African-American literature and arts had begun an expansion just before the turn of the century. In the performing arts, black musical theatre featured such accomplished artists as songwriter Bob Cole and composer J. Rosamond Johnson (brother of writer James Weldon Johnson). Jazz and blues music by legends such as Clyde Livingston, moved with black populations from the South and Midwest into the bars and cabarets of Harlem.
In literature, the poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar and the fiction of Charles W. Chesnutt in the late 1890s were among the earliest works of African Americans to receive national recognition. By the end of World War I, the fiction of James Weldon Johnson and the poetry of Claude McKay anticipated the literature that would follow in the 1920s. They described the reality of black life in America and the struggle for racial identity.
The first stage of the Harlem Renaissance started in the late 1910s. 1917 saw the premiere of Three Plays for a Negro Theatre. These plays, written by white playwright Ridgely Torrence, featured black actors' conveying complex human emotions and yearnings. They rejected the stereotypes of the blackface and minstrel show traditions. James Weldon Johnson in 1917 called the premieres of these plays “the most important single event in the entire history of the Negro in the American Theatre.” Another landmark came in 1919, when Claude McKay published his militant sonnet If We Must Die. Although the poem never alluded to race, to black readers it sounded a note of defiance in the face of racism and the nationwide race riots and lynchings then taking place. By the end of the First World War, the fiction of James Weldon Johnson and the poetry of Claude McKay was describing the reality of contemporary black life in America.
In the early 1920s, a number of literary works signaled the new creative energy in African-American literature. Claude McKay's volume of poetry, Harlem Shadows (1922), became one of the first works by a black writer to be published by a mainstream national publisher . Cane (1923), by Jean Toomer, was an experimental novel that combined poetry and prose in expressing the life of American blacks in the rural South and urban North. Confusion (1924), the first novel by writer and editor Jessie Fauset, depicted middle-class life among black Americans from a woman's perspective.
With these early works as the foundation, three events between 1924 and 1926 launched the Harlem Renaissance. First, on 21 March 1924, Charles S. Johnson of the National Urban League hosted a dinner to recognize the new literary talent in the black community and to introduce the young writers to New York's white literary establishment. As a result of this dinner, the Survey Graphic, a magazine of social analysis and criticism interested in cultural pluralism, produced a Harlem issue in March 1925. Devoted to defining the aesthetic of black literature and art, the Harlem issue featured work mostly by black writers and was edited by black philosopher and literary scholar Alain Locke. Later that year Locke expanded the special issue into an anthology, The New Negro.
The second event was the publication of Nigger Heaven (1926) by white novelist Carl Van Vechten. The book was a spectacularly popular exposé of Harlem life. Although the book offended some members of the black community, its coverage of both the elite and the baser sides of Harlem helped create a Negro vogue that drew thousands of sophisticated New Yorkers, black and white, to Harlem's exciting nightlife. It also stimulated a national market for African-American literature and music.
Finally, in the Autumn of 1926 a group of young black writers produced their own literary magazine, Fire!!. With Fire!! a new generation of young writers and artists, including Langston Hughes, Wallace Thurman, and Zora Neale Hurston, emerged as an alternative group within the Renaissance.
Picture: Langston Hughes, a prominent poet of the Harlem Renaissance.