Black artists of Harlem Renaissance and Black modernism

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In 1931 a famous collector and promoter of primitive and modern arts Paul Guillaume in the issue of the Parisian journal La Revue du Monde Noir, said that ‘the mind of the modern man and woman must be Negro. Such sentiments may seem incorrect in the sense that initially enslaved black had no future prospects to influence human modernism, yet Paul Guillaume claim that modernity was partially informed by this unrecognized black Diaspora factor. Whether or not this sentiment holds the truth is not a priori in academic world, but rather the proof of such truth. Therefore, to closely examine such sentiments if they hold, we need to look at the history and influential factors that were at center stage for Black modernism. This leads us to seeing the whether there is sense in the new Negro movement and proponents of the movement who are black artists. During Harlem Renaissance the artistic work of Black Americans gave signs of modernity fused with compositional fracturing and chromatic freedom based on the African tradition, culture and heritage pride.

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            Additionally, the African-American artists and writers greatly contributed and empowered the voice of an emerging optimism that challenged the structures of American racial oppression and offering up a vision of a New Negro. As a result, the empowered image of new Negro drew upon the racial uplift themes that awoke to the potential for black self-determination and creative possibility. Evidently, this renegotiation of black identity was rooted in a rich print culture, music and poetic literature by majority of the Harlem Renaissance black artists. Therefore, it is in this line of thought that this paper shall examine the Black artist’s work s role in the black modernism during the famous known new Negro movement or Harlem Renaissance.


Harlem Renaissance movement coalesced in the 1910s and 1930s that is named after the anthology “The New Negro” edited by Alain Locke in 1925 (Wintz, 1988). The renaissances were centered in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City spreading its impact to all urban centers throughout the United States. Historically, after the era of intensive slavery and Black involvement in the World War I, African-Americans migrated to the industrial North from the economically depressed and agrarian South in huge numbers (Bearden and Henderson, 2002). These migrations created a social pool of rich African heritage culture within the African-Americans. Moreover, the Black-Americans who migrated to the industrial Northern such as New York and Washington DC found new opportunities both economic and artistic that resulted to the creation of a stable middle class Black –Americans (Dover, 2006).

Black African migration to the north marked symbol of freedom from the social order and political restrictions of the South. The follow up event in the northern region within the Harlem in New York City was development of power struggle between white and black capital forcing the white to desert the city leading to blacks acquiring wealthy. Wintz (1988), reports that empirically by the 1920’s, between Fifth Avenue (East) and Eighth Avenue (West), Street accommodated 200,000 blacks (Wintz, 1988). As a result, Black- Americans were encouraged to celebrate their heritage and to become “The New Negro,” meaning proud and independent blacks living in Northern cities as opposed to the slavery and racism oppression eras.

When the African Americans were encouraged to celebrate their heritage and become new Negro, artistic realms such as dance, literature, music, visual art and social realms such as political, philosophy, sociology and historiography were explored exclusively that brought about new dawn to African American. Black intellectuals and artists ventured into new ways to explore the historical experiences of black America and the contemporary experiences of black life in the northern urban cities where the majority of enlightened black Americans resided. The writings, music and the artistic work of the famous black Americans challenged the paternalism and racism while emphasizing on the glory of the African heritage and the need to be embraced in a new perspective of modernism. This focus lead to the African Americans to rejected mere aping the styles of white Americans and instead celebrated black creativity and dignity. Thus, the African Americans asserted their freedom to express themselves in their own terms; explored their identities as black Americans while celebrating the black culture rooted in slavery and their cultural linkage to Africa.

The promising future for black Americans promulgated by the Harlem Renaissance movement is seen as a theme of Aspiration, a compelling and complex painting, which is evident by its acquisition by the Fine Arts Museums recently. Ideally, the rich surge in African American music, arts and poetry was not limited to Harlem, but the African American scholars, writers and musicians, who lived and worked in Harlem environs has ensured that it is forever linked with the era through their intellect and artistic authority.

In order to understand the relationship between Harlem Renaissance artist and their contribution to the Black American modernism it is necessary to appreciate both the changes that occurred within the Black American community and the cultural shifts that took place in American society holistically during the 1920s (Bearden and Henderson, 2002). Initially, the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance was marked by three events: the publication of two poems by Claude McKay in Seven Arts, which is the first work by a black writer to appear under a white imprimatur in 20 years after Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s dialect pieces. Secondly, white writer by name Ridgely Torrence three plays about black life which was performed by black artists and contained none of the usual racial stereotypes, gave the Broadway opening for African American new perception and self view of cultural identity. And thirdly, 10,000 to 15,000 Blacks had a silent parade at Harlem matching down along Fifth Avenue protesting against continued racial inequities on 28 July 1920 (Wintz, 1988). These three events had an impact and interplay to arouse the new sense of the Black Americans to perceive the new outlook of the Black modernism.

Artistic and Writing work and black modernism

According to Baker (2007), states that art affirms the spirit of the individual and visually interprets a historical place in time as well as reflecting the artist’s place in society. This statement is true in the context of the Harlem Renaissance, in the sense that literature, arts and music enabled the black insight into the modernity. The arts and artists met a significant objective aimed at realizing a positive racial identity joined with raising self-esteem among the African Americans. Artists during Harlem Renaissance flourished during the 1920’s in New York City enhanced by issues of cultural identity, social and political tension in a segregated culture. Through the published works of writers, poets, dramatists, musicians, painters, and sculptors; folklore (Bearden and Henderson, 2002) became daily experiences of life for blacks and visual vocabulary became that celebrated black American’s African heritage. As a result, black artistic achievement in the US inspired a spirit of creative energy and production that provided a forum for black artist which spread to the black community. As Dover (2006) puts it, the term renaissance is basically used in description of new Negro movement because Harlem Renaissance is considered by many scholars as more of a birth than a rebirth.

The production from artistic work was based upon a powerful sense of intense race consciousness and pride in black heritage. It is a point of worth to note that during World War I black soldiers’ involvement lead to significance appreciation of the Jazz music and arousal of the interest in African cultures from the poetry of African. This changed the image from a plantation black to new Negroes as urged by Alain Locke (Benjamin 1994; Causey 2005). Therefore, it is unavoidable to point out sense in the writing, drama, music and arts of first Black elite in a transformation role of Black Americans modernism.

Alain Locke

Philosopher Alain Locke was the most outstanding and probably foremost spokesman for artists and writers of the Harlem Renaissance that is still recognized for encouragement for the blacks to celebrate new Negro or renaissance. Education wise, Alain Locke was highly educated philosopher and probably the first black American Rhodes scholar between the years 1907 to 1910 (Wintz, 1988). Due to his academic achievement, Alain Locke chaired Philosophy Department at Howard University were he used that opportunity to powerfully write and lecture African artistic heritage. His creation and designing theories of black art encouraged black artists not only to recognize the African heritage (Baker, 2007), but also paved way for the need to incorporate their African heritage within their work as opposed to imitating the white or European culture. Through Locke’s models, theories, lectures and writing such as The New Negro, book version of the Survey Graphic Harlem issue, published by Albert and Charles Boni in 1925, (Huggins 2001) he emphasized that African artistic heritage was at the center of the black and therefore, the necessitating black artists liberation so that they can be free to express their heritage (Bearden and Henderson, 2002).

Furthermore, Alain Locke was among the organizers of the patronage system that facilitated financial support and white audience for black artists. This controversial system designed by Locke and other colleagues was aimed at making Harlem the center of black art in America. This is paradoxical to the Harlem Renaissance in the sense of what real motive was for Locke’s efforts in the renaissance (Dover, 2006, p. 210), while on the other hand the controversial systems permitted freedom from the past injustices and stereotypes to assert one’s self with a new racial identity at the same time allowing the flow of the financial support coming from white philanthropists like The Harmon Foundation to facilitate art work production and advancement. The efforts of Locke saw black artists raise their standard in business and message out reach not only to the black community, but also to the entire US and Europe (Benjamin 1994; Causey 2005).  The sad note of the Locke’s efforts came during the Great Depression in 1929 that turned away much of the white financial support (Alain, 2008).

Marcus Garvey

Marcus Garvey was one of the extremists during the era of Harlem Renaissance to the extended that he wanted nothing to do with white America (Alain, 2008; Baker, 2007). Through his work as a publisher in a printing firm he aimed at instilling self-help and racial pride through African Nationalism. This was because Marcus Garvey believed that blacks can not and will never develop and grow in a within a white man’s territory or nation. This explains why a Jamaica born Garvey started “Back to Africa” movement (Benjamin 1994; Causey 2005). Due to his extreme opposition to anything “white America”, he was part and parcel who organized and participated in the printers strike hence expelled from working in his initial firm. Garvey proceeded to London where he successfully studied and worked for an African-Egyptian publisher.

However, Garvey dreams were big when he returned to Jamaica evident by his establishment of the Universal Negro Improvement Association established wished to establish a school Tuskegee aimed at reclaiming Africa for all blacks of the world. On the effect of school establishment, Garvey corresponded with Booker T. Washington, but on the eve of his arrival in the US Booker T. Washington had died and his successor Robert Russa Morgan was against Garvey’s plan for African Nationalism (Alain, 2008), Proving difficulty for the endorsement and support of his ideas to be implemented.

Garvey dream never died; instead he decided to establish his Universal Negro Improvement Association at Harlem owing to the credit worth reason that there was many Caribbean blacks at Harlem. In the event, he established his Negro World newspaper and denounced any white involvement in his ventures. The focus of this newspaper was to criticize the N.A.A.C.P. (Dover, 2006) as an interracial organization and urge blacks to do for themselves. Garvey become more than an artist of renaissance but a spring of inspiration to many African Americans especially when he was confirmed the Provisional President-General of Africa and organizer of the African Orthodox Church with black Holy trinity. He always demonstrated the African culture, tradition and heritage through his undertakings and colors and dressing style. For in stance, at his parades and meetings he always wore a purple and gold uniform with a feathered helmet, green, black and red uniforms were worn by his African Motor Corps Black Eagle Flying Corps and African Legion respectively (Benjamin 1994; Causey 2005).

Business wise Garvey founded a shipping company called Star Line aimed at transporting blacks to Africa and to effectively compete with the white shipping line companies (Bearden and Henderson, 2002). Later on his plans failed due to lack of adequate money and little support. Later he was jailed at penalty of two years in the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary after mail fraud in relation to improper conducting in collecting money from his shipping company. Late on Garvey continued with his liberation agenda till his death in 1940. In general, though writing, business, dressing colors and advocacy work of Garvey, he guided many African American to new image and ethnic identity centered on the folk art of black Americans and African art.

Meta Warrick Fuller

Meta Fuller was a sculptress who espoused the concepts of the Harlem Renaissance through her sculptures such as Talking Skull and Ethiopia Awakening between the years 1877 to 1968, although she never lived in Harlem environs (Dover, 2006). Her artistic background was strongly encouraged, supported and scuffled by her parents during childhood in Philadelphia. Meta Fuller utilized African folktales and themes as her motifs in bronze, plaster and clay and employed styles based on the figure of African and black American men, women, and children sculptures which were Emotional expressionistic human figures, life and death concerns.

The sculptor’s careers received a boost when she worked with world renowned sculptor Auguste Rodin in Paris after experiencing racial discrimination and financial problems. On her return to the US in 1907 she was commissioned to sculpt black figures for the Jamestown Tercentennial Exposition and opened a studio in Philadelphia. In her contribution to the black modernism was marked during the year 1914 (Benjamin 1994). During this period Meta Fuller created a sculpture in bronze called Ethiopia Awakening which was meant to be the symbol of the Alain Locke’s “New Negro” that has really captured the Harlem Renaissance (James1999; Huggins 2001). The Ethiopia Awakening sculpture represented a woman separated into two parts resembling an ancient queen of Egypt. This sculpture helped and played a major role in black modernity especially black women modernism as the sculpture expressed womanhood and black Africa (Wintz, 1988).

Aaron Douglas

Aaron Douglas was a well recognized artist in from years 1899 to 1979, who specifically played a major role as a painter of the Harlem Renaissance (Benjamin 1994; Causey 2005). He was well educated black artist who was born in Kansas and acquired his degree at University of Kansas in fine arts. Douglas received positive reinforcement and motivational linked to African heritage as a black person to his work when he met a white German artist Winold Reiss who encouraged him to look at African art for its elements of design. As a consequence, Aaron Douglas to great extend explored African art in his painting that inspired young black American painters and the lifestyle of the African Americans (Baker, 2007). Further advancements in his painting career and his message outreach were enhanced when Douglas came to contact with W.E.B. DuBois and Alain Locke who gave him numerous opportunities to further his career in art (Bearden and Henderson, 2002).

Some of the famous Douglas paintings included Aspects of Negro Life and God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse (Bearden and Henderson, 2002). All his paintings were centered on the pride in black history. Douglas employed a flat, hard-edge style and themes derived from Negro spirituals, African and black American customs and the Bible. During Harlem Renaissance, Douglas’ works and illustrations were found in publications such as Opportunity, Theater Arts Monthly and Vanity Fair: the Crisis magazine and even Locke’s famous anthology of black writers, The New Negro of 1925 used Douglas painting between many of its pages (Wintz, 1988). Indeed Douglas is referred to as a “pioneering Africanist” in the sense that he used African inspiring themes based on the African Americans culture identity, African traditions and heritage in his paintings (Dover, 2006). This played a major role in the transition of the Africans from planters class of race to the


In conclusion the Harlem Renaissance was as a result of migration of the black Americans from the southern to northern industrial part that created middle class black Americans. Many African American musicians, artists, and writers flocked to the neighborhood of Manhattan called Harlem which at time was nicknamed Mecca of the New Negro movement. This flocking enabled a total of 130 paintings, photographs, poetry, sculptures, prints, and drawings which turned Harlem into a center for fashion, nightlife for African Americans and entertainment. Therefore this renaissance of the African American was the key to black modernism not only in the US, but also in Europe, Caribbean environs and Paris.

            However, knowledge fueled the process of “birth of rebirth” through the facilitation of the artists, musicians, and writers. Through their writing or artistic work, they embraced style and themes that are African culture and heritage centered  helped to gain view of black modernism rather than African Americans imitate the white American or European culture. In general, the African themes, objectives and styles embraced by artists, Jazz musicians, and major writers gave insight to the progressive and ultra modern.


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Baker, H. (2007), Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance: Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1987.

Bearden, R. & Henderson, H. (2002), A history of African-American artists: New York: Pantheon Books.

Benjamin, T. H. (1994), Black art, ancestral legacy: Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art.

Causey, A (2005) complete catalogue of Black art: Oxford: Photon.

Dover, C. (2006) American Negro art: London: Studio Vista.

Huggins, N. I. (2001). Harlem Renaissance: London, Oxford University Press.

James, D. (1999) Black Harlem and the literary imagination: New York: Cambridge University,

Wintz, C. D. (1988). Black culture and the Harlem Renaissance: Houston, Rice University Press,


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