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17 Stunning Images of Black Women During the Harlem Renaissance Era

Avatar • Oct 4, 2015

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:

Chorus dancers

Chorus dancers

“Future Expectations” photograph by James Van Der Zee, 1925.

Future Expectations”
photograph by James Van Der Zee, 1925.

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Wedding

Wedding

Chorus girls of the musical revue Chocolate Kiddies at the Admiralspalast in Berlin, Germany 1925

Chorus girls of the musical revue Chocolate Kiddies at the Admiralspalast in Berlin, Germany 1925

The Apollo Dancer sat the Cotton Club Revue in 1938. still from BEEN RICH ALL MY LIFE, a film by Heather MacDonald, a First Run Features release.

The Apollo Dancer sat the Cotton Club Revue in 1938. still from BEEN RICH ALL MY LIFE, a film by Heather MacDonald, a First Run Features release.

harlem renaissance women 3

Josephine Baker

Josephine Baker

Photo taken by James Van Der Zee, a black photographer known for his portraits of the emerging black middle class in Harlem during the renaissance era.

Photo taken by James Van Der Zee, a black photographer known for his portraits of the emerging black middle class in Harlem during the renaissance era.

harlem renaissance woman

Writer and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston

Writer and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston

Dancers at Harlem's Cotton Club

Dancers at Harlem’s Cotton Club

harlem women 1920s-2

African American flappers in 1920s Harlem

African American flappers in 1920s Harlem

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Actress Blanche Dunn

Actress Blanche Dunn

Couple with Raccoon Coats. Portrait taken by James Van Der Zee

Couple with Raccoon Coats. Portrait taken by James Van Der Zee

What do you know about the Harlem Renaissance?

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About Rinny

Texan by birth, Los Angeleno by situation. Lover of Tame Impala and Shoegaze music. Comedian by trade. Macaroni and Cheese connoisseur by appetite.

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Livvy
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Livvy

What a wonderful article!

I do own a few novels by Nella Larsen, Dorothy West and Jessie Redmon Fauset, but the perspective on the role of women given here is fascinating. And the images are utterly gorgeous.

akv
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akv

All light skinned obviously

PrimmestPlum
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PrimmestPlum

Unfortunately, yes but you have to look at these pictures with historical context in mind.

However, I am surprised that Nina Mae McKinney isn’t featured here.

Likewaterforchoc
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Likewaterforchoc

I love Nina Mae Mckinney!

PrimmestPlum
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PrimmestPlum

Isn’t she just gorgeous? And so talented too!

maji
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maji

Great to see these keep em comin!

Sabrina black
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Sabrina black

They are still killing it? I’m pretty sure the elders today missed those times.

lis
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lis

LOVE THIS.

Kathy
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Kathy

Josephine Baker, is absolutely stunning. Her curves, proportions, “un-cookie-cutter-facial-features” & Womanly body, is superb. No modern anorexic influences here. Her facial expression..This all from a photo. Imagine the personality exhibiting her talent. One of a Kind~

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