Thoughts on the Harlem Renaissance

We are drawn to the [Harlem] Renaissance because of the hope for black uplift and interracial empathy that is embodied and because there is a certain element of romanticism associated with the era’s creativity, its seemingly larger than life heroes and heroines, and its most brilliantly lit terrain; Harlem, USA.

– Clement Alexander Price

It’s the 1920s, and the Thirteenth Amendment that was signed to abolish slavery was signed in 1865.  Under slavery it was deemed illegal for African-Americans to read and write and go to school; but in the 1920s, and despite the short time between slavery’s end and this time period, African-Americans had already made important and impressive strides in the literary world, strides that would influence the American literary scene.

The Harlem Renaissance is often seen as a literary movement, but in actual fact it was an art movement that included theatre, dance and music, among others. I’m no expert on the movement as a whole, having focused my time mainly on the literature, where my passion lies. Nevertheless, I know that even in literature I have barely scratched the surface, and there is so much more for me to discover from that era; I’ve yet to read writers and poets like Jean Toomer, Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, Jessie Fauset, or Dorothy West; yet so many of my favorites, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Nella Larsen, Robert Hayden, James Weldon Johnson, come from the Harlem Renaissance, and the more I read their work, the more I realize just how important this era was.

The stories I love are stories of previously oppressed and marginalized people overcoming, creating their new art, sharing new visions and means of expression. I love books like “Angel of Harlem” by Kuwana Haulsey that tells the story of Dr. Mary Edward Chinn, the first black female doctor in Harlem, and the struggles she underwent to gain this achievement.

The only way a Negro woman had ever gotten inside Harlem Hospital was if she’d been shot, stabbed, beaten or poisoned. I think one or two may have been cleaners, but even those jobs were reserved for the Irish and German women who trekked over from Riverside and farther north up in the Bronx. I was the first. The only.

– Kuwana Haulsey, Angel of Harlem

Dr. Chinn experienced racism in an American college, which made her drop out of music school, and she also faced backlash from her own community due to being a woman in what was seen as a masculine role. But she overcame the odds and eventually became a doctor. Stories like these are a testament to the tenacity of the human spirit. Dr. Chinn was coincidentally a fixture in the Harlem Renaissance, and aside from being Paul Robeson’s accompanist before becoming a doctor; she was also a friend with Zora Neale Hurston and others in that circle.

The Harlem Renaissance to me, particularly when looked at through the context of slavery having just ended, reminds me that when people are given opportunities they can do so much. In the 1920s, the African-American literati were determined to show off their art and contribute to literary diversity in their own words. Like Langston Hughes said, “My writing has been largely concerned with the depicting of Negro life in America.” Now a growing number of us know of the importance of the arts for a people, in their own words, to understand a people.

Even though I’m not African-American, there is so much in that period that appeals to me and that resonates with me. This is personally my favorite era of American literary history, not only for what was produced but also for its promise: the promise and hope of the marginalized rising.

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IMG_7386Rowena was raised in Scotland and Malawi and now calls Vancouver, Canada home.  Because of her diverse upbringing Rowena has always been passionate and inquisitive about culture and identity.  As a graduate of Intercultural and International Communication, her prime focuses and interests lay in issues of diversity, feminism, identity and storytelling.  Rowena finds that literature and music keep her very grounded.

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