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3. Utopian Promise   

10. Rhythms
in Poetry

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Activities: Context Activities

Harlem in the 1920s: The Cultural Heart of America

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Jazzin' the Cotton Town Blues

[5496] Harry Olsen, Jazzin' the Cotton Town Blues (1920), courtesy of Duke University.
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At its peak in the 1920s, Harlem was the cultural and artistic heart of America. Stretching north of Central Park from Park Avenue in the east to St. Nicholas Avenue in the west and all the way up to 155th Street, Harlem was a city within a city, where black businessmen like Phillip Payton owned huge apartment buildings and rented them to black families and where black families could buy from black merchants. Harlem pulsed with promise and expectation for black America. From 1913 through the end of World War II in 1945, hundreds of thousands of African Americans relocated from the South to the urban North. Known as the Great Migration, this dramatic resettlement changed the face of American cities as blacks arrived by the thousands in Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Philadelphia, and especially New York City. With renewed racism fueled by Jim Crow laws (legalized segregation in the South) and a nationwide resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, African Americans looked to the urban North, where the world wars had created jobs and a hope of escape from rural poverty. As the most famous and vibrant cultural center of black American life, Harlem was transformed by this influx of people and talent. New arrivals like Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston would become renowned artists. The move north was difficult, though. In Harlem, the South Side of Chicago, and other neighborhoods experiencing this sudden migration, housing conditions were often abysmal.

Artists and intellectuals also flocked to the cities. Some, like W. E. B. Du Bois, Alain Locke, and Marcus Garvey, were already famous, and some, like Langston Hughes, Aaron Douglas, and Zora Neale Hurston, hovered on the verge of fame. Harlem became such an important center of cultural vitality that it attracted many whites. The great photographer Alfred Stieglitz and bibliophile Arthur Schomburg were among the many nonblacks who mingled socially and intellectually with black artists and intellectuals, usually at parties hosted by people like Madam C. J. Walker, the first black woman millionaire, and Carl Van Vechten, a white patron of the arts. By the mid-1920s, the Harlem Renaissance was in full swing.

Harlem became a hub of American popular culture, and thousands of people flooded to this small section of New York City to catch a glimpse of the nightlife, characterized by speakeasies, jazz clubs, and cabarets. As Langston Hughes wrote in 1926, "Harlem was in vogue." In these Harlem clubs, institutionalized racism took a peculiar form: although most of them, including the famous Cotton Club, featured black performers on stage, they banned blacks from the audience for fear of driving away white patrons. The injustice and irony of the situation was not lost on the artists of the period. In poems like "The Harlem Dancer," "He Was a Man," and "Visitors to the Black Belt," McKay, Brown, and Hughes criticize the veiled racism that made all things black-from jazz, dance, and variety shows-popular across America but unavailable to African American audiences.

On the other hand, African American artists gained respect and critical acclaim outside their own communities. The first all-black musical, Shuffle Along, opened at the 62nd Street Theater in midtown Manhattan in 1921, and African American performers like Josephine Baker and Paul Robeson became celebrities in Europe as well as in the United States. Jazz became a sensation in London, in Paris, even in Stalinist Russia, and many musicologists regard it as America's greatest musical contribution. From the black American experience in New Orleans, Chicago, and Harlem, jazz affirmed internationally the coming of age of African American culture.

Led by W. E. B. Du Bois, Alain Locke, Charles S. Johnson, and others, the Harlem Renaissance had specific political aims. These leaders believed that art could help African Americans achieve social, political, and economic equality in America. The movement placed great faith in the Talented Tenth, Du Bois's term for an educated class of African Americans empowered to improve the situation for all. If African Americans could prove themselves as writers and artists, Du Bois reasoned, then the rest of society would ultimately acknowledge their importance, and their right to equality under the law and in social arenas. Du Bois's ideas conflicted with those of Booker T. Washington, who championed economic independence through vocational education; and they also caused bitter controversy among Harlem Renaissance writers, especially Brown, Hurston, and Hughes, because their art did not always portray blacks in a positive light. But controversy became a source of vitality, and the Harlem Renaissance produced some of the most vibrant and powerful American art of the twentieth century.

  1. Comprehension: What were some of the historical and social developments that contributed to the cultural prominence of Harlem?

  2. Comprehension: How did the physical space of Harlem contribute to an artistic renaissance?

  3. Context: Renaissance leaders like W. E. B. Du Bois and Alain Locke held distinct views about how black Americans could attain social equality in the United States. They believed that by demonstrating artistic ability and talent, African Americans could gain respect and acceptance for the race. They held that black artists should portray only positive attributes and dignified experiences of black Americans. However, many Harlem Renaissance authors and artists resisted that imperative. How do the authors in this unit reflect or challenge the values set forth by leaders of the Harlem Renaissance?

  4. Context: Compare Aaron Douglas's Study for Aspects of Negro Life, in the archive, to Langston Hughes's poem "The Negro Speaks of Rivers." What is the relationship between Africa and the "New Negro" in each?

  5. Exploration: Modernist poetry relies on the city as a symbol of modern culture and the human condition. How do Eliot's London, Sandburg's Chicago, and Hughes's Harlem all represent particular interpretations of the city and the modern condition?

  6. Exploration: What do you think of Du Bois's concept of the Talented Tenth? What problems might this idea give rise to?


[3548] Anonymous, Louis Armstrong Conducting Band, NBC Microphone in Foreground (1937),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-118977].
Louis Armstrong was one of the best-known jazz musicians of the 1930s. Jazz had an important influence in modernist writing and visual art.

[4553] James Allen, Nella Larsen (1928),
courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Portrait of Nella Larsen. The author of Quicksand, Larsen wrote novels and short stories that dealt with race, class, and gender. She was associated with the Harlem Renaissance.

[5289] Aaron Douglas, Study for Aspects of Negro Life: The Negro Man in an African Setting (1934),
courtesy of The Art Institute of Chicago: Aaron Douglas, American, 1899-1979, Study for Aspects of Negro Life: the Negro in an African setting, before 1934, gouache on Whatman artist's board, 37.5 x 41 cm, Estate of Solomon Byron Smith; Margaret Fisher Fund, 1990.416.
Sketch of Africans dancing and playing music. This became part of a Harlem mural sponsored by the Works Progress Administration chronicling African American history, from freedom in Africa to life in the contemporary United States. Africa and ancestry were themes of "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," by Langston Hughes, and "Africa," by Claude McKay.

[5479] Winold Reiss, Drawing in Two Colors (c. 1920),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC4-5687].
Offset lithograph of African American man dancing; also titled Interpretation of Harlem Jazz I. Poets, novelists, and painters incorporated the imagery and rhythms of jazz in their art.

[5496] Harry Olsen, Jazzin' the Cotton Town Blues (1920),
courtesy of Duke University. Sheet-music cover showing an African American band and couples dancing in formal attire.
The New Negro Movement held that positive artistic representations of African Americans would lead to the acquisition of civil rights.

[7134] Anonymous, Didn't My Lord Deliver Daniel (n.d.),
courtesy of The Book of American Negro Spirituals (1925), by James Weldon Johnson, Viking Press.
Like many Sorrow Songs, these lyrics speak of the hope for delivery from sin and slavery. Compiler James Weldon Johnson, a major Harlem Renaissance intellectual and poet, self-consciously claimed slave ancestors and their creations as sources of cultural pride.

[7406] Staff photographer, Duke Ellington, Half-Length Portrait, Seated at Piano, Facing Right (1965),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-123232].
Photograph of jazz musician Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington playing the piano. Black musicians such as Ellington were a major force in the development of jazz, arguably the first truly American art form. The rhythms and images of the jazz aesthetic deeply influenced the writers and visual artists of the Harlem Renaissance.

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