The Harlem Renaissance

In the early 1900s, particularly in the 1920s, African-American literature, art, music, and dance began to flourish in Harlem, a section of New York City. This African-American cultural movement became known as "The New Negro Movement" and later as the Harlem Renaissance. More than a literary movement, the Harlem Renaissance redefined African-American expression. African-Americans were encouraged to celebrate their heritage. The main factors contributing to the development of the Harlem Renaissance were African-American urban migration, and the rise of radical African-American intellectuals.  The Harlem Renaissance transformed African-American identity and history, but it also transformed American culture in general. Never before had so many Americans read the thoughts of African-Americans and embraced the African-American community's productions, expressions, and style.


William H. Johnson arrived in Harlem at the beginning of the renaissance.  He had come to New York in 1918 from Florence, South Carolina, and became a student at the national Academy of Design. He remained there for five years, where he studied the teachings of George Luks and Charles Hawthorne. He would lead a lon career in art that would take him to places in North Africa and Europe in search of a permanent residence. It was through the influence of Hawthorne that Johnson traveled first to Paris in 1926, where he settled, painted, and studied the works of modern European masters."


Zora was born in Eatonville, Florida on January 7, 1891. Her mother died when Zora was a child, and her father John Hurston was a carpenter and Baptist preacher. Zora left Eatonville in 1917 to attend Morgan Academy in Baltimore and complete her high school requirements. She went on to Howard Prep School, Howard University, and Barnard College, where she completed her undergraduate education. While in New York, Hurston became well-known not only for her writing, but for her outspokenness, her distinct way of dress and her refusal to be ashamed of her culture. Like many other Black artists of the period, Zora received funds from white patrons and other organizations to do her work. But to some of her colleagues, this was just another reason to criticize her, even though many of them relied on the same patrons and organizations for funds. Hurston's most active years were the 1930s and early 1940s. Among other things, she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, published four novels and an autobiography, and worked as a story consultant for Paramount Pictures. During the late 1940s, Zora published less and less. Her work was rejected with increasing frequency and she had to find other ways to make a living,  including being a maid in Rivo Island, Florida. During that period she published an article in the Saturday Evening Post. She moved to Belle Glade, Florida in late 1950. She continued to write and publish including another article in the Saturday Evening Post. However, her finances and health faltered. Like many artists who were before their time, Zora lived her last few years in relative obscurity. In 1959 she suffered a stroke and had to enter the St. Lucie County Welfare home. She died there on January 28, 1960 and was buried in an unmarked grave in a segregated cemetery in Fort Pierce.

The Harlem Renaissance was the most visible consequence of the first mass movement of African-Americans out of the Deep South during and following World War I. To blacks who had grown up in the culture of Jim Crow segregation the liberating effect of northern society, although not without many aspects of segregation, was truly exhilerating, to the mind and soul as well as to the pocket book. As the Delany sisters wrote in Having Our Say "Harlem was as close to Heaven as we were going to find on this Earth."  

The young Richard Wright, who arrived from the Deep South in Chicago in 1927 took a job in a restaurant. One of his earliest experiences that left an indelible impression on his sensibilities was his astonishment to feel the body of a white waitress pressed against his as she drew a cup of coffee. In the South, as he noted,

...the work of the hot and busy kitchen would have had to cease for the moment so that I could have taken by tainted body far enough away to allow the Southern white girl a change to get a cup of coffee. There lay a deep, emotional safety in knowing that the white girl who was now leaning carelessly against me was not thinking of me, had no deep vague, irrational fright that made her feel that I was a creature to be avoided at all costs


For Wright and other southern blacks who left the South it was that relative "emotional safety" that made the North so different, so exhilerating, and made Harlem "as close to Heaven as we were going to find on this Earth."

Other Related Web Links:


                1)Harlem Renaissance

                   2)The Harlem Renaissance

                   3)Perspectives in American Literature

                   4)Rudolph Fisher Newsletter

                   5) Harlem Renaissance Women



Bessie Smith