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The Harlem Renaissance Rexamined

A Review of George Hutchinson’s The Harlem Renaissance in Black and White

George B. Hutchinson is a distinguished professor at Indiana University. Graduated from Brown University and Indiana University, Hutchinson served two years in the Peace Corps. In addition to The Harlem Renaissance in Black and White, Hutchinson has also written one other book, In Search of Nella Larson: A Biography of the Color Line. Professor Hutchinson has taught and written on a broad range of topics in American literature and culture, focusing on the racial culture of the United States and African-American Literature.

The 1920s was the decade of the Harlem Renaissance, a time of social turmoil and American nationalist movements. This period is distinguished by the “powerful patterns of the history of interracial relations in the United States.”1 However, most interpretations of the Harlem Renaissance have been balanced by an interest in American cultural nationalism, among both black and white intellectuals. This aspect of the movement has been largely suppressed, or, at least, escaped serious notice. When most look back at the Harlem Renaissance, most think of the traditional conceptions of American modernism, the omission of African-American intellectuals form discussions of American cultural nationalist movements, and the marginalization of American cultural nationalism in studies of African-American modernism. In The Harlem Renaissance in Black and White, George Hutchinson addresses the deficiency in old interpretations of the Harlem Renaissance. He stresses that understanding the deficiency renders the understanding of not only the Harlem Renaissance but also the American modernism and interracial history of American culture skewed. In his book, Hutchinson utilizes a variety of sources that include works of literature, cultural songs, and personal correspondences to present an excellent study of one of the lesser-known sections of American history.

The beginning of Hutchinson’s book traces the beginnings of black modernism and its relations to white modernism. The roots of the Harlem Renaissance grew out of the changes that had taken place in the African-American community since the abolishment of slavery, and many of its ideas lived on much longer. After the end of slavery, the emancipated African-Americans began to strive for civic participation, political equality and economic and cultural self-determination. Black modernism is the “inverse of white modernism,” yet writers of the Harlem Renaissance did not see themselves that way.2 They considered themselves participants in an American modernism movement, and New Negro writers wanted to stress both their blackness and their “Americanism.” During the early portion of the 20th Century, Harlem, New York, became home to a growing "Negro" middle class. New York provided for a freer atmosphere for black artists because of concentration, dynamism, and diversity of racial consciousness. Contributing factors leading to the Harlem Renaissance were the Great Migration of African-Americans to northern cities, which concentrated ambitious people in places where they could encourage each other, and the First World War, which created new work opportunities for tens of thousands of people. Factors leading to the decline of this era include The Great Depression. The first stage of the Harlem Renaissance started in the late 1910s. Much of this book concerns the development of new institutions associated with American modernism, institutions that shaped the specific contexts in which new ideologies were created. American modernism began with pragmatism: the two “major components are its critique of realist and idealist conceptions of truth.”3 Du Bois, a major player in the Harlem Renaissance, concentrated on the study of philosophy and pragmatist aesthetics. American modernism, race, and national culture evolved during the Harlem Renaissance, and Hutchinson traces connections between Boasian anthropology, pragmatism, and the Harlem Renaissance.

Characterizing the Harlem Renaissance was the proud belief that the New Negro, through intellect and production of literature, art, and music, could challenge racism to promote progressive or socialist politics, racial and social integration. Art and literature would serve to "uplift" the race. Blacks argued for the existence of the American Negro as a new “homogenous population group.”4 The Harlem Renaissance supported divorcing American literature from English tradition. Cultural pluralism and national identity attacked on absolutes and on all appeals to solutions dependent on “transcendental” truths while “national cohesion and common identity called for essentially cultural solutions at the local level.”5 Many blacks believed that “culture [was] always at risk when one [used] intelligence," or that society could be changed if they put their minds to it.6 Using the arts to “advance freedom and equality derived not from a desire to prove that blacks could reason and write, as has often been charged, but from a belief in the central role of aesthetic experience in the achievement of new forms of solidarity and understanding.”7 A chief theorist of the New Negro, Alain Locke objected to thinking of the African-American literary tradition as a cultural “bulk-head” rigidly separated from the Anglo-American tradition. Ideas of theorists helped spawn audiences for new magazines and publishers that transformed the cultural landscape and opened spaces for African-American literary modernism. Connections between the Harlem Renaissance, pragmatism, and cultural pluralism depends upon the way the American intellectual terrain was transformed through the circulation of theories by the 1920s.

In the middle of his book, Hutchinson explores the transformation of literary institutions under influence of the Harlem Renaissance. Dividing literature from genres of art may seem arbitrary, but literature depends upon a unique process of production. To understand the institutional contexts of the New Negro movement, Hutchinson examines the cultural politics of journals and publishing houses that promoted the movement and the conditions that gave rise to journals and houses in the first place. Writers included Countee Cullen, W.E.B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, James Weldon Johnson, Claude McKay, and Jean Tommer. White magazines such as The Nation, The New Republic, The Liberator, and The Seven Arts shaped and promoted the American literary canon. Black writing fit into the basic social and cultural reforming program of these magazines that wanted to distinguish American from English aesthetics. As a literary movement, the Harlem Renaissance was peculiar for its close identification with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the National Urban League, both funded shortly before the movement began and played crucial roles in its success. Magazines such as The Crisis, a monthly journal of the NAACP, and Opportunity, an official publication of the National Urban League, employed Harlem Renaissance writers on their editorial staffs; published poetry and short stories by black writers promoted African-American literature. Among the NAACP’s most important accomplishments in the early years was the publication of The Crisis magazine, which ranks as one of the great journalistic enterprises in American history. The Crisis emphasized the American Negro’s “desire to share in a common American civilization, with racial distinctions subordinated to common aspirations and common values, and challenged the equation of American culture with white American culture and promoted a variant of American civil religion.”8 Writers vented their ideas out in these magazines, articles, and plays, helping spread the ideas of equality and social rights.

Hutchinson suggests that the dominant view of the approach of the New Negroes to African identity and its relationship to African-American identity simply does not square with the documentary evidence. It recognizes only one side of a complex relation and ignores the significance of other factors. Spirituality of black folklore was carried over into the criticism of black poetry in Opportunity. Like The Crisis, Opportunity expected drama to be a particularly important genre for African-American artists, and it continually urged black writers to write plays. At the time, blacks found it hard to publish plays. Perhaps the most “flamboyant and most radical of the magazines of the Harlem Renaissance was The Masses,” which died in the war years, to be reborn as The Liberator.9 Another magazine, The Modern Quarterly, also showed interest in the Negro renaissance. It provoked violent attacks in the 1930s from the Communist Party and its front organizations. American nationalism took a very different form in the pages of The Messenger from the form it took in The Crisis and Opportunity. The cultural criticism of The Crisis revolved around a political and social condemnation of white America and Opportunity emphasized cultural self-revelation as such. The literature appealed to the African-American middle class and to whites, a wide audience. As important as these literary outlets were, the Renaissance relied heavily on white publishing houses and white-owned magazines. In fact, a major accomplishment of the Renaissance was opening the door to mainstream white periodicals and publishing houses, although the relationship between the Renaissance writers and white publishers and audiences created some controversy. Some African-American modernists distrusted the black magazines from an artistic point of view because they thought the editors and reviewers were too willing to publish and praise mediocre writing. Many critics point out that the Harlem Renaissance could not escape its history and culture in its attempt to create a new one, or sufficiently separate itself from the foundational elements of European culture.

In the end of the book, closer attention to the institutions that fostered the Harlem Renaissance shows that long-established publishers opened their doors to the new black writing to a minimal extent if at all. The Harlem Renaissance publishers were not just a different group but also an entirely new group, with new attitudes. The thirties witnessed a turn away from stress on race in favor of class and a critique of capitalism. Structural changes in American society favored certain positions over others. “Out of the network of racial and national ideologies emerged the most comprehensive text” of the movement, The New Negro.10 Written in 1925, The New Negro: An Interpretation is an anthology of fiction, poetry, and essays on African and African-American art and literature. As a central example of the creative efforts coming out of the burgeoning New Negro Movement or Harlem Renaissance, the book is considered by literary scholars and critics to be the definitive text of the movement. Hutchinson ends his book by summing up the roots of the Renaissance until a definite point in the movement.

The Harlem Renaissance in Black and White documents the development of the Harlem Renaissance and connects the histories of American modernism and American interracial culture. The first section explores the stirrings that helped to begin the Renaissance: pragmatism, cultural pluralism, and literary magazines. The second section describes the literary institutions, journals, and magazines that influenced and were influenced by the Renaissance. The third section specifies on Alain Locke’s anthology The New Negro and describes how the Harlem Renaissance became to be classified as the Renaissance. George Hutchinson wrote The Harlem Renaissance in Black and White to address how American cultural nationalism was largely suppressed throughout time. Understanding the Harlem Renaissance as an “integral part of American cultural nationalism and its discourses of modernity”, Hutchinson seeks out to revise our understanding of the Harlem Renaissance from its origins to its demise.11

Raised in Indianapolis, Professor Hutchinson has taught and written on a broad range of topics in American literature and culture, beginning with Walt Whitman, but in the past decade has focused on the racial culture of the United States and African-American Literature. He is a patriotic American fascinated in how the black/white color line is “reproduced in American cultural history”, and in what is “repressed or disavowed in the process of such a reproduction.”12 Hutchinson is probably a diplomatic realist, but historiography does not really play a role here. Although Hutchinson does attack traditional interpretations, he does not base his arguments upon historiography.

Two book reviews commend Hutchinson’s book. Claudia Tate writes that the book is of monumental scope, documenting the Harlem Renaissance in extreme detail. His book challenges the assumed opposition between American and African-American cultural nationalism and that between assimilations and multi-culturalism. Tate feels that ironically, Hutchinson fails fully to contextualize the desire in the development of American literary modernism, saying that Hutchinson “could have provided a stronger basis for explaining why the cult of the primitive captured the popular imagination of the West.”13 In another review by Charles Scruggs, The Harlem Renaissance in Black and White is called ambitious and easily the most detailed treatment yet given to the Renaissance and its backgrounds. Scruggs believes the book is effective in dealing with background and influence. However, Scruggs criticizes Hutchinson’s historical generalizations, which overlook the “complexity of the period of WWI and the post-war decade in order to attack what he regards are critical clichés.”14 Sometimes Scruggs thought the portrayals were also overdone.

As both Tate and Scurggs agree, Hutchinson’s book is one of the most adequate studies of the Harlem Renaissance. The author utilizes a variety of sources and is particularly strong in summarizing events and analyzing social effects. However, for a book that emphasizes the development of Negro literature, relatively few passages are devoted to black works. Had Hutchinson included more authors and their respective works, his book would have had more depth. The effects of WWI, as Scruggs believes, were “too generalized” into Hutchinson’s analysis.15

According to Hutchinson, the Negro writers wanted to stress both their blackness and their Americanism. The art described in The Harlem Renaissance in Black and White reflects the social struggle that blacks and whites underwent as they learned to coexist within the same society. The art reflects the cultural nationalist movements and American modernism. Having a place within a society, as the Harlem Renaissance literature described, reflects American values of basic rights. The Harlem Renaissance showed the entire world that these people who were once thought of as slaves: people who could not think for themselves, could not be “educated and were not allowed equal rights were now making significant contributions to societies all over the world in all facets of education, literature, the arts, and culture.”16 African-Americans were being respected for their contributions especially in the north of the U.S. and as a result, segregation was changing into integration.

In writing The Harlem Renaissance in Black and White, Hutchinson sheds light on one of the most unknown chapters of American history. Overshadowed by the trauma of the Great Depression and later developments of civil rights, aspects of the Harlem Renaissance remained misinterpreted and ignored. Hutchinson has drawn attention back to this chapter of history.


  1. Hutchinson, George. The Harlem Renaissance in Black and White. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1995. 1
  2. Hutchinson, George. 1
  3. Hutchinson, George. 33
  4. Hutchinson, George. 75
  5. Hutchinson, George. 82
  6. Hutchinson, George. 89
  7. Hutchinson, George. 90
  8. Hutchinson, George. 145
  9. Hutchinson, George. 250
  10. Hutchinson, George. 387
  11. Hutchinson, George. 3
  12. Hutchinson, George. 443
  13. Tate, Claudia. “The Harlem Renaissance in Black and White. – book reviews,” 1997. 1
  14. Shrugs, Charles. “The Harlem Renaissance in Black and White (review),” 1997. 1
  15. Shrugs, Charles. 1
  16. Hutchinson, George. 440