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
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
| Langston Hughes at
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.
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
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.
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,
Davis, Charles T., and Daniel Walden,
ed. On Being Black. Greenwich, CT: Fawcett Publications,
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,
Toomer, Jean. Cane. Edited
by Darwin T. Turner. New York: W.W. Norton & Company,
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
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