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Bibliographical guides

The Harlem Renaissance: a Selective Guide to Materials in the British Library
Jean Petrovic

The rich surge in African American arts and letters that took place in 1920s was not limited to Harlem, nor even to New York City. However, the intensity of the movement in that city, and the sheer number of black writers, musicians, and scholars who lived and worked in Harlem has ensured that it is forever linked with the era.

Today most historians recognise 1917 as the year in which the Harlem Renaissance began. Three events occurred that help to justify this choice. First was the publication of two poems by Claude McKay in Seven Arts, the first work by a black writer to appear under a white imprimatur since Paul Lawrence Dunbar's dialect pieces twenty years before. Second was the opening on Broadway of three plays about black life by a white writer, Ridgely Torrence. These plays were remarkable not only because they were performed by black artists but because they contained none of the usual racial stereotypes. Finally, on 28 July Harlem experienced its first Silent Parade when some ten to fifteen thousand blacks marched down Fifth Avenue to protest against continued racial inequities. Eighteen years later, in the grip of the Great Depression, the first race riot erupted in Harlem and it is this year, 1935, that is generally regarded as marking the end of the Renaissance.

To understand the Harlem Renaissance it is necessary to appreciate both the changes that occurred within the African American community and the cultural shifts that took place in American society as a whole during the 1920s. For blacks the years during and after World War I were ones of increased militancy and racial pride: Marcus Garvey was vigorously promoting his "Back to Africa" movement, A. Philip Randolph was struggling to organise black workers and a national campaign was actively promoting federal antilynching legislation. Although white society did not take these political movements particularly seriously, it did give considerable recognition to the large number of black writers, musicians and scholars who were emerging simultaneously. The majority of these figures, Countee Cullen, James Weldon Johnson, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Wallace Thurman, Jean Toomer, and Jessie Fauset lived in Harlem and Langston Hughes described the area as a "great magnet for the Negro intellectual, pulling him from everywhere." Yet Harlem was a magnet not only for blacks, but also for whites eager to experience for themselves the glamour and escapism that its night-clubs seemed to promise. In many ways Harlem became a national symbol of the Jazz Age, a complete antithesis of Main Street and everything that the artists and cultural critics of the 1920s rejected.

Many observers, black and white, hoped that this outburst of literary and artistic talent would help to ensure greater acceptance of blacks by American society. Indeed some of the writers and musicians themselves shared James Weldon Johnson's belief that "nothing can go farther to destroy race prejudice than the recognition of the Negro as a creator and contributor to American civilization." In retrospect however it appears that acceptance of "the New Negro" was far from widespread, and some critics have argued that it was limited to those individuals who also enthusiastically embraced the New Psychology, New Humanism, New Poetry and New Morality of the era. Not only was the interest limited but it was also short-lived. As the Great Depression took hold of the nation, so Harlem's clubs and theatres closed, its literary magazines folded and even its best writers were hardpressed to find an audience.

Almost as suddenly as it had blossomed, Harlem declined into an urban ghetto neglected by outsiders and offering little to its residents. For over thirty years its Renaissance seems to have been all but forgotten. Then, in 1967, the New York Public Library published The Negro in New York, a series of manuscripts prepared by the Federal Writers Project and housed in the Schomburg Collection of the Harlem branch of the Library. The interest in this publication was enormous, and the wealth of information contained in the collection has ensured that it is still being mined by students and scholars today.

At the British Library the Harlem Renaissance is well documented. This guide to its materials is divided into two parts. The first parts acts as a dictionary of the poets, playwrights, novelists, musicians, actors, and others who created the Renaissance, and here the reader will find not only works by these individuals but also about them. The second part of the guide lists general works of use to students of the Renaissance. In both parts the entries are mainly based upon the Library's catalogue entries and the shelf-marks are given at the end of each entry.

arrow The Harlem Renaissance (PDF format), 467KB (updated January 2017)


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