By Nafina Raha
The Harlem Renaissance was a cultural movement that lasted from the mid-1910s to the mid-1930s, and is considered a golden age for African American art and culture, characterized by a flourishing of visual and performing arts, music, and literature. The Roaring Twenties witnessed the Great Migration, which saw hundreds of thousands of Black Americans moving to the urbanized North. There, Harlem became the beating heart of a new Black community, and bore witness to the rise of many prolific African American artists, novelists, essayists, entertainers, musicians, playwrights, journalists, intellectuals and more.
The Harlem Renaissance was characterized by a wide diversity of philosophy, with constant debate giving way to a multitude of different approaches to the varied experiences of Black people in America.
In much of what we learn of the Harlem Renaissance, the key roles Black women played are often overlooked. We all know about Langston Hughes, Alain Locke, Louis Armstrong, and Marcus Garvey. Meanwhile, many trendsetters and activists of this time period were women, who, for both their gender and race, were pushed aside, their work left in the background in favor of the work of men. Black women were usually relegated to roles such as salon managers and hostesses. Even the women who pushed past that boundary to become a part of that coveted intellectual community were pushed into the shadows and told that their ideas and beliefs were too radical.
These women wrote, sang, and created art about the experience of being a Black woman in the U.S. during the early 20th century. The stark reality some of them illustrated took many audiences aback, causing these women to be pushed aside. Womanhood was considered a topic unfit for public discussion, let alone Black womanhood, which formed a social atmosphere in which these women were seen as extremists or radicalists for turning their experiences and stories into art.
There are many women who played integral roles in the Harlem Renaissance, whose work marked key points in the movement and whose ideas still resonate today. Here are just a few of these groundbreaking women.
Zora Neale Hurston
Hurston was an author, filmmaker and anthropologist, and is considered one of the most influential and pivotal figures in the Harlem Renaissance. Her childhood was difficult, and familial tensions following her mother’s death when she was 13 resulted in her leaving school. By her mid-twenties, she hadn’t finished high school because of the need to work, so in order to qualify for free public schooling, she presented her age as 16. Later, she went on to graduate from Barnard College in 1928, and then published a plethora of short stories and articles, including “Mules and Men,” a collection of Black Southern folklore.
The late 30s and early 40s saw the most prolific part of her career, in which she published “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” which explored gender roles, female liberation, and the realities of being Black in the South.
Hurston also had interests in folklore and the ways in which West African religion morphed and melded with other belief systems and cultures during the time of the Transatlantic slave trade, and in 1938, she published “Tell My Horse,” which focused on voodoo practices in the Caribbean. With the addition of her other novels, such as “Moses, Man of the Mountain,” her autobiography “Dust Tracks on a Road,” and “Seraph on the Suwanee,” she firmly established herself as a major author and cultural trailblazer. Her novel “Barracoon: The Story of the Last ‘Black Cargo’” was published posthumously in 2018, which tells the story of Cudjo Lewis, the last known survivor of the final slave ship in the Transatlantic trade that brought African slaves to America.
Georgia Douglas Johnson
Johnson was a playwright and poet, as well as a prominent activist in the anti-lynching movement in the 1920s and 1930s. She expressed much of her activism in her plays, avoiding the inclusion of falsified happy endings, and instead honestly showing the realities that Black people faced in America. In “Sunday Morning in the South,” she highlighted the inconsistencies and hypocrisy of American doctrine by pointing to the contrast between the treatment of Black people in America and the Constitution’s claims of freedom and equality.
Johnson’s home in Washington D. C. would later become known as the “S. Street Salon,” where she hosted many prominent members of the Harlem Renaissance in a literary salon to socialize, share ideas, discuss their work and foster creativity. Common attendees included Langston Hughes, Alain Locke, Jessie Fauset and W. E. B. Du Bois. Johnson also emphasized that her home was an open space for Black women in particular, and many of the topics discussed there touched upon issues specific to them, such as sexual violence and the need for reproductive rights for women. She wrote two collections of poetry, “The Heart of a Woman” and “Bronze,” and wrote another play, “Blue Eyed Black Boy,” which expressed anti-lynching activism.
Smith was a blues singer known as the “Empress of the Blues.” She was signed to Columbia Records in 1923, where she gained great popularity. The advent of electrical recording and radio broadcasting during the 1920s bolstered her career. She had a total of 160 recordings with Columbia, and was one of the highest-paid and most popular Black entertainers of her time. Many of her recordings featured other pivotal members of the Jazz Age including Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, and Fletcher Henderson. She was most known for her contralto voice and the emotion and clarity of her lyrics.
Her music empowered working-class women, stressing independence and sexual freedom. Many of her songs included commentary on female sexuality, and she encouraged female power beyond the things considered “allowable” for women such as piety and motherhood. Others of her songs focused on issues such as poverty and racial violence. Her songs “Prison Blues,” “Send Me To The ‘Lectric Chair,” and “Work House Blues” were focused on issues of capital punishment and the convict lease system, issues that clearly targeted the Black community.
As a woman who was outspoken about the female experience and the realities of being a Black woman, she was often seen as distasteful by many audiences, and thus relegated to a background position like many Black female artists of the time. Despite this, Smith proved to be resilient, with multiple top hits during her career. Three of her recordings were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame posthumously.
Savage was a sculptor and educator. When she first moved from Florida to Harlem, she created a name for herself making busts of prominent figures in the movement such as Marcus Garvey and W. E. B. Du Bois. Her work “Gamin,” a bust of her nephew, won her a Julius Rosenwald Fellowship to study in Paris in 1929. There, two of her works were accepted to the Salon d’Automne and exhibited at Paris’s Grand Palais.
When she returned to New York in 1932, she opened the Savage Studio of Arts and Crafts to begin her teaching career. The same year, she also became the first Black woman to become a member of the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors. She would later become the first director of the Harlem Art Community Center.
The New York World’s Fair of 1939 commissioned Savage to create a sculpture symbolizing the contributions of African Americans to music. She created “The Harp,” a 16 foot sculpture that depicts 12 Black singers, all stylized to form the strings of a harp. The harp’s sounding board is formed by a hand, said to be the hand of God. “The Harp” was the crowning achievement of Savage’s career.
Bonner was a playwright and essayist. She attended Radcliffe College in Massachusetts starting in 1918, during a time when Black students were prohibited from dorming on campus. While there, she founded the Boston-area chapter of the historically Black sorority Delta Sigma Theta. She was an accomplished pianist, and won two music competitions while at Radcliffe.
She contributed frequently to “The Crisis,” the NAACP’s magazine publication, and her first great success came from her 1925 essay “On Being Young–A Woman–and Colored.” This essay focuses on the social constraints and limitations placed upon Black people, Black women in particular. It encourages strength and resilience within young Black women. In this and her many other works, she addressed many issues beyond what was considered proper or allowable for a Black woman to be talking openly about, including colorism, feminism, poverty, race, class, poor housing, and familial relations.
Her work often focused on multi-ethnic communities, highlighting diversity and expressing opposition towards broad generalizations of Black experience. She is considered to have been a proponent of intersectionality, before the term itself was officially coined. Her many other works include the plays “The Purple Flower” and “The Pot Maker” along with a multitude of short stories.
Mary P. Burrill
Burrill was a playwright and educator. Her works are considered protest plays because of their advocacy of progressivism. Her most popular work, “They That Sit in Darkness,” focuses on the difficulties working class Black families faced. The protagonist, Malinda Jasper, deals with difficulties many working class women faced in her time, working a full-time job in addition to raising 10 children. Meanwhile, her husband never sees their children because he would work the entire day and return home after the kids were put to bed. Malinda ends up dying prematurely due to physical and mental exhaustion.
This play serves as a commentary on the difficulties working class women, particularly Black women, faced on a day-to-day basis, and touches upon how legal restrictions on women’s reproductive rights deeply impacted their overall welfare and health. It was very controversial because it advocated for birth control over 50 years before it would become legal in the U.S. as a means of liberation and freedom from poverty and oppression for women. Her other plays include “The Other Wise Man” and “Aftermath,” and in both of which, Burrill speaks out against lynching as well as advocating for birth control.
Burrill and Lucy Diggs Slowe, a tennis champion and the first Dean of Women at Howard University, were life partners for 25 years, though the exact nature of their relationship continues to be debated. Burrill, along with Alice Dunbar-Nelson and Angelina Weld Grimké, two other major player in the Harlem Renaissance, are now considered to have been the roots of the creation of a queer Black feminist theatre.
Dunbar-Nelson was a poet, journalist, and activist who originated from a multicultural Creole background in New Orleans. She was a field organizer for the women’s suffrage movement in the mid-Atlantic states, and was the field representative for the Women’s Committee of the Council of Defense in 1918. She was very active in the NAACP, and campaigned for the passage of anti-lynching bills. She wrote and edited for the A M.E. Review, a publication produced by the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and the Wilmington Advocate, a Black newspaper.
Dunbar-Nelson published her first book, “Violets and Other Tales,” when she was just 20, and went on to create more works that delved into concepts of race, ethnicity, and gender. In the 1920s and early 1930s, she became a successful columnist, writing essays, reviews, editorials and articles for a multitude of different publications. Journalism was not a welcoming field to women at the time, and definitely not to Black women, and Dunbar-Nelson was often denied pay and recognition for her work. Despite the obstacles she was confronted with, she published many works throughout her lifetime and served as a source of great inspiration for other women of color pursuing their writing careers.
These women’s work have served as an inspiration for more recent generations of Black musicians, artists, writers, playwrights and more. Their achievements have set important landmarks in popular culture and art, and have paved the way for other prolific Black female writers and artists who came later such as Alice Walker, Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou. Their work was groundbreaking in its honesty about the experiences of Black women of their time, and they continue to influence creators and innovators today.