Black Writers Tell It on the Mountain

by Jayne Karsten

Manuscript of "Harlem" by Langston Hughes.

The literature of the Harlem Renaissance underscores the complexity of cultural issues faced by African Americans in the first part of the 20th century. Harlem had absorbed a surge of black population migrating from the rural South in the antebellum period of the Civil War. Black soldiers returning from World War I and upscale, well-educated urban blacks added diverse threads in the Harlem population. A search for identity and acceptance within the post-war white establishment became a central mission of many in this eclectic African-American community. How best to achieve this produced tensions within the literati of Harlem. The attempt to broker these tensions is dramatically mirrored in the literature of the Harlem Renaissance.

The early part of the Harlem Renaissance literary movement was initiated by the "Talented Tenth," an elite group of well-educated black professionals who argued that the mission of establishing black identity and thus gaining social acceptance and economic and political stability would be vitally strengthened through arts and letters. Prevailing, at first, was the vision of W. E. B. Du Bois that art expression, and especially literature, could capture such aspects of the African-American heritage as the visual patterns in African art, the uplifting emotional context of spirituality, and the rich narratives of folk tradition. An established black identity, contoured to project a noble, sophisticated persona, would allow African Americans to operate effectively within the framework of the white establishment, meeting whites on equal terms.

Writer and editor Jessie Fauset.

A formal campaign to launch and support literary efforts was undertaken by the Talented Tenth. African-American newspapers and magazines published black manuscripts, created literary awards, courted white patrons, and initiated contacts with writers in the Greenwich Village crowd. (See Harlem Newsstand for more on the influence of New York publications.) A surge of success followed. An astounding group of talent emerged. Young African-American writers mingled in the high culture of the salons of well-established Harlem professionals and interacted with well-known white writers and publishers.

Among the young African-American writers were such names as Countee Cullen, Zora Neale Hurston, Jessie Fauset, Arna Bontemps, Jean Toomer, Claude McKay, and Langston Hughes. Cullen, a New York University Phi Beta Kappa graduate with an M.A. from Harvard, won a Guggenheim Fellowship. Hurston completed her degree from Barnard College on a scholarship. Fauset, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Cornell University, wrote the first of the Renaissance novels and published several more. Bontemps won an Alexander Pushkin Award for poetry and eventually taught at Yale University. McKay, born in Jamaica, was also drawn in to the Greenwich Village circles, and became co-editor of Max Eastman's The Liberator. Hughes, graduate of Lincoln University, became one of America's most valued and celebrated writers of poetry and fiction.

Langston Hughes at his typewriter.

The first part of the Renaissance movement generated a wealth of poetry, short stories, and novels. With little exception, these writings were shaped to effect the goals of the Talented Tenth, projecting an image of what one scholar called the "representative" African American. Langston Hughes, in "The Negro and the Racial Mountain," argued that these writings catered to African Americans who sought so much to fit into white society that they rejected aspects of their own heritage. With the publication of Jean Toomer's Cane, however, it was obvious that something different was in the air. The semi-autobiographical Cane—textured in an innovative pattern melding of poetry, short stories, vignettes of prose, and drama—was unified by the story of an "alienated, questing" urban black seeking to find his "roots." Toomer's disturbing probe of "going home" in an attempt to find "home" helped ignite a whole new way of shaping a path toward recognition and acceptance.

Writer Arna Bontemps.

Soon to follow was a dynamic shift, on a large scale, in the themes, narratives, diction, poetic images, and mission of the writers of the Harlem Renaissance. Langston Hughes' "Mountain" essay, crafted in impassioned prose, would serve as a clarion call: "Let the blare of Negro jazz bands and bellowing voice of Bessie Smith singing Blues penetrate the closed ears of the colored near intellectuals until they listen and perhaps understand. Let Paul Robeson singing "Water Boy," and Rudolph Fisher writing about the streets of Harlem and Jean Toomer holding the heart of Georgia in his hands and Aaron Douglas drawing strange black fantasies cause the smug Negro middle class ...[to] catch a glimmer of their own beauty". ...We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves." Hughes' call for a new "honesty" in depicting the image of African Americans was heard.


Cover of Home to Harlem by Claude McKay.

Zora Neale Hurston, whose early work had already mirrored Hughes' position, wrote Color Struck and Jonah's Gourd Vine. Claude McKay wrote Home to Harlem and Banjo, and celebrated, in vibrant poetic images, the tropical beauty of his homeland and the rhythms and dances of Harlem. Countee Cullen, although still bonded to traditional form, would echo Hughes' themes in his novel, One Way to Heaven. Langston Hughes built a compelling body of poetry capturing the nuances of blues, the rhythms of jazz, a glimpse of a nostalgic past, the frustration of a "dream deferred," and a possibility for the future. He wrote a large collection of short stories, novels, operas, and dramas, celebrating the street-wise wit and humor of an array of "real" African-American urban personalities, culminating (in the years after the "formal" end of the Renaissance) in the creation of the "authentic" black personas Jesse B. Semple and Alberta K. Johnson.

The negotiation of denial and affirmation of Southern rural black heritage would not be fully resolved within the context of the writings of the Harlem Renaissance, but the rich bank of writing generated in the confrontation would implant new structures, fresh rhythms, unforgettable images, inspirational stories of quest, courage, endurance and determination in the canon of American literature. In inheriting the vibrant, provocative voices of the Harlem Renaissance movement, mainstream America would be the winner.


Print Resources:

Baym, Nina, et al., ed. The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Fourth Edition. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1995.

Bontemps, Arna Wendell. "The Negro Renaissance: Jean Toomer and the Harlem Writers of the 1920s." In Anger and Beyond: The Negro Writer in the United States. Edited by Herbert Hill. New York: Harper And Row, 1966.

Davis, Charles T., and Daniel Walden, ed. On Being Black. Greenwich, CT: Fawcett Publications, Inc., 1970.

Foerster, Norman, et al., ed. American Prose and Poetry, Fifth Edition, Part Two. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1970.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. Figures in Black: Words, Signs, and the “Racial Self.” New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Lewis, David Levering, ed. The Portable Harlem Renaissance. New York: The Penquin Group, 1995.

Toomer, Jean. Cane. Edited by Darwin T. Turner. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1988.

Internet Resources:

The Circle Association's Weblinks to the Harlem Renaissance

Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism: African-American Theory and Criticism

Perspectives in American Literature, Chapter 9: Harlem Renaissance

PBS Online Forum: Harlem Renaissance

Rhino Records: Black History Month 2003

About the Author:

Jayne Karsten received a B.A. and M.A. from the University of Michigan, where she specialized in literature. Karsten teaches English, history, and dance theory to students at The Key School in Annapolis, Maryland. She has served as an administrator for the National Endowment for the Humanities, a member of ARTSEDGE's Teachers Advisory Council, and a member of the Alfred P. Sloan National Committee on Writing, where she helped craft a countrywide program for writing instruction.

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