The Harlem Renaissance and Black Modernism
The Harlem Renaissance stands as a neat label for a period, running roughly from 1919 to 1932, that has come to be seen as a remarkable efflorescence of African American cultural production. Like all periodizing terms it hides as much as it describes: its dates have been contested and revised; the geography of the movement questioned; and its participants and influence considered and reconsidered with each passing generation of critics. The Harlem Renaissance remains, however, a defining period for urban African American communities and those writers and artists who chose to represent them. As Harlem, but also Chicago, Washington, Detroit, and Philadelphia, drew migrants from the South, we gain the first insights into the conditions of urban African American modernity. This means engagement with the changing technological conditions of urban life; with the speed, noise, and clutter of the new urban centers; and with consumerism, leisure, entertainment, and crime—all the characteristic features of the city in modernity. A sense of dynamic change is reflected in a wide variety of Harlem Renaissance writers and cultural commentators, from Alain Locke’s celebration of the new spirit in Negro life in The New Negro (1926) to James Weldon Johnson’s Black Manhattan (1930) and the controversial avant-gardism of Fire!! magazine (1926).
Discussion of the Harlem Renaissance and its relationship to black modernism immediately raises complex issues of racial agency and appropriation. As seminal studies such as Nathan Huggins’ The Harlem Renaissance or David Levering Lewis’s When Harlem Was In Vogue argue, Harlem was at least as much a construction of the white imagination as it was the site of black cultural expression or freedom. While the 1920s represent a definitive explosion in African American cultural production, it was a flowering briefly over and one that rarely embraced the masses of African Americans. Debates over the existence or extent of black modernism have very often stalled at these very accusations of white co-option and elitism (Huggins; Levering Lewis) but it is perhaps more useful to see the variety and richness of cultural production during the Harlem Renaissance as questioning conventional definitions of modernism and African American literature (Hutchinson 1–28; Balshaw 19–40). Any survey of the literature, drama, and art produced by black artists in the 1920s reveals, as Richard Powellhasargued,serious engagement with the terms of American modernism as well as searching exploration of what it means to be black in white America (Bailey 16–33). Harlem Renaissance works run along a spectrum: from the romantic traditionalism of Countee Cul-