Web Lecture #5

The Harlem Renaissance

Lesson Overview

The Harlem Renaissance is a name applied to a literary movement that originated in Harlem between 1917 and 1935. This was a time when Americans began to recognize the richness of the folklore and writings of African Americans. Inspired by W.E.B. Dubois and his magazine The Crisis, artists began to write poetry and short stories that described the African American experience.

Key Concepts


  • Harlem Renaissance

  • Post WWI northern migrations

  • W.E.B. Du Bois

  • Important writers of the Harlem Renaissance

  • Zora Neale Hurston

  • Spunk


New York Artists

After World War I, African Americans who had been fighting overseas returned to America to find work. Many of them had been exposed to new cultures and attitudes towards non-white people. They returned expecting recognition and employment for their war contributions. Instead they encountered a racial backlash that was a resurgence of anti-black sentiment from the reconstruction period.

There were violent race riots in several parts of the South and the Midwest including Arkansas, Kansas, Florida, and Chicago.In addition, lynching became more prevalent. African Americans began to migrate to Northern cities where they competed with Whites for jobs. Harlem was one of the major destinations for new African American migrants. Once a small suburban enclave for domestics, its boundaries quickly expanded to include almost 12% of the African American population.

Much of the intellectual impetus of the Harlem Renaissance came from a man named William Egbert Burghart Dubois and his associates. W.E. B. Du Bois was the first black graduate from Harvard

W.E. B. Du Bois

University. His influence upon the African American community was phenomenal. He founded the NAACP, published Crisis Magazine and popularized the idea of the "talented tenth." He believed that a small percentage of the African American population who were exceptionally skilled should be designated and educated as artistic and cultural leaders. He proposed absolute equality for the "talented tenth" and technical training for the black masses.

Booker T. Washington

The antithesis to W.E.B. Du BoisÕ political stance was the work of Booker T. Washington who urged African American to move towards accommodation and hard work for economic gain. He promoted widespread training in service occupations such as agriculture and specialized trades.

Du Bois was very active in writing, publication, and the arts. He founded a theater called Krigwa Little Theater in 1926. Du Bois believed that African American theater should be About, By, For, and Near Blacks. He published the writings of African American writers in his magazine and encouraged White patrons to support the work of African American artists.

Some of the important writers to emerge from the Harlem Renaissance were...

Jean Toomer

Her skin is like dusk,
O canÕt you see it
Her skin s like dusk
When the sun goes down

Claude McKay

If we must die,
let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spotÉ.
Like men weÕll face the murderous, cowardly pack
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back

James Weldon Johnson

Lift evÕry voice and sing,
Till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;

Langston Hughes

To fling my arms wide
In some place of the sun
To whirl and to dance
Till the white day is done
Then rest at cool evening
Beneath a tall tree
While night comes on gently
Dark like meÑ

Zora Neale Hurston (folklorist)

I got up this morning, and I knowed I didnÕt want it
Yea! Polk County!
You donÕt know Polk County like I do
Anybody been there, tell you the same thing too.
Eh, rider, rider!
Polk County, where the water tastes like cherry wine.

The Harlem literary renaissance was an elitist movement led by about twenty writers, yet their work spawned an explosion of interest in Harlem by both Whites and Blacks. During the time of the Harlem Renaissance musicians, dancers, and other flocked to Harlem to participate in club and night show activity. This was the time of the Cotton Club and SmallÕs ParadiseÑestablishments where White clientele could be entertained by African American entertainers.

Zora Neale Hurston emerged in the midst of the Harlem Renaissance as an eccentric artist from Eatonville, Florida. She was a folklorist and writer who dedicated herself to researching and reconstructing African American language, customs and culture. She studied at Barnard College with anthropologist Franz Boas and wrote several essay that document customs and culture. She also wrote short stories and novels; the most famous is Their Eyes Were Watching God.

Hurston was a part of the Harlem Renaissance community, but she was not well liked by many of the artists. They laughed at her eccentric folksiness and her obvious use of backwoods expressions and

Playing at The Cotton Club
Clockwise: Freddie Jenkins, Cootie Williams, Sonny Greer, Aurthur Whetsol, Jaun Tizol, Wellman Braud, Harry Carney, Fred Guy, Barney Bigard, Joe Nanton, Johnny Hodges, and Duke Ellington seated at the piano.

attitudes. She. In turn, referred to the Harlem elite writers as the "niggerati" and called white who patronized and supported the artists "negrotarians."

For class we will be reading Spunk, a play by George C. Wolfe that is an adaptation of one of Zora Neale HurstonÕs short stories. In this play characters from the rural south are humanized through their interactions with one another. When Wolfe adapted the play, he added narration and music that helped to create the mood and atmosphere on the folkloric material. Later in the semester we will be reading another play by Wolfe, The Colored Museum.

Discussion Questions

1) What are the strengths and weaknesses of the contrasting approaches to African American advancement that were popularized by Du Bois and Booker T.?

2) Zora Neale Hurston was not recognized during her lifetime and she died in an unmarked grave in Florida. Alice Childress rediscovered her in the 1970Õs. Why do you think that there has been a resurgence of interest in her work?

3) Which character do you most identify with in the play Spunk? What are SykesÕ redeeming qualities?

Copyrighted 2001, United States of America
Anita Gonzalez & Ian Granick