Steven Watson, The Harlem Renaissance:
Hub of African-American Culture, 1920-1930 (1995)
- While many still refer to Harlem as the unofficial capital of Black America, during the period from 1919 to the Great Depression, Harlem reigned as the unrivaled center of African-American culture. The Harlem Renaissance saw the flowering of African-American literature, music, dance, art, and social commentary in the neighborhood newly transformed by the Great Migration of African-Americans to the North during World War I. Nightclubs, community centers, cafes, publishing houses, and galleries sprang up in Harlem amidst a tremendous level of energy and excitement. The Harlem Renaissance transformed African-American identity and history, but it also transformed American culture in general. Never before had so many Americans read the thoughts of African-Americans and embraced the African-American community's productions, expressions, and style. It would be impossible to examine the Jazz Age without understanding the complex role that African-Americans--and the African-American community of Harlem--played in the modern re-identification of American culture. In The Harlem Renaissance, Steven Watson examines this history, focusing on the popular culture of Harlem and Manhattan. He illustrates the complex interactions between Harlem luminaries like Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Zora Neale Hurston, Claude McKay, A'Lelia Walker, and W.E.B. DuBois, and traces how this community of artists came to transform America as a whole.
- Questions to Think About:
- 1) How does Steven Watson define the Harlem Renaissance? What is the significance of using the word "renaissance" to refer to it?
- 2) What is the "New Negro?" In what way does the designation of the "New Negro" interact with categories such as the "New Woman", or the "New Art"? What was new about those termed "New Negroes"?
- 3) Who are the major figures of the Renaissance and what were their important influences?
- 4) What are the two phases Watson identifies within the Harlem Renaissance movement? What distinguishes them from each other?
- 5) What did white supporters of the Harlem Renaissance feel it represented for themselves? Why did they support it and what did that support mean, to participants in the movement, to the white supporters themselves, and to American culture in general?
- 6) Watson uses a large number of visual images throughout his text. Other than the merely aesthetic additions they make to the text, what is the purpose of these images? Does he use them successfully?
- 7) As a story made up of many other stories, how well does The Harlem Renaissance hold together? Are there other narrative strategies which Watson could have used to improve the story he tells?
- 8) What is Watson's thesis? What is his argument? By argument, I mean the logic by which he supports his thesis, the narrative proof of his thesis.
Further resources for studying the Harlem Renaissance:
- For an overview of modernism in America, check out the Modernism Timeline, 1890-1940.
Find context for the growth of Harlem as an African American community in the Library of Congress' materials for understanding the Great Migration of African Americans to Chicago.
Library of Congress's American Memory Project's Carl Van Vechten's Photographs (1932-1964) site provides access to the Harlem Renaissance figures portraits.
Library of Congress's American Memory Project's Pages and portraits from Claude McKay's Harlem: Negro Metropolis, (1940).
Information on the Harlem Renaissance from PAL: Perspectives in American Literature: A Research and Reference Guide
A Bibliography of Writers of the Harlem Renaissance
A brief overview of the Harlem Renaissance
A collaborative bibliography on the Harlem Renaissance
The University of Virginia's Harlem: Mecca of the New Negro, a hypermedia edition of the March 1925 Survey Graphic Harlem Number
A site about The Harlem Renaissance, W.E.B. DuBois, and Booker T. Washington
Netnoir's Literature of the Harlem Renaissance site
Netnoir's Social Discourse of the Harlem Renaissance site
"Terrible Honesty," John J. Reilly's review of Ann Douglas's Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s (1995)
A Langston Hughes page
The Library of Congress' Illustrated Guide to African-American History and Culture.
Trace the history of Jazz from Harlem and beyond on the Styles of Jazz map.
Prepared by Professor Catherine Lavender for History 339 (Themes in U.S. History, 1914-1945), The Department of History, The College of Staten Island of The City University of New York. Send email to firstname.lastname@example.org
Last modified: Tuesday 19 October 1999.