the African heritage in a realistic manner, rather than overemphasizing them as earlier writers had done with old stereotypes. On the other hand, he also accentuated the American identity of his characters, by situating them in a realistic, modern context. In other words, he reconciled African heritage with American culture and in that way presented full African-American citizens. Hughes writes exceptionally and with great respect about the authentic aspects of black life. What is more, he includes lower-class experiences in his work regardless of the possible negative social effects. He hoped that whites would finally perceive blacks as humans.

Hughes known as the leader of the Harlem Renaissance, moved to East 86th street Cleveland with his mother and step-father after his early years in Missouri, Kansas and Illinois. He began to write in earnest in the third-floor attic of the colonial home. He even continued [to] live there after his mother and stepfather left Cleveland, and attended famed Central High School in 1916 and ’17” (DeMarco, 2018).

Hughes wrote for the school newspaper, and started writing his plays, poems and short stories while living in Cleveland. DeMarco added that “he wrote the love poem “When Sue Wears Red,” [his] first “jazz poem” while a student at Central” (2018). While in Cleveland, Hughes also attended classes at the influential Karamu House, African-American theater and settlement house – in what turned out to be a long relationship with the theater. He later repaid the favor by returning to Karamu often to have his works premiered (2018).

In 1926, Hughes’s essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” which illuminates his ideas about literature, was published in The Nation. This text is considered the manifesto of the younger generation of writers, as it summarizes the main arguments of their shared ideology. Hughes himself asserts that “this is the mountain standing in the way of any true Negro art in America–this urge within the race toward whiteness, the desire to pour racial individuality into the mold of American standardization, and to be as little Negro and as much American as possible” (Hughes, 1926). As explained in class, the black elite adopts as many white features as possible, since supposedly any semblance of whiteness will help them become accepted in a white supremacist society. Hughes, on the other hand, feels more sympathy for the “low-down folks” who “furnish a wealth of colorful, distinctive material for any artist because they still hold their own individuality in the face of American standardizations” (Hughes, 1926). Unmistakably, Hughes wanted to write poetry that made people conscious of their race and of the existing social situation. However, he simply refuses to eliminate this group of African- Americans from his writings, since they remain truest to their culture and express pure authenticity. Hughes also explains his motives for writing about jazz and other black music, stating that “jazz to me is one of the inherent expressions of Negro life in America; the eternal tom-tom beating in the Negro soul–the tom-tom of revolt against weariness in a white world. . .; the tom-tom of joy and laughter, and pain swallowed in a smile” (Hughes, 1926). The writer thus encourages blacks to cherish their cultural distinctiveness. They should be proud of their Negro soul and not suppress it with white desires.

Hughes’s “Not Without Laughter” primarily deals with Sandy, a dark young boy who gradually becomes an adolescent and discovers the implications of his racial identity. He grows up in Stanton, a small rural town, in the proximity of four women who each have a specific influence on him. The community of Stanton is visibly divided into two groups of inhabitants. While the poor African-Americans live in wooden shacks, the prosperous whites, such as Mrs. Rice, reside in “the long residential street, with its large houses sitting in green shady lawns far back from the sidewalk” (Hughes, 46). Accordingly, there exists racial inequality among the population, which furthermore reveals itself in the social relationships. Sandy’s mother Annjee, for example, works as a maid in the household of Mrs. Rice and declares that “[w]hite folks sure is a case! . . . So, spoiled with colored folks waiting on ’em all their days! Don’t know what they’ll do in heaven, ’cause I’m gonna sit down up there myself” (Hughes, 47). Her statement indicates that whites still perceive blacks, to some extent, as their inferior servants. Although slavery has been abolished many years before, it continues to exist, though less violently and altered with regard to the tasks and social relationships.

The Harlem Renaissance is still in effect today’s generation. Not saying literally but it has rolled over into today’s generation one could say. The music that the 21st century generation listens to and the poetry that this generation is involved in has stemmed from the Harlem Renaissance. If it were not for the people who came before the people who are still doing it now, the arts which include literature and music, would be influencing or important but not as important, because then there would be less meaning behind them. It is like doing something with no motive. It is known ultimately as the Harlem Renaissance and it uplifted the African-American race through music and literature. Hughes expresses what he holds to be the task and attitude of the modern writers: “We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark- skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it [does not] matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too. The tom-tom cries and the tom-tom laughs. If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure [does not] matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves” (Hughes, 1926). This fragment comes from the concluding paragraphs of his “the Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” which contains one of the strongest arguments in defense of his literary ideology. According to Hughes, it does not matter how or in what context colored people are portrayed, as long as the representation is truthful and presents African-Americans as real human beings with their own authentic culture. Furthermore, writers must not care about any criticism regarding themes or imageries, since their chief task consists of depicting their fellow citizens in the most realistic and aesthetic manner. For Hughes, this modern literary approach is the only way to surpass prejudiced racial categories and to reach the mountaintop.

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