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 McKay, Countee 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 volume.
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 CountBasie 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 Fitzgerald, Thelonious Monk, and MaryLou Williams created new works and performances that placed American music, and African American musicians, solidly in the forefront of the international avant-garde.