An Artistic Rebirth
The early decades of the 20th century saw an
explosion of artistic expression in the African American community.
The move to the cities, as well as the greater confidence that
came with leaving behind Jim Crow society, contributed to an
unparalleled surge of creative enterprise, as artists, writers,
composers, and musicians explored the nature of modern African
American identity through their work. A dizzying array of new
mass media-film and records, then radio and television-exported
this revolutionary art to the rest of the country and the world
and helped African American artists take a new and commanding
role in the cultural life of the nation.
Writers and Artists
As the century began, the preeminent figure in the African American
world was the scholar and public intellectual W.E.B. DuBois.
Born during Reconstruction, and, in 1895, the first African
American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard, DuBois had a renaissance
intellect that seemed to encompass all aspects of American
culture. His countless interventions as a sociologist, activist,
journalist, publisher, author, political theorist, and founding
member of the NAACP gave him a greater public authority than
perhaps any person of letters of his time and laid the groundwork
for all the political thinkers and cultural innovators who
would follow him.
Among the authors published by DuBois in the
NAACP's magazine The Crisis were a group of inventive
young poets and novelists, many of whom either lived in or were
associated with the dynamic African American neighborhood of
Harlem. The rich blend of cultures and the urban dynamism of
upper Manhattan had become a magnet for creative African Americans,
and the 1920s and '30s saw a great flowering of artistic work
there. As a diverse group of writers, actors, musicians, painters,
and dancers challenged one another and exchanged ideas, they
soon gained national attention. The poets Claude
Cullen, and Langston Hughes, the prose artists Jean Toomer
and Jesse Fauset, the actor and singer Paul Robeson, and, later, the painters Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden all became known as members of the Harlem Renaissance.
Outside of Harlem, some writers and artists
chose to look closely at the details of everyday African American
life. Many did so within the Federal
Writers' Project, a WPA program of the 1930s. Richard
Wright, who went on to become the first commercially successful
African American novelist, collected folklore for the FWP, as
did the novelist Margaret Walker and Ralph
Ellison, author of Invisible Man. One of the program's
most distinguished alumni was the anthropologist and novelist
Zora Neale Hurston, who was one of the most highly regarded writers
of the Depression era. Hurston worked tirelessly to collect the
folk tales, music, and traditions of her home state of Florida,
which she called "the inner melting pot of the great melting
pot - America." Hurston's folklore research richly informed her
novels, including Jonah's Gourd Vine and Their Eyes
Were Watching God, and the materials she collected can be
found in Florida
Folklife from the WPA Collections.
The work of this new generation was individual
and varied, but much of it shared a common concern with questioning
many of the conditions of, and assumptions about, African American
life. In his book of essays The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B.
DuBois had declared that the "question of the Twentieth Century
is the question of the color line." For many of the artists of
the Harlem Renaissance, that question became a key concern of
their life's work. This close engagement with issues of race,
ethnicity, and national identity would go on to become one of
the central themes of 20th century American art and literature.
Composers and Musicians
The phonograph record shrank the musical world like no medium before
it--suddenly, listeners were able to bring artists, composers,
and musical styles from faraway places right into their homes.
African American musicians were among the first artists to make
commercial recordings, and musical styles based in the African
American tradition quickly took a prominent place among the assortment
of genres that were vying for the national ear. Originally, music
companies grouped recordings by African Americans together as "race" records.
One catalog from 1929 promised to deliver "Vocal Blues, Religious,
Spirituals, Red Hot Dance Tunes, Sermons, Novelties" all in one
As the century began, blues and gospel musicians
were already celebrities in the African American community. The
two styles of music shared common roots in the African American
music of the previous century, and many musicians played in both
gospel and blues groups, even though their subject matter was
drastically different. Composers such as W.C.
Handy and Thomas Dorsey gained national exposure through
record sales and sheet-music publishing, while recording artists
like Bessie Smith became multimedia stars by starring in stage
musicals and early films.
In the meantime, jazz was quickly becoming
the popular music of the United States. Such pioneers as Louis
Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton combined elements of gospel
and the blues with rhythmic innovations and virtuoso instrumental
performances to create an entirely new musical style. By the
1930s and '40s, songs by Billie
Holiday and Lena
Horne climbed high in the pop charts, and bandleaders like Count
Basie and Duke Ellington toured the country and broadcast
their performances to radio audiences around the globe. By the
middle of the century, jazz had become a complex and challenging
music, as composers and musicians explored the inner workings
of harmony and melody with unprecedented rigor. Artists such
as Charlie Parker, Ella
Monk, and Mary
Lou Williams created new works and performances that placed
American music, and African American musicians, solidly in the
forefront of the international avant-garde.