Professor Cary Wintz
Department of History
Texas Southern University
Dr. Kelly A. Woestman
Professor of History and History Education
Pittsburg (KS) State University
Duke Ellington, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Langston Hughes are familiar names to many, but some do not realize that they were each part of an era much larger than themselves and that each contributed to changing not only the nation's cultural landscape but its political and cultural environments as well. Beginning about the time that World War I ended and lasting through the Great Depression until the early years of World War II, the Harlem Renaissance was characterized by a somewhat sudden burst of energy that ultimately brought African-American creative works into the American mainstream as well as the world's cultural heritage. Inherently a diverse movement not only of styles and approaches, the Harlem Renaissance allowed the entire nation to express itself in new ways while further opening the door to civil rights for African Americans and some hope for ultimate equality within the world in which they lived. Based in Harlem, the era also manifested itself in numerous venues throughout the nation, including but not limited to the blues and jazz world of Kansas City, Missouri and New Orleans, blues in Memphis and Chicago, and literary and artistic activity in Los Angeles, Washington, DC, and Chicago—in fact the Harlem Renaissance resonated in African American communities across the country. Still Harlem was the center of this activity, and virtually every African American in the creative arts came to Harlem or passed through during the interwar period.
Fundamental to the nature of the Harlem Renaissance was not only the diversity of artistic expression of the artists associated with the movement, but their political diversity as well. Beyond the desire to give voice to their artistic vision, and to address through their art the African American experience, there was no common ideology or stylistic model that defined the movement. The glue that bound the artists together was a sense, sometimes strong, sometimes weak, that they were participating in a unique era in African American arts and culture.
Also, it is equally important to recognize that the creative energies of African Americans covered the entire spectrum of the creative arts: literature; painting, sculpture, and the visual arts; music and musical theater; theater; dance; and film. For this discussion we are confining ourselves to literature, and within literature we are focusing on poetry and short essays.
Before you continue reading the components of this lesson, please review the overview essay on the Harlem Renaissance.
I. The role of art and literature in the Harlem Renaissance.
The lack of a cohesive ideology of African American writers and intellectuals meant that there was considerable disagreement about the role of art and literature in the African American community. Simply put, the question was: should the African American artist be free to follow his or her artistic vision regardless of where this vision led the artist, or did African Americans artists have a special responsibility to use their art to further the African struggle for equal rights? This was a very complex issue with no easy answer.
Hughes, Langston. "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain". The Nation, June 23, 1926.
Du Bois, W. E. B. "Criteria of Negro Art." The Crisis, October 1926.
Questions for Discussion:
- What is the responsibility of the African American artist to his race according to Langston Hughes and according to W. E. B. Du Bois?
- How does each of these individuals justify his position on this issue?
- Is there common ground in their arguments that could be used to develop a position regarding the role and responsibility of the African American artist that would satisfy both Hughes and Du Bois?
II. Poetry and politics.
In spite of the tendency of Harlem Renaissance poets to eschew propaganda and elevate art over politics, the racial situation was so difficult in the interwar period that art and politics frequently became entangled. Among the events that stimulated an artistic response were the Chicago Race Riot of 1919 and the Scottsboro Incident of the July 1931. The first was perhaps the worst outbreak of racial violence that spread through the United States during the so-called Red Summer of 1919. The Chicago Riot, as well as most other race riots of this period, was characterized by armed white mobs invading black neighborhoods and inflicting violence on blacks and their property. The Scottsboro Incident began in 1931 in Alabama when nine black teenagers were arrested and accused of sexually assaulting two white women. The trials, appeals, and retrials lasted through the 1930s and illustrated the difficulty of African Americans receiving justice in the courts of the segregated South.
The poems are:
- McKay, Claude. "If We Must Die." [Written in 1919 in response to the 1919 race riot in Chicago.]
- Hughes, Langston Hughes. "Christ in Alabama." [Written in response to Scottsboro.]
Questions for Discussion:
- To what degree did poets McKay and Hughes each specifically address the details of the incident they protested in their poem? Was the manner in which they chose to address the incident effective or ineffective?
- How successful was each of these poems in addressing the problems that African Americans faced in the period from 1919 to 1940? In what ways did they fail to effectively address these problems?
- What is the difference in the style, content, and tone of these two poems? Which of the two poems is more effective as a protest poem; which is more effective as simply a poem?
III. The complex role of women in the Harlem Renaissance.
Next we'll turn to an often overlooked group of artists working during the era of the Harlem Renaissance—women. For many years, both during and after the Harlem Renaissance, the involvement of women in, and their contribution to, this movement was largely ignored by contemporary writers and critics. Men dominated our perception of the Harlem Renaissance, both as participants (Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Wallace Thurman, James Weldon Johnson, and others) and as the promoters and critics of the movement (W. E. B. Du Bois, Charles S, Johnson, Alain Locke, and James Weldon Johnson). Fortunately, by the 1970s and 1980s scholars and a number of African American writers began to acknowledge the significant role that women played in the movement. Today, Zora Neale Hurston is regarded as perhaps the most talented black writer of the period; Nella Larsen has risen from obscurity and become the subject of two biographies; and other women writers have emerged from the shadows. Still controversy surrounds African American women writers, even Zora Neal Hurston.
To examine the role of women writers we will focus on two, Zora Neal Hurston and Jessie Fauset, and we will look at the treatment of each in recent biographical essays.
Read the following essays available on AASC:
- Crisis, The: A Record Of The Darker Races, edited by William Pencak. In Encyclopedia of African American History, 1896 to the Present: From the Age of Segregation to the Twenty-first Century, edited by Paul Finkelman. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. [Especially the section on the Harlem Renaissance.]
- Fauset, Jessie Redmon, by Carolyn Wedin. In Encyclopedia of African American History, 1896 to the Present: From the Age of Segregation to the Twenty-first Century, edited by Paul Finkelman. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.
- Fauset, Jessie Redmon, by Thadious M. Davis. In Black Women in America, 2d ed., edited by Darlene Clark Hine. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
- Hurston, Zora Neale, by Susan Butterworth. In The Oxford Encyclopedia of American Literature, vol. 2. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
- Hurston, Zora Neale, by Oluwa Tosin Adegbola. In Encyclopedia of African American History, 1896 to the Present: From the Age of Segregation to the Twenty-first Century, edited by Paul Finkelman. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.
Questions for Discussion:
- What was the contribution of these women to the Harlem Renaissance? In which ways were their contributions similar, and in which ways were they different?
- Both of these women were treated harshly by critics, especially black critics, both during the Harlem Renaissance and for many years afterward. What were the principal criticisms that each writer faced? How did the criticisms they each faced differ?
- What was the relationship of each of these two women writers to the male writers of the Harlem Renaissance? How did they differ in their relationships with their male counterparts? To what degree did each play a different role in the Harlem Renaissance than did their male counterparts?