The Harlem Renaissance was a rebirth of African American culture and art in the wake of slavery, which had ended just 50 years prior. Occurring from 1918 through the 1930s and first coined the New Negro Movement, the Harlem Renaissance focused on self-definition of black people and the black experience. Black women were an integral part of the Harlem Renaissance, from dancer Josephine Baker to writer Zora Neale Hurston. But much like today, the identity of the “new black woman” was a hotly debated topic.
There were two different perspectives regarding the New Black Woman. Margarita Murray Washington felt that the principle function of the New Black Woman should be to maintain the home, establishing a “bourgeois class”. Others, like Pauline Hopkins, felt that the New Black woman should focus on individual accomplishments and freedoms. Washington was a black woman with light coloring and fine features, physical attributes that enabled her to further her agenda for the New Black Woman. As an educator and essayist, she strives for the status of a middle-class Black woman by setting herself up as a Gibson Girl.
And there was another divide. In the eyes of black men, the “ideal” black renaissance woman was an entertainer (sound familiar…) Meanwhile black woman writers and thinkers struggled to be included in the dialogue and get recognition for their work:
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 women’s 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 movement’s 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.
Here are 17 beautiful images of black women during the Harlem Renaissance:
What do you know about the Harlem Renaissance?