- One of the most influential periods in Black American History post-slavery is the Harlem Renaissance An intellectual, social and artistic explosion centered in Harlem, New York.
Gotta love it.
Novels like 'Passing,' by Nella Larsen, 'Their Eyes Were Watching God,' by Zora Neale Hurston and the Poetry of Langston Hughes, were written during this period and have become important centerpieces of the American Literary Canon.
Still when discussing this topic, we tend to flatten the dynamic personalities and identities of the black folk responsible for making this period so iconic.
Not only in America, but as part of the entire black diaspora.
According to statistics before 1910, more than 90% of the African-American population lived in the American South.
Due to poor economic conditions and prevalent racial segregation, around 6 million African-Americans moved to the North, Midwest and West.
To places like Chicago, Pennsylvania and Harlem.
In this period between 1916 and 1970, known as The Great Migration.
The first Great Migration, 1916 to 1940, is what we're concerned with here today.
This massive geographical change was done in order for Black Americans to gain a new set of opportunities for themselves that were not available in the South.
Of course, the North just had their own non Jim Crow flavored kind of racial issues like sundown towns, but the Yankees are in denial about that.
In 1925, the new Negro anthology by Alain Locke, the Dean of the Harlem Renaissance was published.
It launched a new literary movement that spoke to the emerging new black urban identities that had been formed in the aftermath of The Great Migration.
As George Hutchinson put it in the introduction to the Cambridge Companion to the Harlem Renaissance, "The Harlem Renaissance in literature was never a cohesive movement.
It was rather a product of overlapping social and intellectual circles, parallel developments, intersecting groups and competing visions.
yet all loosely bound together by a desire for racial self assertion and self-definition on the face of white supremacy.
The interplay between intense conflict and a sense of being part of a collective project identified by race energize the movement and helps account for our enduring fascination with it."
Sadly, we do not have the time to go through all the fantastic figures that made this movement what it is.
But we will do our best to ensure everyone leaves this video, understanding some of the key voices of the Harlem Renaissance.
Starting with the one you probably learned about in high school, Langston Hughes.
Born February 1st, 1901, Aquarius, in Joplin, Missouri, Hughes became a prolific writer at a very early age.
He gained a lasting sense of racial pride and solidarity from his maternal grandmother, who fed him a hardy diet of black oral traditions and stories about her own activist experiences.
He was especially concerned with the working class black people, who are often neglected and works trying to elevate the race.
'The Negro Speaks of Rivers,' which was published in 1920, became Hughes's signature poem.
"My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
I bathe the new Euphrates when dawn's were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the seeing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans and I've seen it's muddy bosom go all golden in the sunset."
Hughe's works with stress of racial consciousness and cultural nationalism that sought to unite people of African descent around the globe.
His words would also become an important centerpiece of the Negritude movement in France and the French speaking writers of Africa.
Mark A. Sanders, an African-American folk roots and Harlem Renaissance poetry says, "The sheer volume of Hughes's writings, his iconic classic attitude towards black middle-class representation.
And most importantly, his concern for the lives and culture of poor and working class blacks has made him the venerable icon of the Harlem Renaissance."
Hughe's legacy is an important part of not only black American identity, but black consciousness around the world.
In his word, you see a love and appreciation for the beauty of his people.
That is what makes his poetry so powerful across generations.
"The night is beautiful, so the faces of my people.
The stars are beautiful, so the eyes of my people.
Beautiful also is the sun.
Beautiful also are the souls of my people."
Zora Neale Hurston born January 7th, 1891, Capricorn, is the most important black female writer of all time, period.
Initially from Alabama, Hurston attended New York's Bernard College and Columbia University to study Anthropology and do Ethnographic Research with a particular focus on African-American and Caribbean folklore.
Hot girl things.
In 1936 and 1937 Hurston traveled to Jamaica, big ups, and Haiti for research and drew from this experience her anthropological work, 'Tell My Horse.'
Her work as a writer and folklorist was using Florida's historical and cultural collection, expanding upon previously undocumented experiences within black culture.
Sadly Hurston's work slid into obscurity for decades for both cultural and political reasons.
Some of her students, literary contemporaries criticized her use of it, claiming that it was rooted in white racist traditions.
Richard Wright in his review of 'Their Eyes Are Watching God,' said, "Her novel isn't addressed to the Negro, but to a white audience who showed monistic tastes, she knows how to satisfy.
She exploits that phase of Negro life which is quaint, the phase which invokes a piteous smile on the lips of the superior race."
Richard Wright and I have beef.
I strongly disagree with this take and I think that he is full of it.
Martin academics like PBS colleague, Henry Louis Gates Jr, have underscored the significance of her students' use of this specific language.
The narrative voice Hurston created her legacy to Afro-American fiction echoes and aspire to the status of in personality, anonymity and authority of the black vernacular tradition.
True somehow to the unwritten texts of a common blackness."
Due to the efforts of Alice Walker and other black female academics, Hurston's literary star has risen over the decades, deservedly.
Most recently Hurston's manuscript Barracoon, was published posthumously in 2018.
Now entering from Jamaica and considered the foremost left wing black intellectual of his age is Festus Claudius Claude McKay.
Which is the most West Indian name I could think of, knew he was Jamaican just by reading his name.
Claude McKay is a writer not as well known today, but was a huge influence on writers like James Baldwin and Richard Wright.
Also, he was a Virgo.
McKay came to the United States in 1912 to attend the Tuskegee Institute.
And in 1919, he wrote and published one of his most famous pieces of poetry, 'If We Must Die.'
During the red summer, a year were white supremacist terrorism and racial riots took place in more than a dozen cities across the United States.
"Oh, kinsmen, we must meet the common foe though far outnumbered, let us show us brave, and for the thousand blows deal one deathblow.
Though before us lies the open grave, like men we faced a murderous cowardly pack pressed to the wall dying, but fighting back."
When the African-American Museum was opened in D.C., this poem was read during the dedication ceremony.
McKay along with other Caribbean writers like Sarah Briggs, Richard B. Moore and Wilfred Domingo were part of the intellectual black socialist societies that had been forming around this time.
In 1928, McKay published his most famous novel, "Home to Harlem," which was both a best seller and also controversial for being too sexy.
He attempted to capture the lives of the uprooted black vagabonds and did so with such vigor that it was to the chagrin of many who thought it wasn't respectable enough.
McKay passed away in 1948 and in 1977, he was named the National Poet of his native land of Jamaica.
Anne Spencer, another Aquarius.
Holds a unique place in the history of the Harlem Renaissance.
Because even though she lived outside of New York City, she was still an important member and key intellectual player in the movement.
Spencer was very well-polished and anthologized during her lifetime.
And was the first Virginian and one of three African-American women, included in the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry.
During her lifetime, Spencer published over 30 poems.
But sadly, a lot of her work has been lost through the ages.
According to a scholar of Afro-American Studies, Carolyn E. Ferrari, "In addition to providing a voice for black environmental imaginaries, Spencer's poetry also challenges pervasive stereotypes specific to black women and their bodies.
What is unique and remarkable about Spencer's poetry is that she offers a vision of black womanhood and the natural world that exists beyond the ideologies of dominion.
She offers an alternative way of being and thinking about being."
Spencer is unfortunately a lesser known figure in the Harlem Renaissance, yet a supremely important and planting the seeds of what will become the Black Women's Movement.
She is also a reminder that despite the migration North, much of the black historical roots that we look to are rooted in the South.
Her home became an important center of knowledge for the likes of George Washington Carver, Thurgood Marshall, Martin Luther King, Jr. and W.E.B.
Du Bois, ever heard of them?
Nella Larsen, Aries, was born in Chicago to a mixed race Afro Caribbean father and a Danish mother.
Her father was absent in her life, leaving her to be raised by a white immigrant family that taught her early on that she would have no place in white society, despite her light skin.
This also limited Larsen's early access to a black identity.
This disconnect would be an inspiration for much of Larson's work.
According to Howard University Professor of African-American Literature, Gregory J. Hampton, "It was not until the Harlem Renaissance and the arrival of writers, such as Nella Larsen, that realistic images of black women began to evolve in the African American literary tradition.
Among her works Larson published two important novels of note, 'Quicksand,' and 'Passing.'
'Quicksand' is her more autobiographical work dealing with protagonists, Helga Crane.
A woman who struggles to find her identity in a world of racialized crisis during the 1920s.
She, like the author, has a white mother an absent black father and no sense of a clear black identity.
'Passing,' the more popular of the two, centers on the reunion of two childhood friends.
One of whom is passing for a white woman, married to a racist white husband in Harlem, New York.
It does not end well for her, also now a major motion picture by Rebecca Hall.
Good for her.
Larson did not fit seamlessly into the new Negro movement because so much of her work dealt with the unspoken conflicts of not fitting into your racial identity.
Larsen's 'Passing' is about the losses gained from assimilating into whiteness.
And how for black folk, it comes with more traumas.
Not only does it mean a loss of community and family, but also a total severance of black history for future generations.
Unlike the Rachel Dolezal of the world, these people did not become white in order to take over white institutions.
They became white to be given a fair shot, to survive in a racist society.
To simply be granted full citizenship in the country of their birth.
It is a dark conflict that Larson not only understood as a person, but embraced as a writer.
Before we wrap up, we also have to recognize someone who is important to curating the knowledge that we have about the Harlem Renaissance.
Arturo Alfonso Schomberg, historian and activist Schomberg was an Afro-Latino man, a black Puerto Rican and German ancestry, probably calling himself Afro Puerto Rican.
After hearing from his teacher that black people had no history.
He spent his entire life trying to prove that teacher wrong and succeeded.
He collected undocumented, the accomplishments of people, of African heritage, all across the world.
He immigrated to New York City in 1891, eventually landing in Harlem.
But the 1920s Schomberg had amassed a collection which consisted of artworks, manuscripts, rare books, slave narratives, and other artifacts of black history.
He along with historian of Civil Rights Activists, John Edward Bruce, formed the Negro Society for Historical Research, which brought together African, West Indian and Afro-American scholars.
Schomberg's collection is part of the Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture, which is located in Harlem today.
One of the frustrating parts of black history month is that it stuffs so much important history and legacy into the shortest month of the year and it gets overshadow by Valentine's day anyway.
And you don't have time to get into the meat of things.
I never knew how many queer black people were part of the Harlem Renaissance.
The infighting between important figures to structures of feminism that were being built and the way it melded Black American and black immigrant struggles into this major city.
I'm from Brooklyn, I've been to Harlem many times.
But it wasn't until I got older, started doing my own research that I got a real understanding of its history.
This video, ideally, isn't just a quick overview of the greatest hits of this literary era.
It is an invitation to you to do your own research, to read up on these really interesting players of one of the golden ages of black intelligence, yeah.
You will not regret it there is a lot of drama.
A lot of drama.
And also it's just an important part of history that matters 365 days of the year, not just in February.
So go enjoy!
There's plenty of stuff to devour.