Harlem Renaissance: History

The Harlem Renaissance began around 1918 to 1920 and was an era of African American art. The period was sparked by literary discussions in lower Manhattan (Greenwich Village) and Upper Manhattan (Harlem and New York City). The movement was known as the “New Negro Movement” coined by Alain Leroy Locke in 1925. The “New Negro” was a term related to African Americans during the Great Migration who had moved from the south to northern cities in the United States in search of better education, employment, and suffrage. “The New Negro” was utilized to describe African Americans as artistic, conscious and sophisticated, as opposed to the stereotypes of African Americans being innately servile.
The Harlem Renaissance was known as having a militant edge. The era acted as a celebration and development of the intellectual achievements of African Americans. It was also described as a literary movement and social revolt against the racism implemented by Jim Crow Laws. This period was utilized to recreate the Black identity through varied mediums: music, literature, visual art, and entertainment.
The Harlem Renaissance also sparked the notion of the “New Negro Woman”, relating to women poets, authors and intellectuals, known for their race conscious writing. Women in the Harlem Renaissance played a vital role as the voice for the struggling minority of African American women. African American women utilized the movement to express their views on race and gender relations.

Women of the Movement

·      Zora Neal Hurston 
·      Nella Larsen 
·      Angelina Weld Grimke 
·      Georgia Douglas Johnson
·      Gwendolyn Bennett
·      Alice Dunbar Nelson
·      Jesse Fauset
·      Marita Bonner
·      Eulalie Spence
·      Dorothy West
·      Helene Johnson

Visual Artists
·      Augusta Savage
·      Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller
·      Lois Mailou Jones

Musicians/ Composers
·      Billie Holiday
·      Lil Hardin Armstrong 
·      Bessie Smith
·      Mammie Smith (Blues)
·      Ivie Anderson
·      Ella Fitzgerald
·      Ma Rainey
·      Lucille Bogan a.k.a Bessie Jackson
·      Marian Anderson
·      The Dandridge Sisters
·      Victoria Spivey

 Lucille Bogan singing, "Drinking Blues"

Lil' Hardin Armstrong singing, "Harlem On A Saturday Night"

·      Josephine Baker 
·      Jackie “Moms” Mabley 
·      Ethel Waters
·      Florence Mills
·      Lena Horne

 Josephine Baker in Moulin Rouge (1940)

 Jackie "Mom's" Mabley in her Comedy Stand Up

Blues Women Vs. Club Women

During this period, African American women were apart of the 1st wave of the Women’s Movement in defining their “respectability”. The views on respectability ranged from the Club Women to Blues Women.  Club Women were out to establish equal rights and change the perception of black women as being prostitutes and thieves. However, Blues Women wanted to establish economic independence from men and take part in leisure, such as gambling, sex and drinking. The idea of “respectability” was important to the African American women’s new identity as opposed to the constructed identity placed on them by white society. 

Excerpt from a Blues Woman’s Diary: Ada Smith

March 15, 1922
I figured I would write a little record of my journey, since I plan on leaving Columbus, Georgia. My name is Ruth Smith but I want my stage name to be Ada Smith. I always liked that name better. I wanna see the world and sing for people. I wanna be a great Blues Singer. I know I got the voice and the talent. All I need is a chance to show people. Because I have a lot to show. I told Momma today that I’m tired of cleaning and fixing up white folks houses. We work from early in the morning to late at night and I’m tired of it. I wanna be the one they pay to see on a big stage with a live band behind me. But she don’t pay me no mind. We have to sneak food out those white folks houses, just to put food on the table. Even though we are “raiding the pantries” (Jones, 2010, p. 128), Momma calls it “early pay.” But for fun, I go to the Green Shack to perform, hoping someone will find me and take me out of here.
I told my momma I gotta go
I told my sista I gotta go
I told my friends I gotta go
I gotta get outta here
They say hush up now
Hush up, Sally
You aint goin nowhere

Women of the Cotton Club

The Cotton Club was a popular nightclub in Harlem during the Prohibition that was established in 1923. The entertainers and servers at the club were African American; however, the clientele was white. Well-known female artists that performed at the nightclub were Ethel Waters, Lena Horne and The Dandridge Sisters.  The Cotton Club was known for supporting black stereotypes, by providing animalistic costumes to the dancers and creating oppressive segregation in the club. The dancers at the nightclub were hired under austere and prejudiced standards. They had to be at least 5 feet, 6 inches, light-skinned, and below the age of 21. 

This was one of the flyers utilized to bring white patrons to the Cotton Club.


Poems from Women of the Harlem Renaissance

To A Dark Girl

I love you for your brownness,
And the rounded darkness of your breast,
I love you for the breaking sadness in your voice
And shadows where your wayward eyelids rest.

Something of old forgotten queens
Lurks in the lithe abandon of your walk
And something of the shackled slave
Sobs in the rhythm of your talk.

Oh, little brown girl, born for sorrow’s mate,
Keep all you have of the queenliness,
Forgetting that you once were slave,
And let your full lips laugh at fate

- Gwendolyn Bennett

White Things

Most things are colorful things – they sky, earth and sea.
Black men are most men; but the white are free!
White things are rare things; so rare, so rare
They stole from out a silvered world—somewhere.
Finding earth-plains fair plains, save greenly grassed,
They strewed white feathers of cowardice, as they passed
They golden stars with lances fine
The hills all red and darkened pine,
They blanched with their wand of power;
And turned the blood in a ruby rose
To a poor white poppy-flower.
They pyred a race of black, black men,
Laughing, A young one claimed a skull,
For the skull of a black is white, not dull,
But a glistening awful thing;
Made, it seems, for this ghoul to swing
And swear by the hell that sired him:
“Man-maker, make white!

- Anne Bethel Spencer