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The Harlem Renaissance and Race in a Cosmopolitan World

Page history last edited by Abigail Heiniger 4 years ago

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 The Harlem Renaissance and Race in a Cosmopolitan World




The Harlem Renaissance was an era when African American art entered center stage both in the United States and around the globe. 


It was time for a cultural celebration. African Americans had endured centuries of slavery and the struggle for abolition. The end of bondage had not brought the promised land many had envisioned. Instead, WHITE SUPREMACYwas quickly, legally, and violently restored to the New South, where ninety percent of African Americans lived. Starting in about 1890, African Americans migrated to the North in great numbers. This GREAT MIGRATIONeventually relocated hundreds of thousands of African Americans from the rural South to the urban North. Many discovered they had shared common experiences in their past histories and their uncertain present circumstances. Instead of wallowing in self-pity, the recently dispossessed ignited an explosion of cultural pride. Indeed, African American culture was reborn in the HARLEM RENAISSANCE.


The Great Migration

The Great Migration began because of a "push" and a "pull." Disenfranchisement and Jim Crow laws led many African Americans to hope for a new life up north. Hate groups and hate crimes cast alarm among African American families of the Deep South. The promise of owning land had not materialized. Most blacks toiled as sharecroppers trapped in an endless cycle of debt. In the 1890s, a boll weevil blight damaged the cotton crop throughout the region, increasing the despair. All these factors served to push African Americans to seek better lives. The booming northern economy forged the pull. Industrial jobs were numerous, and factory owners looked near and far for sources of cheap labor.

Unfortunately, northerners did not welcome African Americans with open arms. While the legal systems of the northern states were not as obstructionist toward African American rights, the prejudice among the populace was as acrimonious. White laborers complained that African Americans were flooding the employment market and lowering wages. Most new migrants found themselves segregated by practice in run down urban slums. The largest of these was Harlem. Writers, actors, artists, and musicians glorified African American traditions, and at the same time created new ones.


Writers and Actors

The most prolific writer of the Harlem Renaissance was LANGSTON HUGHES. Hughes cast off the influences of white poets and wrote with the rhythmic meter of blues and jazz. CLAUDE MCKAY urged African Americans to stand up for their rights in his powerful verses. JEAN TOOMER wrote plays and short stories, as well as poems, to capture the spirit of his times. Book publishers soon took notice and patronized many of these talents. ZORA NEALE HURSTON was noticed quickly with her moving novel, THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD. Music met prose in the form of musical comedy. The 1921 production of SHUFFLE ALONG is sometimes credited with initiating the movement. Actor PAUL ROBESONelectrified audiences with his memorable stage performances.



No aspect of the Harlem Renaissance shaped America and the entire world as much as jazz. JAZZ flouted many musical conventions with its syncopated rhythms and improvised instrumental solos. Thousands of city dwellers flocked night after night to see the same performers. IMPROVISATION meant that no two performances would ever be the same. Harlem's COTTON CLUB boasted the talents of DUKE ELLINGTON. Singers such as BESSIE SMITH and BILLIE HOLIDAYpopularized blues and jazz vocals. JELLY ROLL MORTON and LOUIS ARMSTRONGdrew huge audiences as white Americans as well as African Americans caught jazz fever.

The continuing hardships faced by African Americans in the Deep South and the urban North were severe. It took the environment of the new American city to bring in close proximity some of the greatest minds of the day. Harlem brought notice to great works that might otherwise have been lost or never produced. The results were phenomenal. The artists of the Harlem Renaissance undoubtedly transformed African American culture. But the impact on all American culture was equally strong. For the first time, white America could not look away. Retrieved from US History.



The Social Side of the Harlem Renaissance



This artistic celebration had political significance as well. African Americans embraced new opportunities during the Roaring 20s



Modernism, the Harlem Renaissance and Cogewea Half-Blood


The Harlem Renaissance brought minority art in the United States to international prominence as America shifted from Victorian aesthetics  to Modernism.


Ezra Pound captured the essence of Modernism with his famous dictum, "Make it New!" 


The drive for a new aesthetic varies wildly in literature (and throughout the arts). However, there is tendency towards both abstraction (as seen in these paintings). Almost ironically, this abstraction was often an attempt to explore reality (or an alternate reality). 


Henri MatisseLe bonheur de vivre, 1905-6, Barnes FoundationMerion, PA. An early Fauvist masterpiece.



Hans HofmannThe Gate, 1959–60, collection: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Hofmann was renowned not only as an artist but also as a teacher of art, and a modernist theorist both in his native Germany and later in the U.S. During the 1930s in New York and California he introduced Modernism and modernist theories to a new generation of American artists. Through his teaching and his lectures at his art schools in Greenwich Village and Provincetown, Massachusetts, he widened the scope of Modernism in the United States.[1]





Group Work: 


Use these resources on the Harlem Renaissance to find THREE artifacts that reflect the Harlem Renaissance and describe how you see them as MODERNIST art.


Famous Art of the Harlem Renaissance: https://artsandculture.google.com/usergallery/famous-artists-and-artwork-from-the-harlem-renaissance%C2%A0/awKSMphplEoPJQ .  



The painting is by F. Winold Reiss and entitled "Interpretation of Harlem Jazz"


Seeing Harlem Live




Why do these images by Van Der Zee matter so much in our understanding of the Harlem Renaissance? 


 Close Reading: Race Abroad


It's a beautiful day, let's go outside and practice our close readings of Plum Bun


Let's begin with the nursery rhyme on the title page:

To Market, to Market 

To buy a Plum Bun

Home again, Home again, 

Market is done.


Plot and Characters:


Who are the major characters in this novel? And what is the basic plot of the story? 


  • Mattie Murray
  • Junius Murray
  • Angela Murray/Angele Mory 
  • Virginia (Jinny) Murray 
  • Paulette Lister
  • Rachel Powell 
  • Roger Fielding
  • Anthony Cruz/Cross
  • Matthew Henson 


How do these characters negotiate a complex identity matrix (on a global stage)? How does this plot illustrate the complex social and artistic currents of the Harlem Renaissance?


Discussion Questions:

Post answers for all of these discussion questions in the comment box below. 

  1. How does this serve as an organizing idea for the novel?
  2. How does this nursery rhyme relate to this "novel without a moral"? What does that mean? 
  3. Find a passage in Plum Bun that negotiates race or racial identity. Do a close reading of the passage. Think about the way language is working in the passage. Think about the use of metaphor and imagery. 
  4. Find a passage in Plum Bun that negotiates race on a global stage. Why is that significant? Write a quiz question that forces readers to think critically about the negotiation of race on a global stage (using Plum Bun)
  5. Compare Plum Bun's message of global constructions (or deconstructions) of race with our reading Rout "Brazil - A Study in Black Brown and Beige".pdf. How do Rout's experiences of racial construction in Brazil compare with the expectations in Plum Bun

More Resources on the Harlem Renaissance:




Comments (5)

Emma Hyatt said

at 3:04 pm on Mar 21, 2019

Ashley and Emma

everything seems colorful
realistic yet not realistic
original and genuine
details in the struggles
expresses how they feel

Aynae Simmons said

at 3:17 pm on Mar 21, 2019

Aynae & Carlee

Clothing is changing
Either naked or in a business like suit
Shows more expression
Seems loud with dancing and singing and people playing music
Not normal or perfect

Kaitlyn Oxford said

at 3:09 pm on Mar 26, 2019

Noel, Kaitlyn, Taylyn, Carlee
1. The key words of the nursery rhyme divide Angela's story.
2. It relates to the chronological order of the novel. In a sense she ends up with what she wanted which relates to the "novel without a moral"
3. On page 133, Roger is talking about Angela's race dehumanizing them without knowing he is speaking about her race. He makes her race out to be "animals" calling them "coons."
4. On page 285, Anthony talks about the racism he experienced outside the U.S.
Quiz question: According to Plum Bun, what aspects of life could different countries associate with race?

Ashley Young said

at 3:13 pm on Mar 26, 2019

Ashley, Emma, Christalyn
1) Expectations of what she had for herself versus expectations of what others had for her.

2) Both do not necessarily have a moral but both have a message.

3) Page 13. "Colour of the lack of it seemed to the child the one absolute prerequisite to the life of which she was always dreaming." From the time she was little, racism affected the way she viewed herself and others. It affected her own self-esteem.

4) Angela did not tell Anthony her secret. Anthony would not marry a white girl because he thought she would not marry him, but Angela was not really white. 285
"Although America was one of the largest and well-off countries in the world, why was Anthony afraid to tell Angela his race?"

Sarah Westfall said

at 3:16 pm on Mar 26, 2019

Tessa, Sarah and Amber
1. This nursery rhyme serves as an organizing idea because colored women are expected to go to the market and go home. Not to be an artist or to be noticed.
3. On pg. 13-14. Before you can have a life that you have always dreamed of, you have to be without color.
4. They don't see people of color as Americans, because American's are happy and people of color cannot be happy. pg. 70

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