The Harlem Renaissance: Origins, Influences, and Currents

By The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

“… let’s sing it, dance it, write it, paint it.”
When artist Aaron Douglas wrote these words to Langston Hughes in 1925, he
captured the collaborative, creative energy of the Harlem Renaissance. This exhibition, co-organized with The Wolfsonian Public Humanities Lab and drawn
from a recent gift of books, magazines, photographs, and ephemera, explores how authors and
artists created visions of Black modernity that extended beyond New York to
become a national and global movement.

Banjo (1929) by Claude McKay (American, 1890–1948)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

The Harlem Renaissance: Origins, Influences, and Currents

It  is the height of the Jazz Age, the year F. Scott Fitzgerald published The Great Gatsby, and the year Louis Armstrong formed his first Hot Five band. 1925 is also the year that the concept of the New Negro, already a topic of conversation among leading artists and intellectuals, entered the national and then the international scene. Crucially, the visual and linguistic rhetoric of the New Negro presented an important challenge to racist stereotypes found in such mainstream texts as D. W. Griffith’s movie The Birth of a Nation (1915).

Survey Graphic Number, “Harlem: Mecca of the New Negro,” March 1925 (March 1925) by Alain Locke (American, 1885–1954)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

The Survey, an American magazine covering social issues for international audiences, invited Howard University philosopher and first African American Rhodes Scholar Alain Locke to guest edit its March 1925 Graphic Supplement.

Survey Graphic Number, “Harlem: Mecca of the New Negro,” March 1925 (March 1925) by Alain Locke (American, 1885–1954)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

That invitation provided Locke with the perfect vehicle for envisioning the New Negro through literature and the visual and performing arts. As the issue showcases, Locke brought together leading and aspiring writers, artists, intellectuals, and performers, like Paul Robeson, who made up what is now referred to as the Harlem Renaissance.

A College Lad (1924) by Winold Reiss (American, b. Germany, 1886–1953)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

The issue drew from wider trends and currents that began in the 1910s, including the migration of African Americans from the rural south to the urban north and west, U.S. entry into World War I, and the rise of mass production. Those trends are evident in the reproduction of A College Lad, Winold Reiss’ portrait of Harold Jackman, which was featured in the issue. The drawing presented an image of the New Negro: someone young, educated, sophisticated, contemplative, and often more at ease in the modern, industrial city of New York, especially the neighborhood of Harlem.

Title and Introduction pages, The New Negro: An Interpretation (1925) by Alain Locke (American, 1885–1954)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

The positive response to the Survey’s “Harlem Number” compelled Locke to expand his vision of the New Negro into the landmark anthology of the period. Locke drew on the special issue but expanded his canvas significantly, adding more sections dedicated to the arts flourishing in Harlem to better frame the energy and promise of African American culture. The result was The New Negro: An Interpretation, a beautifully bound and illustrated book that both celebrated the moment and secured it for posterity.

Illustration, “Mary McLeod Bethune,” The New Negro: An Interpretation (1925) by Alain Locke (American, 1885–1954)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

The expanded art coverage included Reiss’ portraits of prominent African American leaders and artists. A German-born immigrant himself, Winold Reiss’ involvement underscored the collaboration between visual artists and writers and editors like Locke as well as the anthology’s international inflection, including its efforts at capturing the diversity and racial pride within Black communities in Africa, the Caribbean, Europe, and the United States. Important figures illustrated included Mary McLeod Bethune, noted educator and founder of Bethune-Cookman College.

Illustration, “James Weldon Johnson,” (1925) by Alain Locke (American, 1885–1954)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

Other illustrations depicted major authors. Florida-born James Weldon Johnson, pictured here, also began his career as an educator in Jacksonville, where he co-wrote the Black national anthem “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.”

Illustration, “Countee Cullen,” (1925) by Alain Locke (American, 1885–1954)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

Countee Cullen was raised in the heart of Harlem by his uncle, the Reverend Frederick Cullen, and attended school at New York University and Harvard. A poet who was popular with both African American and white audiences, Cullen saw the period as an opportunity to develop his mastery of conventional poetic forms.

Illustration, “Jean Toomer,” (1925) by Alain Locke (American, 1885–1954)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

Jean Toomer, another subject of Reiss’s in The New Negro, was a poet, playwright, and novelist who consistently sought to experiment in his writing and was lauded for doing so.

Cane (1923) by Jean Toomer (American, 1894–1967)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

Toomer’s most celebrated work Cane was published two years before The New Negro and featured poetry as well as fiction, reportage, drama, and abstract drawings. His interest in modernist experimentation is obvious even in the stripped-down aesthetic of the cover, though the dust jacket itself was more decorative. Such interplay between print and material culture is a frequent but less discussed feature of the Harlem Renaissance, partly because of the greater emphasis placed on the performing and visual arts.

Color (1928) by Countee Cullen (American, 1903–1946)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

By contrast, the dust jacket for Color, the first book of poetry by Cullen, is a transitional design that gestures back to the Art Nouveau style while incorporating Art Deco elements—a visual cue to Cullen’s commitment to conventional poetic forms. Artist Charles Cullen, no relation to the poet, designed the cover. Charles Cullen was another artist whose collaborations with writers was integral to Locke’s conception of the New Negro.

Blues: An Anthology (1926) by W. C. Handy (American, 1873–1958)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

The New Negro, and literary works like Cane and Color, illustrate the important relationship between word and image in the emerging Harlem Renaissance. Equally important was the influence of musical performance. W. C. Handy, often referred to as the Father of the Blues, was just as invested in preserving the legacy of the blues as Locke was in establishing the Harlem Renaissance as a major cultural moment and movement.

Blues: An Anthology (1926) by W. C. Handy (American, 1873–1958)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

Handy’s Blues: An Anthology, featuring a frontispiece drawn by Miguel Covarrubias, documented and celebrated the music he had worked so hard to popularize.

The Weary Blues (1926) by Langston Hughes (1902–1967)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

In turn, the music Handy pioneered inspired Langston Hughes to craft poetry out of African Americans’ everyday lives. “The Weary Blues,” the poem that lends Hughes’ collection its title, dramatizes the life and communal importance of an anonymous blues performer.

Miguel Covarrubias’ illustration for the dust jacket, with the piano player’s upward gaze, powerfully captures the blues’ celebrated ability to bring about joy in the midst of pain.

FIRE!! (1926 (1982 reprint)) by Lewis Grandison AlexanderThe Wolfsonian–Florida International University

Like Covarrubias, Aaron Douglas was a prominent link between the literature and visual art of the Harlem Renaissance. Many of Douglas’s illustrations take up Locke’s call to seize hold of “the legacy of the ancestral arts.”

The cover Douglas created for Fire!!, with its invocation of both the sphinx and African masks, brings the past into the present as it simultaneously taps into the youthful zeal of the writers and artists who contributed to the publication, such as Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Wallace Thurman, and Richard Bruce Nugent. Such iconography became a staple of Douglas’ work and a vehicle for his collaboration with other artists and writers of the period, even enabling him to collaborate with both established and emerging talent.

God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse, (1927) by James Weldon Johnson (American, 1871–1938)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

For established writer and activist James Weldon Johnson, Douglas illustrated God’s Trombones, an iconic collection of sermons in verse. Just as Johnson retells biblical myths in the vernacular, Douglas juxtaposes resonant images of an African past in New World settings.

God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse, (1927) by James Weldon Johnson (American, 1871–1938)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

Here, too, the influence of music is critical, both to Johnson’s poetry and Douglas’ sense of the verve of everyday life.

The Crisis (April 1927) by W. E. B. DuBois (American, 1868–1963)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

Poetry volumes were evocative and frequent vehicles for collaborations between writers and artists, but newspapers and journals also combined word and image to document artistic achievement and detail political and social challenges, especially racism and poverty.

The April 1927 issue of The Crisis features a cover illustrated by artist Laura Wheeler celebrating the coming of spring.

Pages 48 and 49, The CrisisThe Wolfsonian–Florida International University

This poetry spread from the same issue, including contributions from Arna Bontemps and Georgia Douglas Johnson as well as emerging poets, is a reminder of the role The Crisis and other periodicals played in cultivating new talent.

The Crisis (April 1927) by W. E. B. DuBois (American, 1868–1963)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

As the May 1927 issue of The Crisis demonstrates, performing artists were integral to establishing the international profile of the Harlem Renaissance. With her choreography and stage presence, Josephine Baker took Paris by storm and helped popularize the homegrown musical art form of jazz—especially its penchant for syncopation and improvisation—worldwide.

Carl Van Vechten and Miguel Covarrubias (1937) by Nickolas Muray (American, b. Hungary, 1892–1965)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

The white photographer, writer, and patron Carl Van Vechten was important in documenting and circulating the movement and preserving its legacy through his photographs, networking skills, and advocacy for emerging writers and artists behind the scenes. Pictured here with Mexican artist Miguel Covarrubias , the controversial Van Vechten reminds us that, despite the racism and cultural appropriation of the period, the Harlem Renaissance was also interracial in nature.

Zora Neale Hurston (1938-04-03) by Carl Van VetchenOriginal Source: Library of Congress

One of Van Vechten’s important relationships was with anthropologist, folklorist, and novelist Zora Neale Hurston. Hurston was prolific and contributed much to the landscape of the Harlem Renaissance: she preserved folk life, especially in Florida; she expanded the language of prose fiction; and she created indelible images of black working-class women.

Mules and Men (1935) by Zora Neale Hurston (American, 1891–1960)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

The fiction Hurston and others published later in the Harlem Renaissance was as expressively illustrated as the earlier poetry. Covarrubias’ dust jacket complements the stories of black life Hurston tells in Mules and Men .

Negro Drawings (1927) by Miguel Covarrubias (Mexican, 1904–1957The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

Covarrubias’ Negro Drawings drew on many Harlem Renaissance themes. For instance, the portraits here demonstrate the importance of self-presentation.

Negro Drawings (1927) by Miguel Covarrubias (Mexican, 1904–1957The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

The church service and the couple dancing here highlight the tensions between the sacred and the secular. Responding to the era’s hopeful sense of new opportunities, this collection of drawings also underscores Covarrubias’ cross-cultural artistic practices and deep investment in capturing the diversity and vitality of black experience.

Banjo (1929) by Claude McKay (American, 1890–1948)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

A work like Negro Drawings, with its artist’s Mexican background, reminds us of the global circulation of these texts as well as the Harlem Renaissance’s continuing resonance across place and time. The Jamaican-born Claude McKay’s novel Banjo—with another dust jacket by Douglas—literalizes these global currents in its depiction of an international black community on the Marseille waterfront.

Black Boy (1945) by Richard Wright (American, 1908–1960)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

As Banjo’s setting in Marseille demonstrates, the Harlem Renaissance was not just about Harlem. France, Jamaica, Liberia, among other countries, were also destinations and points of origin. In the United States, other cities—Chicago, Los Angeles, and Atlanta—figured prominently as destinations for migration and as sites of creative output during the period. In his memoir Black Boy, Richard Wright captures this story of movement, from his boyhood in Mississippi to his early adulthood in Chicago. Wright’s book also prompts readers to reflect on the endurance of black life in the face of racial violence that both shaped the Harlem Renaissance and continues to resonate a hundred years beyond.

Survey Graphic Number, “Harlem: Mecca of the New Negro,” March 1925 (March 1925) by Alain Locke (American, 1885–1954)The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

An important reason the Harlem Renaissance continues to hold so many people’s imagination is that it still reflects a sense of possibility: for change, racial pride and comity, and a fuller embrace of the human spirit. This exhibit celebrates the leading role that literature and visual and performing arts played in capturing the lived experiences of this cultural moment, as well as in shaping its enduring legacy.

Credits: Story

This project is organized by The Wolfsonian–FIU and the Wolfsonian Public Humanities Lab, FIU, and curated by Shawn Christian and Nathaniel Cadle, associate professors of English at Florida International University. Cadle is also a 2020–2022 Faculty Fellow with the Wolfsonian Public Humanities Lab, FIU.

The majority of the works in this exhibition were generously donated to The Wolfsonian–FIU by Historical Design, New York City, in 2019.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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