One Book, One Chicago Spring 2007
The Harlem Renaissance
The Harlem Renaissance was a period of U.S. history marked by a burst of creativity within the African American community in the areas of art, music and literature. Centered within New York City’s Harlem, the Harlem Renaissance began roughly with the end of World War I in 1918 and continued into the mid-1930s. During this era Harlem became an inspiration and a destination point for African American artists from every discipline, especially writers. At the same time, Harlem became known for its smoky jazz and blues clubs, presenting popular African American musical artists to area residents as well as opportunities for adventurous outings among New York City’s society crowd.
Moving away from the slave narrative tradition, authors began to explore issues that had evolved out of the social consequences of slavery. Authors addressed the topics of racism, poverty, lack of identity and family structure through prose that evoked realism and immediacy. Langston Hughes’s Simple stories addressed poverty. Zora Neale Hurston celebrated African American heritage and culture. Dorothy West wrote about social and financial security. Richard Wright wrote powerfully about anger, frustration and violence. Other authors of the Harlem Renaissance included Nella Larsen, Claude McKay, Wallace Thurman and Jean Toomer. These and other writers produced a wide array of works spanning the full range of human experience and emotion.
Born during the Harlem Renaissance, James Baldwin grew up and matured during this dynamic period. His writing was an outgrowth of his life experience and was also influenced by writers of the period. The Harlem Renaissance helped foster a literary tradition—a literary tradition that continues to influence writers today.