The name of the Harlem Renaissance movement has its origins in both geographical and cultural elements. In the 1920s, Harlem became the home of a thriving Black community, and the place where elites go to be educated. A driving force behind this is also the Great Migration that sent many families northward to urban centers like NYC, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. That neighborhood in New York City becomes synonymous with Black art, culture, and intellectual life. The “Renaissance” aspect comes from French culture. It is an homage to the era of literary salons as well as recognizing a period of significant cultural production. The term also reflects how many African-American artists, feeling that their opportunities were limited in the United States due to racism, went to France to study and perform for more appreciative audiences.
The Harlem Renaissance is a key part of African-American history because it can be considered the first time that Black culture starts to become mainstream. Much of the writing from this period reflects the emergence of a distinctively Black intellectual life. Some prominent writers of the period are the first to integrate top colleges and universities. This means that there are Black artists addressing an increasingly literate African-American audience.
At the same time, art and literature is considered a way to reach white audiences– which is particularly interesting, as some of the main themes of literary work of this period are experiences of racism and articulations of Black pride and culture. In addition, African-American newspapers have become literary magazines or start to feature essays and poetry.
Synonymous with the Harlem Renaissance are figures like Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and W. E. B. DuBois- but they weren’t the only prominent writers of the era. DuBois’s paper The Crisis, published many literary greats of the day, such as: Jean Toomer, James Weldon Johnson, Claude McKay, and Gwendolyn Bennett. Important playwrights include Georgia Douglas Johnson and Angelina Weld Grimké. Notable poets of the era include Countee Cullen, Alice Dunbar Nelson, and Anne Spencer. Originally published in 1929, Nella Larsen’s Passing has re-entered pop culture in the form of Deborah Draper’s film adaptation.
Looking for Digital Library Resources?
- The Harlem Renaissance: an Annotated Reference Guide for Student Research by Marie Rodgers
- Measuring the Harlem Renaissance: The U.S. Census, African American Identity, and Literary Form by Michael Soto
- The Harlem Renaissance and the Idea of a New Negro Reader by Shawn Anthony Christian
- The Great Migration and the Harlem Renaissance by Sabina G. Arora
- Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance by Cary D. Wintz and Paul Finkelman
Journals and Magazines
- Gale In Context: U.S. History
- JSTOR Journals
- Gale Literature Resource Center
- Humanities International Index
- History Reference Center
Streaming and DVD Video
- Stream the Ken Burns’ Jazz series on Academic Video Online
- Borrow A Raisin in the Sun from our media collections
Tips for Browsing the Stacks
Most resources will fall under PS 153 for American Literature covering African-Americans. Biographies of writers of that time will fall under PS3500-3549 for American writers from 1900 to 1960. Included in this are novels and poetry of most authors, which can be found in PS3515 or PS3525. Historical analyses of visual art of the era are classified as NX440-632 for history of the arts. For resources about life during the Harlem Renaissance, browse E185 of the E185.2-185.89 range which covers African-Americans since Emancipation.
Selections from the Children’s Section
- Celeste’s Harlem Renaissance: A Novel by Eleanora E. Tate
- No Crystal Stair: A Documentary Novel of The Life and Work of Lewis Michaux, Harlem Bookseller by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson
- My People by Langston Hughes
- Zora And Me by Victoria Bond
- Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday and The Power of a Protest Song by Gary Golio
Selections from the Social Justice Collection
- The Book Itch: Freedom, Truth & Harlem’s Greatest Bookstore by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson
- Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker by Patricia Hruby Powell
- The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson
In Need of Some Primary Sources?
- Read some Zora Neale Hurston Plays at the Library of Congress
- View photographs from photographer JAMES VAN DER ZEE at the the Howard Greenburg Gallery, who documented African-American life in the early 1900s
- Explore the Writers’ Program, New York City: Negroes of New York Collection digital collections of the NYPL
- Learn about the Little Magazines of the Harlem Renaissance
- For high school students, use this lesson plan from the Phillips Collection on The Legacy of the Harlem Renaissance
- Explore Harlem as it was in the 1920s-30s with the Digital Harlem Project
- Explore profiles of prominent figures and well as themed analyses in the Drop Me Off in Harlem collection from the Kennedy Center
- View visual art from the Harlem Renaissance and a teaching guide for educating students with primary sources