Notable Figures of the Harlem Renaissance

Creators
Erin Lee Barsan, Erin Horanzy, Caleah James, and David Winger

Transcript
Early 1920s New York saw a remarkable movement of cultural and political importance known as the Harlem Renaissance. During this period there was an explosion in the humanities as well as various instances of civil rights activism. There was an abundance of major players who contributed to the growth of this movement. Their hard work and dedication has inspired generations and is still relevant to this day. Among these notable figures were Marcus Garvey, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston and Bessie Smith.

Marcus Garvey, a Jamaican radical pan-African activist, arrived in New York in 1916 and quickly developed a large following for his United Negro Improvement Association, the UNIA. Shortly thereafter, Garvey’s newspaper, the Negro World, grew to become the widest circulating black newspaper in the United States.

Draped in military attire, Garvey held UNIA’s first global summit in Madison Square Garden in 1920. By this time, many other black leaders had begun to see his black separatist stance as a threat to their efforts to gain equal rights. These leaders helped force Garvey out of the country, but his belief in a global African community persists to this day.

Conversely, celebrated poet Langston Hughes was focused primarily on the plight of his fellow black Americans. An active participant in the Harlem political scene, he explored ideas of Communism in many of his poems and published a manifesto of lower-class black people, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain.” After arriving in Harlem in 1921, Langston published his signature poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” in the NAACP’s official magazine. Unlike many other contemporary black poets, Langston’s art reflected real life — his own and that of his community. With the help of Zora Neale Hurston and several others, Langston produced a short-lived magazine that discussed many controversial topics such as sexuality and race relations entitled “Fire!!” Ironically, only one issue was published before the magazine’s headquarters burned to the ground.

Zora Neale Hurston arrived in New York in 1925 using her talents to elbow her way into the Harlem Renaissance. As a newcomer, she raised eyebrows when her award-winning short story, “Spunk” was selected for The New Negro, a landmark publication of African and African-American art and literature.

Additionally, Zora was a member of “The New Negroes,” a group of young black intellectuals including Langston Hughes, which demanded equal billing for black culture. She is best known for her novels, Their Eyes Were Watching God, and Imitation of Life. Zora is said to have personified the Harlem Renaissance and was dubbed the “Queen of the Renaissance.”

Another female member of Harlem royalty was “The Empress of the Blues,” Bessie Smith. In the 1920s, black blues singers would travel to Harlem to record on the “Race Record” labels, which marketed exclusively to black audiences. That all changed with Bessie’s help. Travelling from Philadelphia, the 6 foot tall, boisterous black singer became the largest-selling musician of her day, and one of the first to rise to the mainstream. Bessie had extraordinary guts even by today’s standards. Aggressive, argumentative and unapologetically sexual, she embodied the defiant spirit of the Harlem Renaissance in many of her songs such as “‘Taint Nobody’s Bizness If I Do” and “I Need A Little Sugar In My Bowl.”

Looking back from the present day, it is clear that the legacy of the Harlem Renaissance is intertwined with that of the civil rights movement. Through the richness of their creative output, these black politicians, authors and artists along with a multitude of others, succeeded in showing that they were every bit the intellectual equals of white America.

Bibliography and credits
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