The Literature Book (Big Ideas Simply Explained) (2016)

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IN CONTEXT

FOCUS

The Harlem Renaissance

BEFORE

1923 Jean Toomer publishes his first novel, Cane – a key Modernist work evoking black life in the South. Of mixed race, Toomer preferred to be termed an “American writer” rather than a “black writer”, but was a central figure in the Harlem Renaissance.

1923 Aged 21, Countee Cullen wins an award from the Poetry Society of America for his poem “The Ballad of the Brown Girl”, about a doomed interracial romance. He becomes a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance.

1934 Harlem Renaissance writer Langston Hughes publishes his first short story collection, The Ways of White Folks, focusing on race relations; the title is intended to be mocking.

The Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and ‘30s – or the “flowering of Negro Literature”, as the US author and Civil Rights activist James Weldon Johnson put it – was an important awakening of African-American cultural pride and identity. The movement centred on Harlem, New York City, USA, and began in 1924 when Opportunity magazine held a party to introduce black writers to white publishers, giving them access to mainstream exposure.

Emerging out of a burgeoning urban black middle class, the Harlem Renaissance also embraced theatre, music, and a new political awareness. Although the Great Depression brought the movement to an end, it marked a significant step forward in self-respect for black America, and laid the groundwork for the Civil Rights Movement after World War II.

A defiant voice

Zora Neale Hurston (1891–1960), was a Harlem Renaissance writer and a prominent figure in both African-American and women’s literature. Her best-known novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, is about a poor black woman, Janie Crawford, in the Southern states of the USA in the early 20th century. The story is book-ended by her return to Eatonville, Florida – the USA’s proud first all-black city – where Hurston herself grew up.

Like other Harlem Renaissance texts, the novel differs from earlier works about African-American life by being honest and realistic rather than overtly sentimental. Hurston’s innovative use of the rural Southern black dialect is a notable feature of the text. The book also focuses on Janie’s marriages to three husbands, each of whom dominates her life and undermines her status, and against whom she rebels.

Their Eyes Were Watching God is an early and defiant voice on several crucial issues that have lost none of their relevance or resonance in the modern world – notably racism, poverty, and gender inequality.

See also: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass • Invisible Man • Beloved