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The Harlem Renaissance, or the New Negro Movement as it was called, was one of the richest and most complex artistic eras in American history. Characterized by an explosive energy, the artistic, literary, and philosophical movements taking place among African Americans during the 1920s took Harlem as a center. The neighborhood, consisting of some two square miles in Manhattan, was both a literal and metaphoric African-American national capital, the hub of political, social, creative, and intellectual activities. The unprecedented numbers of men and women who migrated to Harlem from all over the country in the first decades of the twentieth century included artists and writers, musicians and dancers, intellectuals and activists. The New Negro Movement, however, was not confined to Harlem; rather, it flourished in many parts of the country, especially in Washington, Chicago, and in the American South. Some might even argue that the Harlem Renaissance blossomed, too, among American expatriates in Europe. The Harlem Renaissance was a sweeping intellectual and social movement that, though it may have radiated from uptown Manhattan, affected the whole of American culture.

In Harlem and in other cities, women artists, writers, and hostesses helped to define the Renaissance, playing major roles in creating, supporting, and promoting African-American arts and letters. Women of this period were especially important in building centers of the New Negro Movement outside of New York City, because women were more likely than men to be tied to home and family by obligation, social mores, or economic dependence, and so were often unable to find their way to Harlem. Georgia Douglas Johnson, for example, a wife and mother as well as a poet, hosted a Saturday evening salon in her Washington home that was, for several decades, a regular meeting place for African-American writers. Fiction writer Marita Bonner grew up in Boston, worked as a schoolteacher in Washington, and married and raised a family in Chicago. Artist Mary Bell spent the 1920s working as a domestic servant in Boston. Eslanda Robeson, writer and wife of entertainer Paul Robeson, acted as her husband’s agent and manager and so followed his career from Harlem to London and Switzerland.

Of course, many women artists and thinkers did join the artistic and intellectual community in Harlem. Augusta Savage, perhaps the most important sculptor of the Renaissance, moved to Harlem from Florida in 1922. Writer and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston also relocated from Florida to New York; sponsored by Charlotte Osgood Mason, a wealthy white patron, Hurston was to spend nearly as much time on research trips in the American South, Haiti, and Jamaica as she did in Harlem. Novelist Nella Larsen and Jessie Redmon Fauset, literary editor of The Crisis, were both central figures of the 1920s Harlem literary scene. Singer and actress Ethel Waters became a star in Harlem’s popular clubs and on Broadway in the late 1920s. Heiress A’Lelia Walker was perhaps Harlem’s most celebrated hostess of the day, entertaining the African-American elite along with influential whites and even European royalty in her Harlem mansion at 108-110 West 136th Street. Grace Nail Johnson, wife of writer and civil-rights activist James Weldon Johnson, was a hostess in her own right, referred to by many as the “grand dame” of Harlem.

 

(Download PDF of the full chapter from the catalog Intimate Circles: American Women in the Arts.)