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Women of the Harlem Reniassance


The Black Female and the Harlem Renaissance

It was during the 1920s that a "New Negro" came into being. With the end of World War I and the beginning of the roaring twenties, black Americans flocked from the rural South to the urban North in search of a better life. The capital of this new world had become Harlem, New York, and it was here that African-American life and culture experienced a rebirth during the Harlem Renaissance.

The bulk of immigrants to Harlem consisted of intellectuals, writers, artists, musicians, and entertainers. This included the elite group of middle class black Americans described by W.E.B. Du Bois as the "Talented Tenth." This group, although under the leadership of Du Bois, Alain Locke, and other male figures, included women who were leaders and influential figures in their own right. The problem, according to Carole Marks, director of Black Studies and associate professor of sociology at the University of Delaware, was that womens roles varied distinctly from those of their male associates. The acceptable role of the female in the Harlem Renaissance was that of salon hostess or entertainer. Therefore, women writers and other "non-hostesses" were either ignored as contributors to the movement or forced into the shadows and background of the movements success. In truth, the African-American female was a vital and integral part of the Harlem Renaissance who deserved far more than to be transgressed by the African-American male and society as a whole.

The most prolific outcome of the Harlem Renaissance was the abundance of new literature by, and about, African-Americans. The number of black female writers, essayists, poets, novelists, and playwrights whose work was granted some form of publication (usually in journals) during this time was unprecedented, but it remained less than those of their male counterparts. The plethora of women writers included Georgia Douglas Johnson, Nella Larsen, Jessie Fauset, Zora Neale Hurston, Anne Spencer, Gwendolyn Bennett, Helene Johnson, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Elise Johnson McDougald, Dorothy West and numerous others. However, within this group, labeling and criticizing certain works and writers as "not good enough" still caused a stratification problem. For example, the poetry of Georgia Douglas Johnson embraced the aspects of love and womanhood which were deemed acceptable subjects for women to discuss. Anne Spencers poetry, on the other hand, labeled her a feminist. Larsens Quicksand, Hurstons Their Eyes Were Watching God, and Fausets There Is Confusion provided an accurate depiction of the problems African-American women faced during the 1920s and 1930s. These novels contained autobiographical elements, such that the reader could easily place the characters in a precise historical and social setting. Thus, although the writings by women were often characterized as "romanticized" tales and downplayed by the African-American male leaders and writers, they provided a basis for learning and understanding more about the period as a whole and the women involved in it.

It was not only women writers who made great contributions to the era. Other females including Florence Mills, Gladys Bentley, and ALelia Walker (daughter of Madam C.J. Walker), Harlems own "joy goddess," established a more defined role of the black woman in social and entertainment spheres. However, the numerous works by African-American women writers of the Harlem Renaissance, which remain highly accessible, revealed truths about the time, people, and places that only the black woman could tell. Moreover, the black women writers of the Harlem Renaissance walked in the footsteps of Phyllis Wheatley and Francis E.W. Harper thus forming a path that Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and others would follow. Their work formed a foundation for studying, understanding, and uplifting the social and historical role of the African-American woman in our society.

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