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Harlem Renaissance

Kathleen Thompson

in Black Women in America, Second Edition

Published in print January 2005 | ISBN: 9780195156775
Harlem Renaissance

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In the history of art and culture, some periods glow with a light that illuminates all the rest. Whether we talk about the Mauve Decade, Bloomsbury, or Paris in the 1920s, there is a sense that extraordinary personalities and forces somehow coalesced—with the intangible addition of what we call style—in a way that changed the world. The Harlem Renaissance is one of those periods in America, and its effect has yet to be fully explored.Langston Hughes always believed that the flowering began when Florence Mills took over Broadway in the black musical Shuffle Along in 1921. Within the decade, Ethel Waters would become the highest-paid woman, black or white, on the Broadway stage. Bessie Smith, Alberta Hunter, and the other great blues queens sold millions of records and created a new style of performance. The Lafayette Players, founded by Anita Bush, began to produce serious drama in Harlem, starring black actors. Black writers such as Hughes himself, Zora Neale Hurston, Countee Cullen, James Weldon Johnson, Nella Larsen, Arna Bontemps, Dorothy West, Jean Toomer, and Claude McKay were not only on the lists of some of the best publishing companies in the country but they were also on the A-list for New York's most prestigious literary parties. “In some places,” wrote Bontemps, “the autumn of 1924 may have been an unremarkable season. In Harlem, it was like a foretaste of paradise.” The literary and artistic paradise continued for a decade and a half, and, in music, Harlem was heaven for a long time to come. novelist, was a celebrated figure in the Harlem Renaissance and an important artist in the history of women's literature. (Library of Congress.) Unfortunately, history's perception is that most of the deities in the Harlem firmament were men. It has taken decades to reestablish the importance and value of the many black women who contributed to that shining moment in African American history.The OriginsPeople have speculated endlessly about the origins of the Harlem Renaissance. Most agree that the Great Migration—the movement of tens of thousands of black Southerners into the North to find work and escape oppression— had a lot to do with it. Those emigrants from a land of cotton fields, country churches, and lynch mobs brought with them a rich culture of storytelling. They brought the blues. And they brought the experience of being in the majority, even if it was a severely persecuted majority. They knew what it was like to grow up in a black community, with a black preacher, a black teacher, and a black moral leader, and they brought that consciousness with them to the cities of the North. They brought it to Harlem.Some of it was probably coincidence. It would not have been the first time that a number of remarkably talented people happened to gather within the borders of one city or one neighborhood. One or two wildly gifted writers, a sculptor with a new vision, a musician with a new sound—these would be enough to attract others.Certainly, the Harlem Renaissance was caused, in part, by a redefining of black culture in America. W. E. B. Du Bois and Alain Locke were, at the time, encouraging African Americans to look to their roots in Africa and in the folk traditions of the American South. They talked about art created by, for, and in the vicinity of black people. Young artists responded, writing about their history as well as their own lives and experiences. They began to turn away from the standards and limitations of European American literature in order to celebrate their own cultural heritage. They also began to write fiercely and with passionate intensity about the oppression of their people.But other thinkers contributed to the excitement of the times. Ida B. Wells-Barnett was the passionate voice of protest and activism. She continued to provide the yeast of outrage to African America's cultural ferment as she supported Timothy Thomas Fortune in his efforts to resuscitate the National Afro-American League and Marcus Garvey in his Universal Negro Improvement Association. Until she died in 1931, Wells-Barnett constantly reminded the Renaissance that lynchings and riots were still happening around the country and that violence lay always just below the surface of African American culture.Nannie Helen Burroughs likewise kept things stirred up. Having been put under government surveillance during World War I because of her militancy and her criticism of President Woodrow Wilson's weakness on the lynching issue, she still traveled around the country denouncing all forms of oppression, including African colonialism. She also stressed the strength of African American culture in combating the deleterious effects of continuing racism.Other women public intellectuals, many of whom had come out of the powerful black women's club movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, wrote and spoke with an eloquence and force that they could not have employed only a decade before. And one of the major players of the coming civil rights movement was in Harlem itself. The famous Baker of the Harlem Renaissance is Josephine Baker, who became America's most notorious expatriate. But Ella Josephine Baker, who would be instrumental in virtually every action of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, including the founding of the Student Nonviolence Coordinating Committee (SNCC), was national director of the Young Negroes Cooperative League in Harlem. She also worked with the Harlem Housewives Cooperative and the NAACP.Although the Harlem Renaissance has been seen primarily as a literary and artistic movement, it can, with a slight shift, be viewed as part of a greater cultural phenomenon, the emergence in New York City and other urban centers of African Americans as figures of importance. And, although not as visible to the white community as their male counterparts, black women created an intellectual and political basis within the black community for the phenomenon known as the Harlem Renaissance.The EntertainersMost studies of this period focus on the writers. It is an understandable approach because of the quality of the work done during the Renaissance. But it is an approach that lends immediately to an undervaluation of the role of black women. A great deal of the cachet of African Americans in New York City during the 1920s derives from entertainers, and the greatest of these were women. This may sound like an overstatement until one looks at the names involved.This was the era of the blues queens—Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Alberta Hunter, and Ethel Waters. They transformed American music and brought the real power of black women into the cultural mainstream for the first time. The first blues recording was made in 1920 by Mamie Smith. It was called “Crazy Blues,” and it surprised everyone by selling thousands of copies. This success is said to have been the beginning of the highly lucrative “race records” industry, which later gave birth to rhythm and blues. After Mamie Smith's hit, the other blues queens stepped up to the recording mike and became the stars of American music. Classic blues became the soundtrack for the Harlem Renaissance.This was also the period of the first black super-star, Florence Mills, whose funeral parade brought out 150,000 people into the streets of Harlem. She emerged on the scene when she took over for the original ingenue in Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake's Shuffle Along, which took ragtime onto the Broadway stage and into the consciousness of white audiences. The show made her a star and she went on to do Plantation Revue and then, in London, Dover Street to Dixie. In England, she was seen as an important artist, for her strangely sweet singing and remarkable dancing. When she returned to New York, Florenz Ziegfeld tried to make her a Follies star, but she refused the opportunity. She was deeply committed to her race and, instead, created an all-black revue. From Dixie to Broadway was another hit. Then Mills became the first African American to headline at the Palace Theatre. Finally, she took Blackbirds of 1926 to London. She pushed herself too hard, however, postponing needed surgery to keep working. She died in New York in 1927, at the age of only thirty-one.Following on the heels of Mills was a star of a different kind. Where Mills was a diminutive charmer who performed almost entirely onstage, Ethel Waters was a tall, strong-boned blues singer who knew the nightclub circuit like the back of her hand. She was already a minor star when Irving Berlin heard her sing at the Cotton Club in Harlem. He immediately offered her a role in his show As Thousands Cheer (1933), writing her four songs. She thus became the first black performer to appear on Broadway in an otherwise all-white show. One of the songs Berlin wrote for her was “Suppertime,” in which a woman fixes dinner for her family while she grieves for her husband, who has been lynched that day. Such a powerful musical expression of anti-lynching sentiment would not emerge again until Billie Holiday's rendition of Strange Fruit five years later.After two years in the show, Waters became the biggest black star on Broadway since Mills. She would become even bigger. She continued her success as a singer in clubs, with some of the best bands in the country, and on the musical stage. But she transformed Broadway in 1939 when she performed a dramatic role in Dorothy and DuBose Heyward's Mamba's Daughters. The first black actress to star on Broadway in a dramatic role, she was a huge success, both critically and popularly. Waters played the role of Hagar with such honesty and power that the critics were stunned, with the sole exception of the influential Brooks Atkinson, critic for the New York Times. He did not like the play or Waters's performance in it. But a group of theater professionals disagreed so thoroughly with him that they took out an ad in the New York Times. The ad was an extraordinary tribute to Waters's achievement. It was signed by, among others, Judith Anderson, Tallulah Bankhead, Dorothy Gish, Carl Van Vechten, and Burgess Meredith. After reading it, Atkinson went back to see Mamba's Daughters again and changed his opinion.On the club scene, the lesbian singer Gladys Bentley became a cult star. Wearing her trademark tuxedo and top hat and performing in a speakeasy on 133rd Street, she fascinated the intellectual and artistic set of New York City with her obscene parodies of popular songs. The sculptor Isamu Noguchi did a life mask of her. Langston Hughes sang her praises, as did Eslanda Robeson. Bentley even announced to the press her marriage to a white woman lover.These women brought both black glamour and black soul to New York. It can be argued, with great validity, that they were as important to the popularity of African American culture in the New York City of the 1920s and 1930s as the male writers whose names would become so familiar.Alongside the Great White WayIn Harlem itself, black women brought theater to the community. During the entire period of the Renaissance, Anita Bush's Lafayette Players presented serious drama to the people of Harlem. Bush was the daughter of a Broadway tailor. After working in the comedies of Bert Williams and George Walker, she became determined to found a company in which she and other black actors would perform without singing, dancing, and mugging. All-black casts brought the best and the most popular plays to the Lafayette Theatre for seventeen years. A great many of the plays were the same plays that were being done on Broadway with all-white casts. They did The Count of Monte Cristo, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Madame X. They did the Jewish comedy Potash and Perlmutter. They did anything and everything that white actors did. They simply did it in Harlem. An article in Billboard in August 1921 predicted that black actors would soon be accepted in all areas of theater, including serious drama, and offered as evidence the performances at the Lafayette Theatre. The article went on to report the favorable reactions of a white producer who was “profuse in encomiums,” and a white actor who was so thrilled with the company's work that she went backstage to compliment the players. But the important reaction to the Lafayette Players came from the black community. When it became clear that black audiences wanted, needed, and were willing to pay for serious theater, a group of black capitalists formed the Quality Amusement Corporation, which sponsored the Lafayette Players, sent them on tour, and formed black theaters in other cities.Over the seventeen years of its existence, the Lafayette and its offshoots changed black acting. With a place to develop their skills and talents, black actors began to thrive, at least artistically. And the larger theater world soon heard from such Lafayette Players as Abbie Mitchell, Evelyn Ellis, Evelyn Preer, Edna Thomas, Laura Bowman, and Inez Clough. In 1917 several of the Lafayette Players appeared at the Garden Theatre in a trio of short plays by the white poet Ridgely Torrence—The Rider of Dreams, Granny Maumee, and Simon the Cyrenian.In American theater histories this show is remembered, when it is remembered at all, for its playwright. The theater critic and historian Emory Lewis called Torrence “the first white playwright who presented blacks with artistry and truth.” However, at the time, the show was considered a triumph primarily for the cast. Critics of the time were hugely impressed by the quality of the performances. Robert Benchley, critic for the Tribune, raved. George Jean Nathan, leading critic of the day, put two of the actors—Opal Cooper and Inez Clough—on his list of the ten best male and the ten best female performers on Broadway that year.Another black woman who set the theatrical stage for the Harlem Renaissance was Rose McClendon. One of the few black women to win recognition on Broadway, she served on the board of the Theatre Union, which ran the Civic Repertory Theatre on West 14th Street in New York City. She also directed plays for the Harlem Experimental Theatre and organized the Negro People's Theatre, whose first production was a black version of Clifford Odet's social protest play, Waiting for Lefty. When Franklin Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration (WPA) initiated the Federal Theatre Project (FTP) to help theater professionals survive the Great Depression, McClendon was appointed codirector of the Negro Unit, with white director John Houseman. She served in that capacity until her death from cancer.In her honor, the first important black theater in New York since the Lafayette Players was called the Rose McClendon Players. It was founded in 1937, and with her spirit of commitment to excellence in theater and equality for black performers, the modern black theater movement was born. Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee were in the group. So were Jane White, Helen Martin, and others who would have long, distinguished careers in the black theater. The Rose McClendon Players performed for five years. When it folded, several of its members became involved in the founding of the American Negro Theatre, training ground for Rosetta LeNoire, Alice Childress, Isabel Sanford, and Clarice Taylor, as well as for such male stars as Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte. The theater produced eighteen plays over the decade of its existence, including Katherine Garrison's Sojourner Truth.The theater's biggest hit was Anna Lucasta, a play with an interesting history. It was originally written to be performed by a white cast, dealing as it did with a Polish family. But its author, Philip Yordan, was unable to find a producer to commit to it. Abram Hill, artistic director of the American Negro Theatre, suggested to Yordan that the play could be adapted for an all-black cast. It was, and the production, with Hilda Simms as Anna, was a smash hit in Harlem. Also in the cast was Alice Childress, soon to make her name as one of the first successful black woman playwrights.There was another step to take, however, in creating a black theater. Black leader W. E. B. Du Bois called for “native drama,” plays about black people written by black people.The plays of a real Negro theatre must be: One: About us. That is, they must have plots which reveal Negro life as it is. Two: By us. That is, they must be written by Negro authors who understand from birth and continual association just what it means to be a Negro today. Three: For us. That is the theatre must cater primarily to Negro audiences and be supported and sustained by their entertainment and approval. Fourth: Near us. The theatre must be in a Negro neighborhood near the mass of ordinary Negro people.(Du Bois, p. 134)He backed up his call with the power of the NAACP's Crisis magazine, which he edited. With the editor of the National Urban League's Opportunity magazine, Charles S. Johnson, he held a contest for one-act plays. The prize would be publication in one of the two magazines and a cash award.The first contest was held in 1925. That year, two of the three winning plays that appeared in Crisis were by women—Ruth Gaines-Shelton's The Church Fight and Myrtle Smith Livingston's For Unborn Children. Four of the seven Opportunity winners were written by women—Zora Neale Hurston's Colorstruck and Spears, May Miller's The Bog Guide, and Eloise Bibb Thompson's Cooped Up. In the two years that followed, before the contest was discontinued, awards were won by Eulalie Spence, Marita Bonner, and Georgia Douglas Johnson.Du Bois also founded the Krigwa Players, a black theater company based in Harlem. Companies of Krigwa Players were formed in other cities as well, and many of the plays performed in the short history of this endeavor were by black women. Mary P. Burrill's Aftermath was produced by the New York Krigwa Players and appeared in the David Belasco Little Theatre Tournament in 1928. Three of Eulalie Spence's plays were produced by the theater—Foreign Mail, Fool's Errand, and Her. The first two were published by Samuel French. In Baltimore, the Krigwa Players produced the plays of May Miller and Georgia Douglas Johnson. Many other black women saw their plays produced on the stages of the Krigwa Players during the 1920s.The WritersThe one woman whose name appears on most lists of Harlem Renaissance writers is Zora Neale Hurston. It is staggering to see the names that are left off such a list, including Dorothy West, Jessie Fauset, Georgia Douglas Johnson, Angelina Weld Grimké, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Nella Larsen, and many others.Most of these women did not make the A-list when it came to parties thrown by white patrons for the artists and intellectuals of the Harlem Renaissance. And they did not make the A-list when it came to books written about the Renaissance for decades. Then, in the 1970s, in the wake of the women's movement, critics and historians began to look more closely at their writing. Whole bodies of work were rediscovered and reputations reconstructed.Hurston was first to find her new audience. During the Renaissance, she had shared some of the spotlight with her friends, who included many of the black male writers of the time. But she was never interested in the party line. She refused to be defined by either race or gender and seldom talked specifically about “race relations,” a subject that did not particularly interest her. She was interested in black people and their lives, their relationships with each other, and their inner struggles. At least part of the reason that white critics and other white people did not find her particularly interesting during her lifetime was that she did not find them of any real interest, either. , shown here c. 1920, was a multifaceted and influential figure in the Harlem Renaissance. She wrote four novels as well as poetry, essays, and reviews and was a guiding spirit behind Crisis, the official publication of the NAACP. © Corbis Nella Larsen was the first African American to win a creative writing award from the Guggenheim Foundation. She wrote two critically acclaimed novels about the black middle class. Georgia Douglas Johnson, another middle-class black woman, was criticized for her first book of poetry, which did not deal sufficiently with racial issues, and then praised for her second, which did. Some of the same issues arose with poet Anne Spencer, a protégé of James Weldon Johnson. Although Spencer was included in virtually every anthology of black poetry during this period, her poetry was not distinctively racial in character, although she was politically militant in her private life.Gwendolyn Bennett was part of the backbone of the New Negro movement. As an artist, she exhibited her paintings and illustrated covers for Crisis and Opportunity. Her poetry was widely read and praised. As assistant editor of Opportunity, she wrote a literary gossip column called Ebony Flute. A frequent contributor to both these influential magazines was Marita Bonner, who was part of the “S” Salon that met every week at Georgia Douglas Johnson's. Among her most influential works was the essay “On Being Young–a Woman–and Colored.”In addition to being an important writer of short stories, Dorothy West published a literary magazine, Challenge, which promoted Harlem Renaissance writers. It was not until the 1940s that she began to write novels, one reason that she was not given her due for so long as part of the Renaissance.The ArtistsIn 1925, Alain Locke edited a book called The New Negro in which he declared that black artists had developed no school of Negro art. He asserted that African American artists should do two things. First, they should look toward Africa to explore their “ancestral arts.” Second, they should develop the “Negro physiognomy,” or physical features, in their work. In fact, Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller had begun doing the first two decades earlier, and May Howard Jackson had been doing the second for almost that long. The idea had grown from the art and was articulated by this critic to inspire black artists.Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller was born in 1877 in Philadelphia and attended the Pennsylvania Museum School for the Industrial Arts. She studied in Europe, where she was praised and encouraged by Auguste Rodin. When she began having private exhibitions of her work, the Paris press called her the “delicate sculptor of horrors” because of the grotesque nature of her portrayals. The only American artist in one Paris exhibit, she showed her Head of John the Baptist and The Impenitent Thief on the Cross. She even had a one-woman show sponsored by S. Bing, patron of Aubrey Beardsley, Mary Cassatt, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. But when she returned to the United States, she found few buyers for her work. Gradually, she developed a following among wealthier African Americans, but in 1910 a warehouse containing her tools and sixteen years worth of her work burned to the ground.Three years later, Fuller created the Spirit of Emancipation for the New York celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation. It was a startlingly new conception for the time. As Judith N. Kerr put it, “Fuller had also not chosen to favor the female figure with Caucasian features, indicating her heightened race consciousness.” From that time until her death in the 1960s, Fuller created sculptures with powerful African American themes. In 1921, she created Ethiopia Awakening for New York City's “Making of America” Festival, a powerful symbol of the African past and the new future for black Americans.Born the same year as Fuller, in the same city, May Howard Jackson attended the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and studied with renowned artists for four years. She then married a math teacher and set up her own studio at home. She did not travel to Europe to study the classics, as was common among artists at the time. Instead, she began doing sculptures of the people around her. In her own style, she focused on the many faces of the African American racial mix. At a time when all races were portrayed in the style, and with the features, of the classical tradition, her realistic portrayals of African features were shocking. They were seen as evidence that she was untrained and untalented. This reaction to her work created in Jackson a deep bitterness that would mar her life.Not many other black women benefited from the interest in African American art that helped a number of black men gain entry into galleries and private collections during this time. But the sculptural tradition established by Fuller and Jackson was continued by Nancy Elizabeth Prophet, Augusta Savage, Beulah Ecton Woodard, and Selma Burke. The painters who came to prominence were Laura Wheeler Waring and Lois Mailou Jones.MusicAt the time of the Harlem Renaissance, concert music was in flux. Just as some black composers were beginning to be taken seriously in the European tradition, the call went out for music that explored the roots of the African American experience. Black woman composers reacted in different ways. Nora Douglas Holt, who began composing just before the ideological shift of the Renaissance, held steadfastly to the position that black popular music forms had no place in serious composition. Florence Price, on the other hand, came along just as ideas and approaches were changing. Her compositions had names such as “Dances in the Canebrakes,” “Arkansas Jitter,” and “Bayou Dance.” Her student Margaret Bonds followed in her footsteps. Undine Smith Moore also worked in the spirit of the Renaissance with choral works such as Striving after God, Mother to Son, Hail Warrior, and Daniel, Daniel, Servant of the Lord, most of which were inspired by or arrangements of spirituals. Shirley Graham Du Bois was both a musician and writer. Her musical works included Little Black Sambo, a children's opera, and another opera, Tom Tom.One of the most visible black women in music during the Renaissance was Eva Jessye. She came to prominence as choral director of Virgil Thomson's landmark opera Four Saints in Three Acts. A few years later, in 1935, George Gershwin chose her as choral director of Porgy and Bess. She was also choral director of the all-black film Hallelujah, directed by King Vidor in 1927. She arranged spirituals for her Eva Jessye Choir and wrote a folk oratorio, Paradise Lost and Regained, and a folk drama, The Chronicle of Job.PersonalitiesSome black women were a crucial part of the ambience of the Harlem Renaissance even though they did not write, paint, or compose. One of the most colorful of these was A'lelia Walker, daughter of beauty tycoon Madam C. J. Walker. A'lelia created a salon at her home on 136th Street which was dubbed the “Dark Tower” after Countee Cullen's column in Opportunity. There, black artists hung their paintings, and writers came to talk about their latest work. Walker also entertained lavishly at the Villa Lewaro, an Italianate home built for her late mother in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York. In addition to black artists and writers such as James Weldon Johnson, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Florence Mills, Rudolph Fisher, Charles Gilpin, Bruce Nugent, Aaron Douglas, and Jean Toomer, her guests included European dignitaries and white Americans of influence.In a different way, Eunice Hunton Carter contributed to the cachet of African Americans in New York during these years. A lawyer in private practice in New York in the early 1930s, she was appointed by Mayor Fiorello La Guardia as secretary of the Committee on Conditions in Harlem after the race riots of 1935. This led to a job with New York County District Attorney William D. Dodge, whereby she began to notice patterns in the testimonies of prostitutes in the magistrate's court. She suspected mob involvement but could not convince Dodge of this, so she went to Special Prosecutor Thomas E. Dewey. He hired her to assist in his investigation of racketeering and organized crime. She was the only woman among the “Twenty Against the Underworld,” as the press called them. She was also the only African American on the prosecutorial team. Soon, she was almost as famous as Dewey. Her charisma added to the glow cast by the artists and writers of Harlem.The Harlem LegendIt was the redefinition of what it means to be an African American that made the Harlem Renaissance a lasting influence instead of just a stylish moment. In the terrible years that were yet to come, when the Jim Crow South defied all modern ideas of humane behavior, African Americans would be sustained and strengthened by a different vision of themselves and their possibilities. The style, however, was very much there. The Cotton Club with its “high yaller” chorus girls. The jazz musicians with their hot music and cool attitudes. The rent parties where a quarter toward someone else's rent could buy you a whole night of food and dancing. Even the celebrities who left—Paul Robeson to Hollywood, Josephine Baker to Paris—somehow remained part of the Harlem legend.For everyone in Harlem—male or female, old or young—there were two lives. There was the daytime, when people engaged in the dreary, often grim, struggle to survive in a white world. And there was the night, when darkness softened reality. In the night, there were dreams and there was music and there was also the knowledge that often these are the necessities, the real tools of survival. Perhaps that was the great secret of the Renaissance in the end. For, as the poet Claude McKay wrote of Harlem in 1940, “Where can you find so many people in pain and so few crying about it?”

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