The Harlem Renaissance and Its Role in American Literature

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The Harlem Renaissance and Its Role in American Literature

Historically, the African American experience is defined by the constant struggle to be recognized, to assert identity, and to rise from the stereotypes and negativity of racism and discrimination. While it took some time before these issues were resolved, the contributions coming from the African American culture’s collective and individual experiences have formed a profound body of work, from then until now. One of the most renowned eras of African American literature is the Harlem Renaissance.

Originally known as the New Negro Movement, the Harlem Renaissance saw an incredible influx of activity within the community of black writers that started during the early 1920s (McElrath, par. 1). The movement began with the holding of literary discussions series in both lower and upper Manhattan, specifically Greenwich Village and Harlem. Much of the credit was given to Charles Spurgeon Johnson, an editor who called on young and aspiring African American writers to bring their creative talents to New York in order to form an unprecedented membership of black creative artists.

The call was heeded, and the next few years saw the arrival of black writers from all over America and even from the Caribbean, coinciding with the cultural phenomenon of the black urban migration. The Harlem Renaissance was soon born, and its roster included then-unknown names that would rise to exemplary heights in a short time (“Harlem Literature”, pars. 1-2). II. Themes Within the Harlem Renaissance More than a specific form or style, the Harlem Renaissance was characterized by its embracing of all styles and elements arising from culture and experience.

The black signature in the emergent jazz and blues music also made its impact on the literature produced, since many of the themes covered by music also resonated within the writing community. Slavery and the production of identity, the complexities of life as African Americans in the modernity of the urban North, and the issues concerning the writing and performance for white audiences were some of the more prevalent themes appropriated by writers of the Harlem Renaissance.

Racial pride and the reference to African history were found within the lines of black writers’ works, as well as a marked desire to achieve political and social equality within the greater American society. Yet more than anything. the Harlem Renaissance was defined by its upholding of diversity—in style, voice, and expression (“Harlem Renaissance”, pars. 1-2). Langston Hughes and Claude McKay, both poets, paved the way for the showcase of the African American mindset, particularly in Hughes’ appropriation of the ghetto life, and in the militant tone and passion against racial violence and for cultural pride in McKay’s “If We Must Die”.

Other writers followed suit, and most notable was the membership of women in this elite circle. III. The Men and Harlem African American writers have come a long way since the efforts of Frederick Douglass on his text opposing slavery (Malvasi, par. 4), and the premier list of the Harlem Renaissance included many names, but always topped by three: Hughes, McKay, and Countee Cullen. Unlike the other two, Cullen had lived all his life in New York City, and viewed poetry as ‘raceless’, though he did acknowledge the presence of racism in America.

However, the tackling of racist themes and injustice in his iconic poem “Yet I Do Marvel” apparently changed this passive outlook. Hughes, on the other hand, was quite experienced and well-traveled, a fact that appears in the use of the outdoors as a literary device in his profound poem “Negro Speaks of Rivers”. Finally, Claude McKay promoted a more irreverent method of fighting inequality and racism, the nature of which answers the anger and fear instilled in the hearts of African Americans.

His abovementioned poem, “If We Must Die”, calls for honorable death in the face of the various forms of torture and persecution against blacks (McCrone 2-3). IV. The Writing Women of the Harlem Renaissance Perhaps the most marginalized among an already marginalized community are the women, most of whom are relegated to traditional roles limited to domesticity and child-rearing. While these were—and still are—values deemed important and significant, much must be credited to the African American women writers of the era, who had more to contribute on top of the collective experience of slavery and injustice.

Editor Jessie Fauset, teacher Dorothy Peterson, and writers Ethel Ray Nance, Regina Anderson, and Georgia Douglas Johnson were some of the first women to claim part of the Harlem Renaissance for the interests of the female voice. Included in their activities were discussion and writing group organization, promotion of black authors in their respective communities, and the publication of African American writing in various magazines where they served as editors.

But most of all, the women of the Harlem Renaissance made their mark by writing about fear and violence, as well as gender and tradition, within the context of the black experience. Names such as Dorothy West, Hallie Quinn, and Zora Neale Hurston were active in this group, women who would later make their literary voices resound even louder than those of their male counterparts (Lewis, pars. 13-17). V. Criticism Notwithstanding the great proliferation of creativity and intellectualism, the Harlem Renaissance and its impact on American literature was not without flaws or criticism.

Because of the newness of the concept of freedom, specially in the realm of writing, many black writers resorted to crafting their works in styles commonly identified with white literary standards. Even worse, some of them appropriated images of blacks that agree with the racial stereotypes propagated by the whites. The goal to promote African American identity was not always successful, perhaps due to the still flimsy grasp on freedom and equality—concepts that are alive and well in this era. Works Cited “Harlem Literature”.

Harlem Renaissance Multimedia Resource. 2009. John Carroll University. 17 March 2009 <http://www. jcu. edu/harlem/Literature/Page_1. htm>. “Harlem Renaissance”. Spiritus-Temporis. com. 2005. 16 March 2009 <http://www. spiritus-temporis. com/harlem-renaissance/diverse-and-common-themes. html>. Lewis, Jone Johnson. “”Harlem Renaissance Women: African American Women Dreaming in Color”. Women’s History. 2009. About. com. 17 March 2009 <http://womenshistory. about. com/od/harlemrenaissance/a/dreaming_color. htm>. Malvasi, Meg Greene.

“Soul Deep: African American Literature and Music”. Suite101. com. 2004. 16 March 2009 <http://www. suite101. com/article. cfm/harlem_renaissance/98190>. McCrone, Audrey. “Three Harlem Renaissance Writers (Hughes, McKay, & Cullen)”. Essays on American Literature. 2001. 17 March 2009 <http://www. suite101. com/article. cfm/american_literature_essays/78581/3>. McElrath, Jessica. “Harlem Renaissance: The New Negro Movement”. Afro-American History. 2009. About. com. 17 March 2009 <http://afroamhistory. about. com/cs/harlemrenaissance/a/harlemren. htm>.


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  • University/College: University of Chicago

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Date: 21 September 2016

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