The Harlem Renaissance was a period in American history when the arts exploded among the African American community. The movement began in Harlem, New York in the early 1920’s after the end of World War I and concluded around 1935. During this time several issues were raised about African American civil rights. People began to protest and express themselves through art, music, and literature.
Several pieces of famous literature were written during this era. One form of literature that was extremely popular was poetry. Famous poets, such as Langston Hughes and Alice Dunbar-Nelson, emerged and wrote poetry that commented on the social and political issues of the time.
In Alice Dunbar-Nelson’s poem, The Proletariat Speaks, she comments on the difference between what she desires in life and the reality. She describes things that she would love to have and then describes in the following stanza the actual things that she possesses. (DeShazer, p. 974) We see similar commentary among the fiction writers’ as well, such as Zora Neale Hurston.
Zora Neale Hurston was born in January of 1891 in Alabama. She moved to Eatonville, Florida at an early age and many of her works are placed in towns inspired by Eatonville. Hurston had been a strong-willed individual from a young age. One of her most famous works is Their Eyes Were Watching God, in which the main character, Janie, goes through the struggle of a difficult marriage. She defies the norms of her small town society after her husbands death in order to find happiness. This work comments on the socioeconomic status of her home town and some of the social injustices that African American people, especially women, had to endure during that time. For a further look at Their Eyes Were Watching God and commentary on Hurston’s writing can be seen by following this link.
African American culture was blossoming during the Harlem Renaissance. Everyone was celebrating the culture, standing up for their civil rights, and supporting one another. Zora Neale Hurston was often criticized in her writing because it did not always support those values of the movement. In her short story, “Sweat,” the main character Delia is dealing with an abusive marriage. Delia is taking on a dual role in her relationship by taking on both her own responsibilities as a woman, such as keeping house, caring for her husband, and working in the kitchen, and taking on the responsibilities of her husband, such as working , because he does not attend to them. In this story, Hurston does not positively represent black men. Sykes, Delia’s husband, is represented as an angry, drunk who is unhappy with his life and deals with it in the wrong ways. This is not something that one would expect to come out of an African American woman writer during this time period.
Overall, Hurston’s writing is praised and criticized for what it is. Her writing is emotional, real, and intrigues reader’s to the fullest from her use of Southern “Black Vernacular” to the pressing topics that she writes about. Zora Neal Hurston’s involvement in the Harlem Renaissance bridges the gap between women writers in the 19th Century and the women writers of now. The literary world received a great gift that will continue to be studied for years to come.