Study Guide

Harlem Renaissance Literature Characteristics

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  • The Jazz Age

    Swishy dresses. Dapper suits. Loud music and lots of dancing. Who wouldn't love the Jazz Age? But it wasn't all just fun and games. Jazz infiltrated how people thought, how people spoke, and how people—especially famous Shmoopy authors—wrote.

    How? Well, look at it this way: since jazz began as an African-American musical genre, it went hand-in-hand with the writers of the Harlem Renaissance. They both came out of the same clubs and the same minds and the same history.

    Take Langston Hughes. You can't think of Langston Hughes without hearing the swell of a note or the oomph of a beat. Hughes even wrote a whole epic poem based on jazz. No, we don't mean epic as in "whoa, dude, that's epic."

    We mean "epic" in terms of the poetic style… but the poem is pretty rad too.

    Don't just take our word for it, though—put your eyes on that fine piece of literature. It's called, "Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz." And it's quite delightful, if we do say so ourselves.

    Other writers took jazz as a given for their approaches to writing as well. (We're looking at you W.E.B. Du Bois.) Some of the Renaissance's writers were even musicians themselves, like James Weldon Johnson.

    Our point? You can't separate the Jazz Age—or jazz as an artistic medium—from the writers of the Harlem Renaissance. That'd be like trying to take the beats out of hip-hop. Totally impossible. (Though making them with your mouth is totally acceptable.)

    Chew on This:

    Want more evidence of Langston Hughes's inner jazz man? Look no further than "The Weary Blues," which he would perform with a jazz band. We like to think of him as the real slim shady.

    All right, we know: F. Scott Fitzgerald wasn't really a Harlem Renaissance writer. But we're here to offer you one more way of thinking about his seminal Jazz Age classic, The Great Gatsby. People like to think that novel defined the Jazz Age, with its flapper dresses and consumer-crazy high society characters. But maybe we've been thinking about it all backwards. Maybe it was the music of the Jazz Age—the music of the Harlem Renaissance—that made Fitzgerald the writer he was. Think about it…

  • Modernism

    Modernism is one of those things that English teachers and professors go ga-ga over. (No, not that Gaga.) Why? Because it's the perfect example of a writing style that's both accessible and inaccessible at the same time.

    Allow us to explain. It's hard to find a work shorter or simpler than William Carlos Williams' "The Red Wheelbarrow." But some scholars have devoted their whole careers trying to unearth the deeper meanings of this poem.

    In other words, anyone can probably read modernist stuff. However, it can be super hard to understand the depth and scope of these pieces.

    You could think about modernist poems as being like pictures. You know, those things you post to and heart on Instagram. Modernist writers tried to capture a moment in time just like that—as if the moment could be understood with a single image.

    So what does all of this Modernism business have to do with the Harlem Renaissance? After all, weren't the Harlem Renaissance peeps all about jazz, parties, and uniquely black art?

    Well sure, maybe those things were a part of the Harlem Renaissance, but they definitely weren't the whole thing. First and foremost, these Harlem Renaissance writers were artists and that meant they used whatever was around them to flex those artistic muscles.

    Modernism just happened to be available as an artistic style and philosophy that made these artists' proverbial muscles look huge in the gym mirror.

    Now, don't get us wrong: we're not saying that the Harlem Renaissance was just some clone of the modernist movement. The Harlem Renaissance definitely had its own thing going on. It's just that some of the movement's writers were inspired by the other major literary styles of the time.

    This process of inspiration and artistic borrowing is what academics like to call intertextuality. What's that? When two different texts or set of texts influence each other. Okay, so we're not being super helpful here. Allow us to remind you that pretty much any cultural object—or anything really at all—can be a text.

    Which means that intertextuality actually happens all the time. Like when Miley Cyrus paired up with Snoop Dogg for a song. And of course, fans weren't expecting this former child star to collab with a famous rapper. So intertextuality can breathe new life into well-defined artists or artistic styles.

    We guess modernism can be sort of refreshing. Don't you think?

    Chew on This:

    You can't get more modernist than Jean Toomer's "Portrait in Georgia," an itty-bitty thing that packs a serious imagistic wallop.

    Still wondering about that link between Harlem Renaissance writers and modernist writers? Well, Ralph Ellison, one of the major Harlem Renaissance novelists, was all about reading major modernist writers. Like T.S. Eliot, for example. We're pretty sure that if you read Ellison's Invisible Man, you could hunt down some of his modernist leanings without even trying.

  • The Great Migration

    Sorry to disappoint, folks: the Great Migration doesn't have anything to do with geese flying north for the spring.

    The Great Migration was the major historical backbone of the Harlem Renaissance. Sure, slavery and the Civil War were important too, because without those two things, people wouldn't have wanted to flee the South in the first place.

    But in terms of immediate historical relevance, the Great Migration really made the Harlem Renaissance happen. See, during World War I, job opportunities opened up in northern factories. (There's really nothing like a world war to increase employment.) So, African Americans migrated from the South to the North—especially cities like New York City.

    And the war provided them with profitable jobs, which meant they had money to spend. Even more importantly, these new northern immigrants were interested in the hope of a new life and a new racial identity, away from slavery's stranglehold on the South.

    All in all, then, the Great Migration allowed for a critical mass of black people to create the major creative movement we now know as the Harlem Renaissance. Bam.

    Chew on This:

    Since you know the Harlem Renaissance was full of mind-blowing writers, we're guessing you're wondering if any of 'em wrote about the Great Migration. Yes, of course they did, Shmoopers. But you've gotta dig deep, because poets like Langston Hughes weren't interested in giving away their themes for free. In Hughes's "The N**** Speaks of Rivers," that Profound Poet goes on about rivers. But what do rivers matter when the world is "the N****'s" oyster? We think this poem is a reminder that the Great Migration really was great: it spanned a lot more than that long road from the South to the North. It opened up a lot of the country to black people for the first time.

    Oh, and for the record, we've always thought that the Great Migration had a huge historical impact on the development of the Harlem Renaissance. What can we say? We're pretty smart sometimes.

  • Racial Division

    Okay, "racial division" is probably the most obvious theme people might think of when the phrase "Harlem Renaissance" pops up. But that doesn't mean racial divides were easy to comprehend way back then—or now, for that matter.

    In fact, race relations during the Harlem Renaissance were quite complex, and a lot of contradictory things were happening all at the same time. Two steps forward, one step back, are we right?

    On the one hand, there were still officially segregated spaces for black and white people at the time. But then white people would show up at clubs in Harlem hoping to mix with black residents. Just like today, some black people and mixed-race individuals also attempted to "pass" as white.

    So while racial division may have been the rule of the time, there were all sorts of ways people tried to break that rule and make the "color-line" come crashing down.

    Of course, the consequences for "trespassing" into white territory were high for black Americans, while the consequences for whites "trespassing" into black territory were primarily sociopolitical. Lucky for us, we had some awesome writers in the Harlem Renaissance cataloging all this tension and strife for us, so we can (re)visit this time period through their writing.

    People like W.E.B. Du Bois wrote at length about how the country's racial divisions affected how blacks thought about themselves.

    These effects were, and still are, complicated. Even though we all know racial division's a nasty practice, it also produced what Du Bois called "second sight": that ability to see the world and the self from (at least) two different angles.

    Not a silver lining, exactly. But a kind of gift that only the oppressed can receive.

    Chew on This:

    Who mourns for a black man that gets lynched in Dixieland (a.k.a. the South) in the 1920s, under the eyes of a white-faced God? Whew, that sounds like a racially tense situation to us. Langston Hughes investigated exactly this tragic scenario in his poem, "Song for a Dark Girl."

    Actually, no one defines racial division during the Harlem Renaissance better than Langston Hughes. His most famous poem, "Harlem (Dream Deferred)," doesn't even mention the racial divisions of his time; it shows them. Pretty rad, if we do say so ourselves.

  • Duality ("Twoness")

    It's not easy to understand yourself when you see you differently than other people do. And that's the heart of duality, Shmoopers.

    In case you haven't noticed, we still live in a society that (to our great sadness) privileges whiteness. So if you're black, there are multiple ways you can know yourself, can see yourself. First, you've got your own understanding of you. And then there's the way you know white people see you.

    Sounds kind of tough to deal with, right? Have you ever felt like you're walking around with multiple identities inside of you?

    But why entertain our questions when you can get some knowledge dropped on you by the guy who came up with the whole idea of "twoness" and African American identity in the first place: W.E.B. Du Bois. In his book The Souls of Black Folk, he writes:

    One ever feels his twoness, — an American, a N****; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body. 

    See what we mean? "Warring ideals," "two unreconciled strivings"—not exactly pleasant, huh? But he also calls all of this "twoness" a kind of "second-sight," a way of understanding that lets African American people see themselves from an outsider's perspective—from the perspective of a white person.

    Surely what goes on in white people's heads regarding black life and identity can't be all sunshine and rainbows. But this second-sight also makes one a lot more knowledgeable about the differences and similarities between people. And that insight can be very valuable.

    Chew on This:

    Itching for a doubly (or multiply) conscious narrative perspective, a la DuBois's "twoness"? Boy, have we got the guy for you: the narrator of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. You'll be on the edges of your desk-chairs with delight, kiddos. We promise.

    Want to see DuBois's idea of "second sight" or "double-consciousness" in action? If you're in a versical mood, there may be no better place to start than your English teacher's favorite poem, Langston Hughes's, "Theme for English B."

  • The "New N****"

    Think of the New N**** as kind of an early hippie philosophy promising blacks a new self—only without all the flowers, peace signs, and bell-bottoms. In other words, without all the hippie dippy stuff.

    Okay, so our initial analogy wasn't great. The primary similarity between the New N**** and the 60s revolutionary is, well, the fact that they were both revolutionary. The New N**** wrote books, organized and marched in protests, and maybe even carried a gun.

    He was not a peacenik; rather, he was someone you did not want to mess with. In fact, if the New N**** were transplanted into the 60s-70s, he'd probably be a Black Panther.

    If you'd heard of the Harlem Renaissance before today, it was probably in the context of an English course. So we're here to tell you that there was more to this Renaissance than words. Sometimes, there were bullets.

    While the Harlem Renaissance was all about the cultural flowering of African-Americans, the New N**** worked to turn the artists' dreams of freedom and equality into reality. In other words, the "New N****" was the fight to the Renaissance's fancy.

    The New N**** Movement wasn't just about black power though. The New N**** was the philosophical core of the Harlem Renaissance, even for writers who weren't down for getting openly violent about it.

    The New N**** Movement was about ripping racism out by the jugular and creating a totally new frame of mind for people of that era. The New N****, above all else, was a black person who was finally able to feel pride in herself, in her race, and in her race's culture.

    Chew on This:

    Wondering what a New N****'s fight song sounded like? Well, we think our buddy Claude McKay really knew how to stick it to the Man.

    Ever wished there were a guy who lived underground in New York City and could tell you all about all the ways he's tried to fight the power? Well, in Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison's protagonist does exactly that. No other novel captures the growing pains of the New N**** quite like Invisible Man does. Bravo, Ellison. Bravo.

  • Urbanity

    Bright lights, big city. That's what we think of when we hear "New York City." Well, that and Jay Z (we're just trying to be honest here.)

    But anyway, New York City—and Harlem especially—isn't just about the kind of 24/7 action you see at Times Square. And especially to African Americans in the 1920s, New York represented the promise of social, political, and personal progress.

    The city came to hold all the dreams of Southern ex-slaves who yearned not just for racial equality, but also for economic freedom and individual happiness. And luckily, the good city of New York had jobs in spades back then, because World War I drew so many young American men onto the front lines.

    Now, it's important to recall that prior to World War I and the Great Migration, most black Americans lived in the South. They worked on plantations as slaves, where cotton stalks were man's best friends (or, more properly, their worst enemies). Then, all of a sudden, city life—not to mention life in the biggest and possibly coolest American city—opened up to former black slaves.

    Suddenly, people were trading rural living for two-bedroom apartments in city blocks densely populated with other black Americans. So African Americans became surrounded with other like-minded African Americans who shared many of the same hopes and dreams.

    Not everything was shiny and perfect in NYC, though. Even in this seeming utopia of black-dominant spaces, the racial injustice of the 1920s-1930s reigned. Segregation was still in effect. If you dared to stray beyond Harlem to other, white-dominant, parts of New York, you faced a constant threat of oppression and violence.

    Which means that even though many African Americans finally had some chance of pursuing their dreams in the big city, these dreams were still quite often, as Langston Hughes put it, "deferred."

    Society doesn't always change as quickly as laws do. Now-free black Americans still had to deal with racism, from white New Yorkers as well as from other blacks who favored lighter-colored skin (or, you might say, favored the privilege lighter-colored skin brought them in a racist society).

    So big city life wasn't always Broadway, booze, and Liza Minnelli songs. But that didn't stop people from flocking to NYC and other big cities in the northeast.

    And who could blame them? Would you rather pick cotton (even as a free person) in searing, humid heat all day or work a 9-to-5 with the option of enjoying a cozy happy hour and hitting the jazz clubs in the evening? Which sounds better to you?

    Chew on This:

    We've said it before, and we'll say it again: if you want to understand Harlem during the Harlem Renaissance (and afterward), then you have to read Ralph Ellison's epic novel Invisible Man. The book's about a guy who discovers his identity as a black man through his relationship with Harlem and the rest of NYC. So, to say the least, the intricacies of Harlem and city life in general play a huge part in the novel, just like they did in the happenings of the Harlem Renaissance.

    You can't get more urban—or urbane—than Langston Hughes's famous poem "Harlem (Dream Deferred)." Read it and rediscover your inevitably complicated, love-hate relationship with New York. Aw, it's okay. We understand.

  • Socialism/Communism

    Socialism and communism are not the same thing. We get it. Trust us, we do. But during the Harlem Renaissance, all kinds of political thoughts and philosophies were freely explored.

    So, both socialism and communism were favorites of the more politically minded writers of the Harlem Renaissance. Why? Because of their shared commitment to the equal distribution of resources, of course.

    It would be missing the point to dissect the lives of the black artists of 1920s-1930s Harlem in order to see whether or not they actually lived the principals of these political philosophies 100%. The real point is that finally (finally), black Americans could actively participate in the creation of their own political system.

    And all without fear of retribution or lynching by whites… mostly. Which was a pretty big deal.

    Plus, socialism and communism (as well as communism's more American variant, progressivism) were just… in the air back then, you know? You couldn't really avoid 'em. Especially in hip, liberal, equality-minded NYC.

    Chew on This:

    Like some politics with your poetry? Us too. So we've got a recommendation for you: Langston Hughes's "Harlem (Dream Deferred)." It's a fantastic discussion of the politics of oppression during the Harlem Renaissance, we think.

    Prefer your politics in prose form? Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man runs the gamut when it comes to politics and the black American. He is engaged with all of the big philosophies of the era, including socialism and communism.

  • Pan-Africanism

    Which would be the better political path for the newly free black American: to integrate and become African-American or to return to a more African identity?

    Sound familiar? This is basically the question that confronts any American immigrant, only, back then, it wasn't like the free black American could just move back to Africa after over a century in America. And before that, there was slavery…

    Anyway. For starters, which part of Africa could a free black American turn to, especially if slavery had robbed her of much information about or many links to her home country? Stumper, huh? Africa was (and still is) a really huge, diverse continent.

    Some Harlem Renaissance thinkers responded to these questions of black identity by helping to develop Pan-Africanism: a political movement that strove to unify all African cultures under one universal term and set of beliefs. As long as you had some kind of African roots, you could belong to the Pan-African movement.

    And you would be in good company, too. Some of the intellectual heavyweights of the Harlem Renaissance were super immersed in the development of the movement, including Marcus Garvey and W.E.B. DuBois.

    You can also think of pan-Africanism as the precursor to the Afrocentrism of the 60s and 70s. In other words, you might say the pan-Africanists of the Harlem Renaissance invented the whole "Black is Beautiful" movement of the 70s. How's that for cool?

    Chew on This:

    What better way to show the depth and promise of pan-Africanism then through the use of rivers as a metaphor for connectedness? We know. You think it's sexy when we use English lit-speak. But you'll have an even better experience if you just go and read Langston Hughes's poem "The N**** Speaks of Rivers." We still might help you decipher the whole river-as-metaphor deal, though, because that's just what we do.

    Paul Dunbar's poem, "We Wear the Mask," may not scream "Africa." But we don't think it's too much of a leap to think of the mask in his poem as pointing to the importance of masks in African culture. And in this work, it's the detachment from the African-ness of the mask that spells trouble for the African American. So, it still has a pretty strong "back to Africa" message.

  • High/Low Culture

    The Harlem Renaissance practically invented the whole idea of mixing high culture with low culture. Or at least, the Harlem Renaissance made it very cool to do so.

    What about Andy Warhol, you say? Psh. Warhol wasn't even a glimmer of thought in anyone's head when the original high/low artists of the HR started strutting their stuff in the popular forms and sounds of their time.

    The writers of the Harlem Renaissance were drawing on the blues, jazz, gospels—all of which contain rhythms, sounds, or lyrics that harken back to the folk traditions of Africans and African Americans.

    And what "highbrow" things were these authors into? Well, like many well-educated people, the writers of the HR liked to show off their book smarts. Trust us: they were just as equipped to be literary snobs as your Virginia Woolfs and T.S. Eliots. They just didn't want to favor one kind of culture over another, because doing so would be to ignore the unique position of many black writers of that era—they had humble beginnings, but high aspirations for the future.

    So these writers became the original mix-masters of their time, inventing a hybrid culture that honored both their roots and their accomplishments. Kind of like Shmoop, we hope. (Sorry, we had to toot our own horn just a little.)

    Chew on This:

    Want to see high and the low culture really work it together? Look no further than the form of Countee Cullen's poem, "Yet Do I Marvel."

    Langston Hughes is the go-to guy for poetry that draws on "lowbrow" material. He's all about embracing the blues in his works—he writes in a way that channels the loose rhythms and free-styling ways of a great blues jam.

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