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  • Print publication year: 2011
  • Online publication date: May 2011

12 - Foundations of African American modernism, 1910–1950



The map of African American cultural life during the first half of the twentieth century has always been organized around Harlem. From the late 1910s through the mid-1930s, the high water mark of what is variously known as the New Negro Renaissance or the Harlem Renaissance, the section of Manhattan spreading out from the axis of 125th Street and Lennox Avenue was the epicenter of an explosion of creative activity. Painters and poets, jazz musicians and blues singers, actors and orators, dancers and composers, poets, playwrights, and novelists all crowded the nightclubs, lecture halls, and salons, creating a ferment which justifies Langston Hughes's celebration of the era as a time when “the Negro was in vogue.” Attracting artists – a few of them white – from every corner of the United States and the African Diaspora, Harlem provided a laboratory where cultural traditions forged in response to slavery and the economic brutality of the post-Reconstruction era crashed up against “modernity,” the constellation of forces which had been transforming European and European American society and psychology at a steadily accelerating pace since the original Renaissance.

While what took place in Harlem illuminates the new aesthetic and political possibilities opened by that encounter, New York was only a part of a much larger story. Between 1910 and 1950, African American life was shaped by two major wars; a depression which redefined American political and economic life; the rise of a union movement with, at best, a mixed record on racial issues; the dawn of a Cold War and a Civil Rights Movement shaped in part by global politics; and, perhaps most centrally, what historians have termed the “Great Migration.”