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Harlem Renaissance: What was It and Why Does it Matter?

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Humanities Texas hosted a one-day professional development workshop for teachers in Austin on February 28, 2014. The workshop focused on Harlem Renaissance literature and history. The workshop was opened by Professor Cary D. Wintz (Distinguished Professor of History, Texas Southern University). His lecture was titled “The Harlem Renaissance – What Was It? and Why Does it Matter?” Wintz’s remarks address the nature and origins of the movement, which he believes is much more difficult than it might seem.

Wintz is an expert in the Harlem Renaissance as well as African American political thought. Wintz is the author or editor many books, including Harlem Speaks; Black Culture & the Harlem Renaissance; African American Political Thought 1890-1930; African Americans & the Presidency: The Road to The White House; and The Harlem Renaissance In the West. Wintz was the editor of the five-volume Oxford University Press Encyclopedia of African American History 1896 to the Present and the Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance. He is also a prolific writer on Texas history, and is the author of Texas: The Lone Star State, one of the most popular Texas history texts. He is a Houstonian, and a graduate from Rice University and Kansas State University.

When did the Harlem Renaissance begin?

This simple question exposes the complexity of the movement we all know, such as the New Negro Renaissance or the New Negro Movement, Jazz Age or Harlem Renaissance. It is important to understand the nature of the movement and to put it in time and space. This is a complex task that can be difficult to grasp.

The Harlem Renaissance was traditionally viewed as a literary movement that originated in Harlem. It was the result of black migration and Harlem’s rise to prominence as a major black city in the United States. The brief mention of theater and music was more for background and local colour than as inspiration for poetry or local color for fiction. There was no analysis of developments in these areas. Art was also discussed mainly in terms of Aaron Douglas’s association with Langston Hughes, and other young writers who created Fire! In 1926, there was very little to no analysis of the work by African American artists. Even less was said or done about the contributions of women to the arts, music, and theatre.

This narrow view is now outdated. It is now being viewed as a national movement that has connections to international art and culture developments. This lens allows for a more holistic view of the Harlem Renaissance. The emphasis is on the non-literary aspects.


To understand when Harlem Renaissance started, it is necessary to determine its origins. The nature of the Renaissance will determine how we view its origins. The Civic Club Dinner on March 21st 1924 was a signal that the Renaissance had begun. This event is primarily for those who see it as a literary movement. The Civic Club on Twelfth Street, off Fifth Avenue was the venue for this event. It did not take place in Harlem. Charles S. Johnson was the young editor at Opportunity, the National Urban League’s monthly journal. He created the event to honour Jessie Fauset, a writer, on the occasion of her novel, There Is Confusion. Johnson planned a small party for twenty people, including white editors and literary critics, young black writers, and black publishers. Alain Locke was not willing to take charge of the dinner if it honored African American writers more than one novelist.

The simple celebration dinner became a transformative event that attracted over 100 people. W. E. B. represented African Americans. W. E. B. represented African Americans. The majority of white guests were critics and publishers. Carl Van Doren (editor of Century magazine) spoke on behalf of this group, urging the young writers to contribute to the “new literature age” in America.

The Civic Club dinner was a significant step in the literary phase of Harlem Renaissance. Frederick Allen, Harper’s editor, approached Countee Curlen and secured his poems for his magazine right after the poet had finished reading them. Paul Kellogg (editor of Survey Graphic), spent the evening talking with Cullen, Fauset and other young writers. Then Charles S. Johnson was offered a unique opportunity to read an entire issue dedicated to the Harlem literary movement in Survey Graphic. The “Harlem” issue of Survey Graphic, “Mecca of the New Negro”, was published March 1, 1925.2 This made it an instant sensation. Locke later published a book-length edition of the “Harlem”, expanded and re-titled The New Negro, An Interpretation.3 He also included poetry, fiction, and essays on literature and art.

The Harlem Renaissance was a period of musical theater and entertainment that began three years before Shuffle Along’s opening at the 63rd St Musical Hall. Shuffle Along was written by two veteran Vaudeville performers, Flournoy Miller (comedian) and Aubrey Lyles (singer/composer). Although most of the cast was unknown, some such as Josephine Baker or Paul Robeson were soon to be international stars. Eubie Blake recalled how important the production was and pointed out that Sissle, Lyles, and Miller achieved something that other great African American performers, such as Bob Cole, J. Rosamund Johnson and Bert Williams, had tried but failed to accomplish. He exclaimed, “We did it! That’s the story!” “We put Negroes on Broadway!” “4

Langston Hughes, poet, saw Shuffle Along to be a pivotal event in Harlem’s Renaissance. It was his first introduction to New York’s creative world. It also helped to reenergize Harlem’s nightlife and music scene. It introduced black music and theater to white New Yorkers. This helped to create a white fascination for Harlem and the African American arts that were so integral to the Harlem Renaissance. The long-term impact of Shuffle Along was far from Hughes’ mind when he first arrived in New York. It was all about the show in 1921. As he stated in his autobiography it was “a honey show”.

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