Harlem on My Mind: Cultural Production of the Harlem Renaissance

From the blues of Bessie Smith to the poetry of Langston Hughes, from cabarets to rent parties, a vast array of distinct cultural products and activities arose from the era known as the Harlem Renaissance or New Negro movement. This black cultural rebirth of the 1920s and 30s was enabled by the mass migration of southern African Americans and West Indians to northern cities as well as the return of black soldiers from World War I. Artists and intellectuals flocked to the city to participate in the making of a distinctive Negro aesthetic through literature, music, fashion, art, and performance. While these participants held a common goal of upturning racist notions of black inferiority, they held varied and conflicting opinions of how to best achieve this end through their art. Their wide-ranging approaches resulted in the rich assortment of works we celebrate as the collective essence of the Harlem Renaissance and paved the way for subsequent black cultural production.

In this six-week course, we will explore the historical context that enabled the Harlem Renaissance, analyze the creative works produced in the era, and interrogate the representational politics set forth by producers within the movement. What was distinctive about New Negro aesthetics? Against what representations of blackness were New Negroes defining themselves? How and to what extent was black expression liberated in this era? How and to what extent was it policed, stifled, and constrained? These and other questions will be central to our exploration of the period.