Study Guide

Harlem Renaissance Literature Introduction

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Harlem Renaissance Literature Introduction

Picture it: late night parties, smoky clubs, jazz everywhere, cool clothes, beautiful people… oh, and New York City—the late-night capital of the world. No, you're not starring in the reboot of Sex and the City. You're in 1920s Harlem, Shmoopers.

The Harlem Renaissance was way more than a major party scene, though. It was a literary movement. All the popular kids at these shindigs were serious writers and intellectuals. Like Langston Hughes, W.E.B. Dubois, and Zora Neale Hurston, to name just a few.

In case you haven't already heard of 'em—come on, you have, haven't you?—these are some of the most celebrated black writers and thinkers of all time. They're still regularly assigned in English classrooms and debated by lit critics around the world.

Many scholars think of the Harlem Renaissance as the moment African American literature first came into its own: a rebirth of literature as an African American space. Which was a pretty major deal, especially when you consider that the 1920s weren't so long after slavery was abolished.

So head back into those jazz clubs and raise a toast to the Harlem Renaissance, because that movement really gave us something to celebrate.

Disclaimer: Back in the 1920s and 1930s, people (both white and black) often used different terms to refer to African Americans/black Americans than they do today. "N****" was especially popular, for example. Here, we use the phrases "African American," "black American," "N****," "black people," and so on interchangeably.

But keep in mind that we only use now-politically-incorrect words and phrases in order to make sense of the texts we're interpreting. We mean no offense, Shmoopers.

What is Harlem Renaissance Literature About and Why Should I Care?

A whole group of people go from enslaved and illiterate to free and literary over the short span of fifty years. That's some pretty amazing stuff.

Let's just say, for the sake of argument, that you're not as impressed as you should be, though. Harlem Renaissance, Shmarlem Renaissance, or something. This movement, like many other important literary movements, did happen almost a century ago.

Ancient history, right? Wrong. The ideas that arose in the Harlem Renaissance are still important to lit critics and laypeople alike.

Take this one example: Do you ever feel like the way others think about you just isn't you? But you can't help seeing yourself that way too sometimes? That's DuBois's "twoness" for you.

It's the very definition of a misunderstood teenager.

Or try this one on for size: Have you ever heard of the idea that people should be able to govern themselves? A bunch of old, white men like Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and Ben Franklin (you know them) turned that idea into America.

Then Marcus Garvey spun it around and turned it into the Back-to-Africa Movement.

By the way, the notion of self-governance is also what's behind the whole concept of your student government. Or that last fight you had with your parents over your getting a lock put on your bedroom.

But if all of this is too much of a stretch for you, then we'll leave you with one final comment: without the Harlem Renaissance, we wouldn't have gotten all the major African American artists, musicians, and writers of our time. Why?

Because the Harlem Renaissance helped to birth the organizations which, in turn, supported African American culture in the U.S. We're talking the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) and the NUL (National Urban League) here, kiddos. These organizations just keep on truckin'.

So without this movement, we'd have a world without Kanye West, Martin Luther King Jr., Beyonce, Toni Morrison, or Barack Obama. The Harlem Renaissance also, for better or worse, gave us the very beginnings of identity politics.

Whatever your tastes and opinions, you've gotta admit: we'd have a less rich, less interesting, less complex America without the cultural foundation the Harlem Renaissance gave us.

And don't forget this tasty tidbit, either: the period gave us our first music clubs. Where would we (and New York City) be without the whole concept of a night life? Exactly.

Harlem Renaissance Literature Resources


PBS on the Harlem Renaissance
What would we do without PBS? No, really.

Harlem Renaissance Guide
This is the Harlem Renaissance website. It has really cool primary source materials, a bibliography—you know, all the stuff you would need if you were writing a paper on the HR.

What About the Women?
The women of the Harlem Renaissance were often overshadowed by the men… until this site. (Okay, we're being cute. But it's still a good site.)

Marcus Garvey
Find yourself craving more Marcus Garvey, but don't want to go hunting for his stuff all over the internet? Lucky for you, the UCLA African Studies Center website has everything you need. And more.

Poets Unite
All you ever wanted to know about the poetry of the Harlem Renaissance, in one place.

Ken Burns' "Jazz"
A site that introduces some of the info found in Burns's PBS documentary on jazz. And since Ken Burns's name is attached to the project, it's got to be legit.

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