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Harlem Renaissance



Harlem Renaissance (1920s)


¨    Renaissance literally means “a rebirth or revival.”  The term usually designates the Renaissance of Europe.  However, the upsurge in African American cultural expression that took place in Harlem, New York, in the 1920s occurred with such compelling force and had so much influence that it became known as the Harlem Renaissance.

¨    This movement centered in Harlem, New York, hence the name.

¨    During this time, the Harlem Renaissance artists insisted that the African American be accepted as “a collaborator and participant in American civilization.”

¨    Writers wrote about the African American experience, artists painted it, photographers captured it with their cameras, musicians set it to music, and singers sang it.

¨    Harlem newspapers and journals, Crisis and Opportunity published the work of new and established African American writers.

¨    The artists addressed issues like race, class, religion, and gender.

¨    Famous Harlem Renaissance artists

o       Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith—singers

o       Louis Armstrong—trumpeter

o       Fletcher Henderson—pianist

o       Aaron Douglass and William H. Johnson—painters

o       James Van Der Zee—photographer

o       Josephine Baker and Florence Mills—actresses

o       Eubie Blake—composer

o       Noble Sissle—lyricist

¨    Harlem Renaissance writers (I have only given background notes for the poets we will study in class.)

o       Countee Cullen

§         Grew up in New York City, the adopted son of Rev. and Mrs. Fredrick Cullen.

§         Was writing accomplished poems in traditional forms while he was still in high school

§         In college he won the Witter Bynner Poetry Prize and published his first collection of verse Color

§         Graduated Phi Beta Kappa from New York University

§         Earned his masters degree from Harvard University

§         Worked as an assistant editor for Opportunity

§         1927—published a collection of poetry, Copper Sun, and an anthology of African American poetry, Caroling Dusk

§         Was somewhat controversial since he called for black poets to write traditional verse and to avoid the restriction of solely racial themes

§         1930s—taught in Harlem public schools to help supplement his writing since he was unable to earn a living solely as a writer (this was caused by the Great Depression).

§         Poetry heavily influenced by the English Romantics, esp. John Keats. 

§         He saw himself primarily as a lyric poet in the Romantic tradition, not as a black poet writing about social and racial themes.  However, he did find himself repeatedly drawn to such themes.

o       Langston Hughes

§         1925—he left three poems near Vachel Lindsay’s plate who was eating dinner in the restaurant where Hughes was a busboy.

§         This one action created a stir about the “busboy poet” and gave Hughes his start as a writer.

§         Hughes, a shy person, was about to have his first collection, Weary Blues, published.

§         He considered his poetry, not himself, to be important and did not want people to focus on him.

§         Attended Columbia University before becoming a busboy

§         Began writing poetry in the 8th grade

§         Most important influences on his poetry were Walt Whitman and Carl Sandburg.  He was inspired by their traditional poetic forms and free verse that they used to express the humanity of people regardless of their age, gender, race, and class.

§         Hughes celebrates the African American experience.

§         Many of his poems are heavily influenced by jazz rhythms if not written specifically for jazz accompaniment.

§         Founded several black theater companies

§         According to Hughes, his work is an attempt to “explain and illuminate the Negro condition in America.”  An attempt in which he succeeded with both vigor and compassion.

o       Claude McKay

§         Born and raised in Jamaica

§         At nine he went live with his oldest brother, a schoolmaster, and began his education.

§         Apprenticed as a wheelwright and cabinetmaker then worked as a constable

§         All of this time he was writing poems in the Jamaican dialect of English.

§         1912—published Songs of Jamaica, the first of two collections of poetry

§         Came to the states to study agriculture

§         Attended Tuskegee University briefly before transferring to Kansas State College

§         1920—published his third collection of verse Spring in New Hampshire

§         1922—published Harlem Shadows, his most important collection

§         A major influence on McKay was the Romantic poets.

§        His sonnets voice his ambivalent and often defiant feelings about African American life in the United States.

o       Zora Neale Hurston

o       James Weldon Johnson

o       Jean Toomer

o       Gwendolyn Brooks