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New York Heroes and the Harlem Renaissance

Page history last edited by Abigail Heiniger 8 years, 4 months ago

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  • Computer Lab tomorrow


Poetry in the City



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. 


The History You Know...

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.


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.


Cosmopolitan Migrations of a Global Harlem

The term "Harlem Renaissance" suggests that the artistic renaissance of African American art was rooted to a single borough in New York City. The movers and shakers of the Harlem Renaissance come from across the Americas and carry their art throughout the world. 



Ekphrasis in Harlem


Winold Reiss 

"Drawing In Two Colors"  (1915-20)



Group Work

Break into groups and discuss the way this drawing by Winold Reiss captures the ekphrasis of the art produced by the Harlem Renaissance. 





The International Quest of Augusta Savage






Born in Florida in 1892, Augusta Savage began creating art as a child by using the natural clay found in her hometown. After attending Cooper Union in New York City, she made a name for herself as a sculptor during the Harlem Renaissance and was awarded fellowships to study abroad. Savage later served as a director for the Harlem Community Center and created the monumental work The Harp for the 1939 New York World's Fair. She spent most of her later years in Saugerties, New York, before her death from cancer in 1962.


Trailblazing Career in Art

After a failed attempt to establish herself as a sculptor in Jacksonville, Florida, Savage moved to New York City in the early 1920s. Although she struggled financially throughout her life, she was admitted to study art at Cooper Union, which did not charge tuition. Before long, the school gave her a scholarship to help with living expenses as well. Savage excelled, finishing her course work in three years instead of the usual four.


While at Cooper Union, she had an experience that would greatly influence her life and work: In 1923, Savage applied to a special summer program to study art in France, but was rejected because of her race. She took the rejection as a call to action, and sent letters to the local media about the program selection committee's discriminatory practices. Savage's story made headlines in many newspapers, although it wasn't enough to change the group's decision. One committee member, Herman MacNeil, regretted the ruling and invited Savage to further hone her craft at his Long Island studio. 


Savage soon started to make a name for herself as a portrait sculptor. Her works from this time include busts of such prominent African Americans as W. E. B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey. Savage was considered to be one of the leading artists of the Harlem Renaissance, a preeminent African-American literary and artistic movement of the 1920s and '30s.


Eventually, following a series of family crises, Savage got her opportunity to study abroad. She was awarded a Julius Rosenwald fellowship in 1929, based in part on a bust of her nephew entitled Gamin. Savage spent time in Paris, where she exhibited her work at the Grand Palais. She earned a second Rosenwald fellowship to continue her studies for another year, and a separate Carnegie Foundation grant allowed her to travel to other European countries.


Savage returned the United States while the Great Depression was in full swing. With portrait commissions hard to come by, she began teaching art and established the Savage Studio of Arts and Crafts in 1932. In mid-decade, she became the first black artist to join what was then known as the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors.  


Savage assisted many burgeoning African-American artists, including Jacob Lawrence and Norman Lewis, and lobbied the Works Projects Administration (WPA) to help other young artists find work during this time of financial crisis. She also helped found the Harlem Artists' Guild, which led to a directorial position at the WPA's Harlem Community Center.


Retrieved from Augusta Savage Bio.

Poetry of the Harlem Renaissance


Langston Hughes



James Mercer Langston Hughes was born February 1, 1902, in Joplin, Missouri. His parents divorced when he was a young child, and his father moved to Mexico. He was raised by his grandmother until he was thirteen, when he moved to Lincoln, Illinois, to live with his mother and her husband, before the family eventually settled in Cleveland, Ohio. It was in Lincoln that Hughes began writing poetry. After graduating from high school, he spent a year in Mexico followed by a year at Columbia University in New York City. During this time, he held odd jobs such as assistant cook, launderer, and busboy. He also travelled to Africa and Europe working as a seaman. In November 1924, he moved to Washington, D. C. Hughes’s first book of poetry, The Weary Blues, (Knopf, 1926) was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1926. He finished his college education at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania three years later. In 1930 his first novel, Not Without Laughter,(Knopf, 1930) won the Harmon gold medal for literature.


Hughes, who claimed Paul Lawrence DunbarCarl Sandburg, and Walt Whitman as his primary influences, is particularly known for his insightful, colorful portrayals of black life in America from the twenties through the sixties. He wrote novels, short stories and plays, as well as poetry, and is also known for his engagement with the world of jazz and the influence it had on his writing, as in his book-length poem Montage of a Dream Deferred(Holt, 1951). His life and work were enormously important in shaping the artistic contributions of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. Unlike other notable black poets of the period—Claude McKay, Jean Toomer, and Countee Cullen—Hughes refused to differentiate between his personal experience and the common experience of black America. He wanted to tell the stories of his people in ways that reflected their actual culture, including both their suffering and their love of music, laughter, and language itself.


Retrieved rom https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poet/langston-hughes 



Group Work:


Break into groups and do a close reading of Hughes' poem "The Weary Blues." Use "How to Do a Close Reading" to guide you. 



Claude McKay 



Claude McKay, born Festus Claudius McKay in Jamiaca, was a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance, a prominent literary movement of the 1920s. His work ranged from vernacular verse celebrating peasant life in Jamaica to poems challenging white authority in America, and from generally straightforward tales of black life in both Jamaica and America to more philosophically ambitious fiction addressing instinctual/intellectual duality, which McKay found central to the black individual’s efforts to cope in a racist society. Consistent in his various writings is his disdain for racism and the sense that bigotry’s implicit stupidity renders its adherents pitiable as well as loathsome. As Arthur D. Drayton wrote in his essay “Claude McKay’s Human Pity”: “McKay does not seek to hide his bitterness. But having preserved his vision as poet and his status as a human being, he can transcend bitterness. In seeing ... the significance of the Negro for mankind as a whole, he is at once protesting as a Negro and uttering a cry for the race of mankind as a member of that race. His human pity was the foundation that made all this possible.” 



Group Work:


How would you illustrate these two poems visually? How would you animate these poems? Why would you make these decisions?  


Resources on the Harlem Renaissance:


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