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Harlem Renaissance Women

African American Women Dreaming in Color

By

Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston portrait by Carl Van Vechten

Courtesy Library of Congress
Marian Anderson 1928

Marian Anderson 1928

Hulton Archive / Getty Images
Bessie Smith 1923

Bessie Smith 1923

Frank Driggs Collection / Getty Images

You may have heard of Zora Neale Hurston or Bessie Smith -- but do you know of Georgia Douglas Johnson? Augusta Savage? Nella Larsen? These -- and dozens more -- were women of the Harlem Renaissance.

Calling Dreams

The right to make my dreams come true
I ask, nay, I demand of life,
Nor shall fate's deadly contraband
Impede my steps, nor countermand.

Too long my heart against the ground
Has beat the dusty years around,
And now, at length, I rise, I wake!
And stride into the morning break!

Georgia Douglas Johnson, 1922

The Context

It was the early twentieth century, and the world had already changed tremendously compared to the world of their parents and grandparents.

Slavery had ended in America more than half a century earlier. While African Americans still faced tremendous economic and social obstacles in both the northern and southern states, there were more opportunities than there had been.

After the Civil War (and beginning slightly before, especially in the North), education for black Americans -- and black and white women -- had become more common. Many were not able to attend or complete school, but a substantial few were able not only to attend and complete elementary or secondary school, but college. Professional education opened up to blacks and women. Some black men became professionals: physicians, lawyers, teachers, businessmen. Some black women also found professional careers as teachers, librarians. These families in turn saw to the education of their daughters.

Some saw the returning black soldiers from World War I as an opening of opportunity for African Americans. Black men had contributed to the victory, too. Surely America would now welcome these black men into full citizenship.

Black Americans were moving out of the rural South, and into the cities and towns of the industrial North. They brought "black culture" with them: music with African roots and story-telling. The general culture began adopting as its own elements of that black culture: this was the Jazz Age!

Hope was rising -- though discrimination, prejudice and closed doors on account of race and sex were by no means eliminated. But there were new opportunities. It seemed more worthwhile to challenge those injustices: perhaps the injustices could be eliminated, or at least made less.

Harlem Renaissance Flowering

In this environment, a flowering of music, fiction, poetry and art in African American intellectual circles came to be called the Harlem Renaissance. A Renaissance, like the European Renaissance, in which moving forward while going back to roots generated tremendous creativity and action. Harlem, because one of the centers was the neighborhood of New York City called Harlem, by this time predominantly peopled by African Americans, more of whom were daily arriving from the South.

It was not just in New York -- though New York City and Harlem remained at the center of the more experimental aspects of the movement. Washington, DC, Philadelphia, and to a lesser extent Chicago were other northern US cities with large established black communities with enough educated members to "dream in color" too.

The NAACP, founded by white and black Americans to further the rights of "colored people," established its journal they called Crisis, edited by W. E. B. Du Bois. Crisis took on the political issues of the day affecting black citizens. And Crisis also published fiction and poetry, with Jessie Fauset as the literary editor.

The Urban League, another organization working to serve city communities, published Opportunity. Less explicitly political and more consciously cultural, Opportunity was published by Charles Johnson; Ethel Ray Nance served as his secretary.

The political side of Crisis was complemented by the conscious striving for a black intellectual culture: poetry, fiction, art that reflected the new race consciousness of "The New Negro." Exploring the human condition as African Americans experienced it: love, hope, death, racial injustice, dreams.

Who Were the Women?

Most of the figures well known as part of the Harlem Renaissance were men: W.E.B. DuBois, Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes are names known to most serious students of American history and literature today. And, because many opportunities that had opened up for black men had also opened up for women of all colors, African American women too began to "dream in color" -- to demand that their view of the human condition be part of the dream, too.

Jessie Fauset not only edited the literary section of The Crisis, she also hosted evening gatherings for the black intellectuals of Harlem: artists, thinkers, writers. Ethel Ray Nance and her roommate Regina Anderson also hosted gatherings in their home in New York City. Dorothy Peterson, a teacher, used her father's Brooklyn home for literary salons. In Washington, DC, Georgia Douglas Johnson's "freewheeling jumbles" were Saturday night "happenings"for black writers and artists in that city.

Regina Anderson also arranged for events at the Harlem public library where she served as an assistant librarian. She read new books by exciting black authors, and wrote up and distributed digests to spread interest in the works.

These women were integral parts of the Harlem Renaissance for these roles they played. As organizers, editors, decision-makers, they helped publicize, support and thus shape the movement.

But they also participated more directly. Jessie Fauset not only was literary editor of The Crisis and hosted salons in her home. She arranged for the first publication of work by the poet Langston Hughes. Fauset also wrote articles and novels herself, not only shaping the movement from the outside, but being part of the movement herself.

The larger circle included writers like Dorothy West and her younger cousin, Georgia Douglas JohnsonHallie Quinn and Zora Neale Hurston, journalists like Alice Dunbar-Nelson and Geraldyn Dismond, artists like Augusta Savage and Lois Mailou Jones, singers like Florence Mills, Marian AndersonBessie Smith, Clara Smith, Ethel Waters, Billie Holiday, Ida Cox, Gladys Bentley. Many of the women addressed not only race issues, but gender issues, too: what it was like to live as a black woman. Some addressed cultural issues of "passing" or expressed the fear of violence or the barriers to full economic and social participation in American society. Some celebrated black culture -- and worked to creatively develop that culture.

Ending the Renaissance

The Depression made the literary and artistic life more difficult, even as it hit black communities even harder economically than it hit white communities. White men were given even more preference when jobs became scarce. Some of the Harlem Renaissance figures looked for better-paying, more secure work. America grew less interested in African American art and artists, stories and story-tellers. By the 1940s, many of the creative figures of the Harlem Renaissance were already being forgotten by all but a few scholars specializing narrowly in the field.

Rediscovery?

Alice Walker's rediscovery of Zora Neale Hurston in the 1970s helped turn public interest back towards this fascinating group of writers, male and female. Today, scholars are working on finding more of the works growing of the Harlem Renaissance, rediscovering more of the artists and writers.

The works found are a reminder not only of the creativity and vibrancy of those women and men who participated -- but they're also a reminder that the work of creative people can be lost, even if not explicitly suppressed, if the race or the sex of the person is the wrong one for the time.

Perhaps that's why the Harlem Renaissance artists can speak so eloquently to us today: the need for more justice and more recognition are not so different than they were. Into their art, their writings, their poetry, their music, they poured their spirits and hearts.

The women of the Harlem Renaissance -- except perhaps for now Zora Neale Hurston -- have been more neglected and forgotten than their male colleagues, then and now. To get acquainted with more of these impressive women, visit the biographies of Harlem Renaissance women.

Bibliography:

  • Harlem Renaissance and Beyond: Literary Biographies of 100 Black Women Writers 1900-1945: Lorraine Elena Roses and Ruth Elizabeth Randolph. Paperback, 1990.
    Compare Prices)
  • Harlem's Glory: Black Women Writing 1900-1950: Lorraine Elena Roses and Ruth Elizabeth Randolph, editors.
    (compare prices: hardcoverpaperback)
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