Spanning the 1920s to the mid-1930s, the Harlem Renaissance was a literary, artistic, and intellectual movement that kindled a new black cultural identity. Its essence was summed up by critic and teacher Alain Locke in 1926 when he declared that through art, “Negro life is seizing its first chances for group expression and self determination.” Harlem became the center of a “spiritual coming of age” in which Locke’s “New Negro” transformed “social disillusionment to race pride.” Chiefly literary, the Renaissance included the visual arts but excluded jazz, despite its parallel emergence as a black art form.
The nucleus of the movement included Jean Toomer, Langston Hughes, Rudolf
Fisher, Wallace Thurman, Jessie Redmon Fauset, Nella Larsen, Arna Bontemps,
Countee Cullen, and Zora Neale Hurston. An older generation of writers and
intellectuals–James Weldon Johnson, Claude McKay, Alain Locke, and Charles S.
Johnson–served as mentors.The publishing industry, fueled by whites’ fascination
with the exotic world of Harlem, sought out and published black writers. With much
of the literature focusing on a realistic portrayal of black life, conservative black
critics feared that the depiction of ghetto realism would impede the cause of racial
equality. The intent of the movement, however, was not political but aesthetic. Any
benefit a burgeoning black contribution to literature might have in defraying racial
prejudice was secondary to, as Langston Hughes put it, the “expression of our
individual dark-skinned selves.”The Harlem Renaissance influenced future
generations of black writers, but it was largely ignored by the literary establishment
after it waned in the 1930s. With the advent of the civil rights movement, it again
acquired wider recognition.