Harlem Renaissance Women

African American Women Dreaming in Color

Zora Neale Hurston, photo portrait by Carl Van Vechten
Fotosearch/Getty Images

You may have heard of Zora Neale Hurston or Bessie Smith—but do you know of Georgia Douglas Johnson? Augusta Savage? Nella Larsen? These—and dozens more—were women of the Harlem Renaissance.

Calling Dreams
The right to make my dreams come true
I ask, nay, I demand of life,
Nor shall fate's deadly contraband
Impede my steps, nor countermand.
Too long my heart against the ground
Has beat the dusty years around,
And now, at length, I rise, I wake!
And stride into the morning break!
Georgia Douglas Johnson, 1922

The Context

It was the early twentieth century, and for a new generation of African Americans, the world had changed tremendously compared to the world of their parents and grandparents. Slavery had ended in America more than half a century earlier. While African Americans still faced tremendous economic and social obstacles in both the northern and southern states, there were more opportunities than there had been.

After the Civil War (and beginning slightly earlier in the North), education for black Americans—and black and white women—had become more common. Many were still not able to attend or complete school, but a substantial few were able to attend and complete not only elementary or secondary school, but college. In these years, professional education slowly began to open up to blacks and women. Some black men became professionals: physicians, lawyers, teachers, businessmen. Some black women also found professional careers, often as teachers or librarians. These families, in turn, saw to the education of their daughters.

When black soldiers returned to the United States from fighting in World War I, many hoped for an opening of opportunity. Black men had contributed to the victory; surely, America would now welcome these men into full citizenship.

In this same period black Americans began moving out of the rural South and into the cities and towns of the industrial North, in the first years of the "Great Migration." They brought "black culture" with them: music with African roots and story-telling. The general U.S. culture began adopting elements of that black culture as its own. This adoption (and often-uncredited appropriation) was evidenced clearly in the new "Jazz Age."

Hope was slowly rising for many African Americans—though discrimination, prejudice, and closed doors on account of race and sex were by no means eliminated. In the early twentieth century, it seemed more worthwhile and possible to challenge those injustices: Perhaps the injustices could indeed be undone, or at least eased.

Harlem Renaissance Flowering

In this environment, music, fiction, poetry, and art in African American intellectual circles experienced a flowering that came to be called the Harlem Renaissance. This Renaissance, like the European Renaissance, included both an advancement of new art forms, while simultaneously going back to roots. This double motion generated tremendous creativity and action. The period was named for Harlem because the cultural explosion was centered in this neighborhood of New York City. Harlem was predominantly peopled by African Americans, more of whom were daily arriving from the South.

The creative flowering reached other cities, though Harlem remained at the center of the more experimental aspects of the movement. Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, and to a lesser extent Chicago were other northern U.S. cities with large established black communities with enough educated members to "dream in color" too.

The NAACP, founded by white and black Americans to further the rights of "colored people," established its journal "Crisis," edited by W. E. B. Du Bois. "Crisis" took on the political issues of the day affecting black citizens. And "Crisis" also published fiction and poetry, with Jessie Fauset as the literary editor.

The Urban League, another organization working to serve city communities, published "Opportunity." Less explicitly political and more consciously cultural, "Opportunity" was published by Charles Johnson; Ethel Ray Nance served as his secretary.

The political side of "Crisis" was complemented by the conscious striving for a black intellectual culture: poetry, fiction, art that reflected the new race consciousness of "The New Negro." The new works addressed the human condition as African Americans experienced it—exploring love, hope, death, racial injustice, dreams.

Who Were the Women?

Most of the well-known figures of the Harlem Renaissance were men: W.E.B. DuBois, Countee Cullen, and Langston Hughes are names known to most serious students of American history and literature today. And, because many opportunities that had opened up for black men had also opened up for women of all colors, African American women too began to "dream in color"—to demand that their view of the human condition be part of the collective dream.

Jessie Fauset not only edited the literary section of "The Crisis," but she also hosted evening gatherings for prominent black intellectuals in Harlem: artists, thinkers, writers. Ethel Ray Nance and her roommate Regina Anderson also hosted gatherings in their home in New York City. Dorothy Peterson, a teacher, used her father's Brooklyn home for literary salons. In Washington, D.C., Georgia Douglas Johnson's "freewheeling jumbles" were Saturday night "happenings" for black writers and artists in that city.

Regina Anderson also arranged for events at the Harlem public library where she served as an assistant librarian. She read new books by exciting black authors and wrote up and distributed digests to spread interest in the works.

These women were integral parts of the Harlem Renaissance for the many roles they played. As organizers, editors, and decision-makers, they helped publicize, support, and thus shape the movement.

But women also participated more directly. Indeed Jessie Fauset did much to facilitate the work of other artists: She was the literary editor of "The Crisis," she hosted salons in her home, and she arranged for the first publication of work by the poet Langston Hughes. But Fauset also wrote articles and novels herself. She not only shaped the movement from the outside, but was an artistic contributor to the movement herself.

The larger circle of women in the movement included writers like Dorothy West and her younger cousin, Georgia Douglas JohnsonHallie Quinn, and Zora Neale Hurston; journalists like Alice Dunbar-Nelson and Geraldyn Dismond; artists like Augusta Savage and Lois Mailou Jones; and singers like Florence Mills, Marian Anderson, Bessie Smith, Clara Smith, Ethel Waters, Billie Holiday, Ida Cox, and Gladys Bentley. Many of these artists addressed not only race issues, but gender issues, as well—exploring what it was like to live as a black woman. Some addressed cultural issues of "passing" or expressed the fear of violence or the barriers to full economic and social participation in American society. Some celebrated black culture—and worked to creatively develop that culture.

Nearly forgotten are a few white women who also were part of the Harlem Renaissance, as writers, patrons, and supporters. We know more about the black men like W.E.B. du Bois and white men like Carl Van Vechten, who supported black women artists of the time, than about the white women who were involved. These included the wealthy "dragon lady" Charlotte Osgood Mason, writer Nancy Cunard, and Grace Halsell, journalist.

Ending the Renaissance

The Depression made literary and artistic life more difficult in general, even as it hit black communities harder economically than it hit white communities. White men were given even more preference when jobs became scarce. Some of the Harlem Renaissance figures looked for better-paying, more secure work. America grew less interested in African American art and artists, stories and story-tellers. By the 1940s, many of the creative figures of the Harlem Renaissance were already being forgotten by all but a few scholars specializing narrowly in the field.

Rediscovery?

Alice Walker's rediscovery of Zora Neale Hurston in the 1970s helped turn public interest back towards this fascinating group of writers, male and female. Marita Bonner was another nearly-forgotten writer of the Harlem Renaissance and beyond. She was a Radcliffe graduate who wrote in many of the black periodicals in the period of the Harlem Renaissance, publishing more than 20 stores and some plays. She died in 1971, but her work was not collected until 1987.

Today, scholars are working on finding more of the works of the Harlem Renaissance and rediscovering more artists and writers. The works found are a reminder not only of the creativity and vibrancy of those women and men who participated—but they're also a reminder that the work of creative people can be lost, even if not explicitly suppressed, if the race or the sex of the person is the wrong one for the time.

The women of the Harlem Renaissance—except perhaps for Zora Neale Hurston—have been more neglected and forgotten than their male colleagues, both then and now. To get acquainted with more of these impressive women, visit the biographies of Harlem Renaissance women.

Sources

  • Beringer McKissack, Lisa. Women of the Harlem Renaissance. Compass Point Books, 2007.
  • Kaplan, Carla. Miss Anne in Harlem: The White Women of the Black Renaissance. Harper Collins, 2013.
  • Roses, Lorraine Elena, and Ruth Elizabeth Randolph. Harlem Renaissance and Beyond: Literary Biographies of 100 Black Women Writers 1900–1945. Harvard University Press,1990.
  • Wall, Cheryl A. Women of the Harlem Renaissance.  Indiana University Press, 1995.