Harlem Renaissance Classics
By Megan Powell, Magali Prel, Natasha Smith and Mia Walby
Spanning the 1920s and 30s with its epicentre in Harlem, New York, Professor Emily Bernard astutely underscores the significance of the Harlem Renaissance in noting that it is “unmatched as the most serious collective attempt on the part of black writers and artists to grapple with the complexity of African American identity in the modern world.” At its zenith in 1929, novelist Nella Larsen remarked to an interviewer that “Even if the fad for our writings passes presently, […] we will in the meantime have laid the foundation for our permanent contribution to American culture.”
In honour of Black History Month this October, we’re recommending some works to both celebrate and demonstrate that the Harlem Renaissance was no fleeting ‘fad’; rather, it remains enduringly gripping and culturally significant, featuring powerful voices we must continue to listen to.
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
Many works of the Harlem Renaissance see African American authors utilising literature in order to reclaim their past and remould it, with folklore and the vernacular especially central to this endeavour. This is particularly pertinent to Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurson, who was praised by Alain Locke for her “gift for poetic phrase, for rare dialect, and folk humour”, all of which made the novel “folklore fiction at its best.”
Hurston employs a frame narrative, whereby her protagonist, Janie, recounts her story to her close friend, Pheoby. In doing so, Hurston gives the novel an air of an overheard conversation and emphasises just how pivotal storytelling is to Janie’s search for love and self-fulfilment. As much as we are readers of the novel, we must equally be attentive listeners, paying careful attention in the same way as Pheoby does in order to aid Janie in her pursuit of a voice.
Hurston’s beautiful novel is at once melancholic and life-affirming. The strong, commanding voice Hurston bestows to Janie is certainly one we should still be compelled to lend our ears to.
Not Without Laughter by Langston Hughes
Not Without Laughter is a novel written by Langston Hughes, one of the prominent figures of the Harlem Renaissance. Published in 1930, this novel tells a coming-of-age story set in a small, racially segregated town in Kansas. The novel explores the experiences of, and relationships between, a young African American boy named Sandy Rogers and his family.
Sandy’s childhood is marked by the challenges of poverty, complex familial relationships and racism. Despite all this, Sandy finds joy and comfort in the loving and caring relationships he shares with his mother, grandmother and aunt. As Sandy grows older, he becomes increasingly aware of the social injustices and racial tensions that are occurring in his community. However, despite these hardships, Sandy and his family find moments of happiness and humour in their everyday lives.
This novel is a major contribution to the Harlem Renaissance movement because it employs a style of social realism by demonstrating the harsh realities for African Americans during this time period.
The Blacker the Berry by Wallace Thurman
The major themes within Harlem Renaissance literature surround African American writers reclaiming the narrative around their culture, often exploring skin colour, representation and experiences of prejudice. At the same time, pride is a key component to this literature, whereby the writers understood that it was important for their voices to be heard, and also that they express the difficulties they had overcome. In doing so, they highlighted the resilience of the African American community and the nuances of Black identity.
Thurman’s The Blacker the Berry addresses the concept of skin colour and what effects it can have on one’s identity, emotions and everyday life – a very taboo topic at the time. The novel was published in 1929 and depicts 1920s Harlem in all its jazz, vibrancy and flamboyancy. The main character, Emma Lou Morgan, struggles with having the darkest skin colour, even at home, and the discrimination and fear that follows her wherever she goes. The journey from her hometown in Idaho to Harlem is turbulent given that she continuously falls for light-skinned, prejudiced men who only make her miserable. Emma must open her eyes to the instilled ignorance and accept her skin colour to move forward.
Plum Bun by Jessie Redmon Fauset
Subtitled A Novel Without A Moral, Jessie Redmon Fauset’s Plum Bun is an essential contribution to the Harlem Renaissance. Published in 1928, Fauset’s novel is an imperative read as she helped pave the way for further African American literature.
In the novel, the reader follows Angela Murray on her journey to New York following the death of her parents. Angela is a light-skinned black woman and thinks that by passing as white, her life will be liberated in terms of opportunity. However, she realises that being a woman also has its challenges and that this is not a problem that can be solved through the fairy-tale convention of love and marriage. Fauset interweaves the theme of identity with gender and race, and as we follow Angela’s journey in New York, the moral in question is formed as the character also searches for it.