Harlem Renaissance Redux
The Harlem cultural renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s brought African Americans in New York City to the forefront of music, poetry and literature. This CultureMap celebrates their pride of race, place and creativity, a legacy today’s literary lights continue to push forward.
Though Jamaica-born Claude McKay came to America with two poetry collections under his belt, it was in the Harlem section of Manhattan that he found his muse. That is, Harlem was his muse. McKay’s Harlem Shadows: The Poems of Claude McKay (1922) was the first major contribution to the literary movement that came to be known as the Harlem Renaissance. The poems shocked readers with a defiant, entirely new African American voice. Take, for example, “To the White Fiends,” in which the speaker warns, “Be not deceived, for every deed you do / I could match—out-match: Am I not Africa’s son, / Black of that black land where black deeds are done?
McKay’s novel Home to Harlem (1928) explores gritty Harlem’s jazz joints, dive bars and corner stores. The book drew flak from one of McKay’s heroes, American writer and educator W.E.B. Du Bois, who didn’t care for all the drinking, fighting and sex. “Home to Harlem,” Du Bois wrote, “for the most part nauseates me, and after the dirtier parts of its filth I feel distinctly like taking a bath.” Despite criticism, Home to Harlem was the first novel by a black author to reach the best-seller list.
Langston Hughes was known as the Poet Laureate of Harlem. Picture him in the juke joints of the 1920s, hunched at a table in the back, scribbling in his notebook, absorbing the rhythms of the music. Hughes haunted the jazz clubs “to write poems like the songs they sang on Seventh Street…. [They] had the pulse beat of the people who keep on going.” Hughes achieved this in his landmark debut, The Weary Blues (1926), which takes its title from a poem about a Harlem piano player.
Though Hughes traveled in Africa and Europe for extended periods, he felt most vital in Harlem, the place teeming with the sweet and hot sounds of jazz. As Hughes’s contemporary, Harlem journalist Joel A. Rogers, wrote, “The true spirit of jazz is a joyous revolt from convention, custom, authority, boredom, even sorrow—from everything that would confine the soul of man and hinder its riding free on the air.” Hughes’s own work embodies this spirit. In his poem “Dream Variations,” the speaker sings, “To fling my arms wide / In some place of the sun, / To whirl and to dance / Till the white day is done. / …That is my dream!”
Both Langston Hughes and Claude McKay traveled the world extensively. Both embraced leftist politics. And most important, both shared a burning desire to create an African American literature to rival the Western canon. African American culture was on the rise during the Harlem Renaissance, yet Jim Crow policies still held sway. For example, blacks could not attend Harlem’s famous Prohibition-era Cotton Club unless they played jazz or waited tables. But Hughes and McKay nonetheless elevated the everyday life of working men and women, taking black dialect, the blues and jazz to the level of high art. As fate would have it, these kindred spirits even passed away on the same date—May 22—albeit 19 years apart.
Today the legacy of their mission flourishes. African American writers have gone on to win every literary award under the sun, including the Nobel Prize. And the black musical genres of soul, funk and especially hip-hop, with its stunning lyrical density, dominate the airwaves. In many ways, McKay and Hughes would be startled and proud if they were teleported to the 21st century. The culture these poets labored to bring out of the shadows is now at the forefront of arts and entertainment.
Folklorist, writer and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston may have had the most audacious personality in Harlem. Known for dancing and throwing parties, Hurston typically did what she wanted, whenever she wanted. Consider this anecdote from Langston Hughes’s autobiography, The Big Sea: “Almost nobody else could stop the average Harlemite on Lenox Avenue and measure his head with a strange-looking, anthropological device and not get bawled out for the attempt, except Zora, who used to stop anyone whose head looked interesting, and measure it.”
The vivacious Hurston is best remembered for her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, which she dashed out during a seven-week trip to Haiti. The book tells the story of Janie Crawford, a woman from Eatonville, Florida, the all-black community Hurston called home. While tracing Crawford’s journey through three marriages, the novelist takes on African American ambition and independence, as well as societal prejudice—issues at the core of the Harlem Renaissance. Unlike works by her peers, however, Hurston’s novel places a woman in the spotlight. Today the book is among the most widely appreciated works of the Harlem Renaissance and inspired a 2005 TV adaptation starring Halle Berry.
Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist Alice Walker once said if she had to take 10 books with her to a desert island, at least two of them would be by Zora Neale Hurston—including Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937). Walker writes about her admiration for Hurston in her essay collection In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose (1983), elaborating on Hurston’s gift for portraying African Americans as “a complete, complex, undiminished” people.
Today Their Eyes Were Watching God has a secure place in the canon, but when Walker first discovered Hurston, while auditing a lecture at Jackson State University, this wasn’t the case. Hurston’s work had fallen out of print toward the end of her life, and when she died, in 1960, there wasn’t enough money to pay for a funeral. Hurston’s resurgence owes a massive debt to Walker, who published an essay in 1975 in Ms. magazine entitled “Looking for Zora” to draw attention to the forgotten author. The essay describes Hurston’s contributions to literature and chronicles Walker’s quest to track down the writer’s unmarked grave. When she found it, Walker erected a tombstone with the inscription “A Genius of the South.”
In 1925 Jean Toomer formed a group in Harlem to teach the spiritual lessons of Russian mystic George Gurdjieff. Among other notions, Gurdjieff postulated that most people sleepwalk through life and, as such, cannot properly perceive reality. Toomer’s Gurdjieff lectures attracted a slew of Harlem’s leading literary lights, including Zora Neale Hurston, Wallace Thurman, Nella Larson and Langston Hughes. Of course, everyone knew Toomer already: Two years earlier his critically acclaimed masterwork, Cane, had electrified black bohemians everywhere.
An experimental collection of fiction, drama and poetry, Cane was as stylistically (and spiritually) rebellious as one could get. Composed of three sections, Cane follows the stories of African Americans in the rural South, urban blacks in Washington, D.C., and, finally, a Northerner of mixed race (much like Toomer himself) living in the South. The inspiration for the book came to Toomer while he lived in Sparta, Georgia, where he worked as an agricultural school principal. This was his first encounter with Southern black culture, and it formed the backbone of Cane. But Cane is also shot through with a mysticism akin to Gurdjieff’s ideas about humanity’s place in the universe. Toomer, as Hughes later described him, was “an evolved soul.”
Nobel Prize–winning novelist Toni Morrison has called Jean Toomer’s Cane “a shiveringly beautiful book of overwhelming perception.” And in fact, Cane’s influence echoes through her own work. In Jazz (1992), her sixth novel, Morrison takes us through 1920s Harlem to explore the consequences of black migration to Northern cities, much as Cane does. Both Jazz and Cane depict characters of rural background challenged to reinvent themselves for modern life. Both books also feature characters of mixed blood struggling to find their place in the world (though in Toomer, this is largely autobiographical).
In her 1980 review of The Wayward and the Seeking: A Collection of Writings by Jean Toomer, Morrison meditates on Toomer’s legacy. According to Morrison, Cane represents the height of his achievement, and the majority of his later work, which seeks to be “raceless,” couldn’t quite live up to it. As she writes, “In spite of Jean Toomer’s yearning for racelessness, his horror of ‘dark blood,’ what is astonishing is how eloquent he was about the drop that bedeviled him: how moving he was about those who shared it.”
Though Jean Toomer’s Cane (1923) met with glowing reviews from critics, it was not widely read until its 1969 reprint, at which point it gained traction as a Harlem Renaissance masterpiece. Langston Hughes speculated on Cane’s chilly initial reception in his 1926 essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” concluding that the book was too incendiary to be appreciated by conservative audiences—both white and black. Still, Hughes lauded the book as exactly the type of work required to create a new, unrestricted African American art. “Excepting the work of Du Bois,” he writes, “Cane contains the finest prose written by a Negro in America. And like the singing of Robeson, it is truly racial.”
Hughes identifies Cane as “truly racial,” but Toomer was a man of mixed race who sometimes passed for white as a schoolboy, and would later eschew being labeled a black writer. He preferred to call himself simply an American. As he writes, “In my body were many bloods, some dark blood, all blended in the fire of six or more generations. I was, then, either a new type of man or the very oldest. In any case I was inescapably myself.”