Harry Ransom CenterThe University of Texas at Austin

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Teaching the American Twenties: Exploring the Decade through Literature and Art


Harlem Renaissance

Introduction

"We return.
We return from fighting.
We return fighting.
Make way for Democracy! We saved it from France, and by the Great Jehovah, we will save it in the United States of America, or know the reason why."
W. E. B. Du Bois, "Returning Soldiers," The Crisis , XVIII (May 1919)

Beginning in 1904, Harlem, centered around 135th Street and 5th Avenue, became a mecca for middle-class African-Americans moving north from Hell's Kitchen, Clinton, and other neighborhoods in New York City. Black intellectuals, writers, and other artists were among the first inhabitants of Harlem, the home of the New Negro movement, as the literary and cultural aspects of the renaissance came to be called.

Importantly prefigured by the writings of W. E. B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington, the Harlem Renaissance and the New Negro movement generated an explosion of creativity unique in its breadth and depth; it included groundbreaking work in poetry, fiction, essays, music, dance, and theater. Earlier racism, including rashes of lynchings and officially sanctioned murder, had forced many creative black Americans abroad—among them Josephine Baker and Paul Robeson (later James Wright and James Baldwin would also become exiles). Black soldiers returning home from the war were defiant in the face of white people's lack of appreciation for their service; the U.S. Army's policy had forbidden them from marching in the victory parade on the Champs Elysées in Paris, but the formidable 369th Regiment, better known as the Harlem Hellfighters, marched up Fifth Avenue to Harlem on February 17, 1919. They had served longer than any other U.S. regiment (191 days on active duty). Their triumphant return was a point of pride for the community and stirred the rallying cry from the political leaders of Harlem for black equality in exchange for their sacrifice. At the same time, Marcus Garvey's Back to Africa movement inspired working-class African Americans to take control of their lives and histories. Garvey told UNIA members, "We have a beautiful history, and we shall create another one in the future."

Click Image to Get a Closer Look
Cover of <em>Fire!!</em>, Vol.1, no. 1
Cover of Fire!!, Vol.1, no. 1

By 1926 a generation gap had formed between the founders of the Harlem Renaissance and its younger artists. These artists rejected what they saw as the elders' censorship and political control of their work. Several of them--Langston Hughes, Zora Neale H...
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