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Alabama Voices from the
Harlem Renaissance

Sometimes called the New Negro Movement, the Harlem Renaissance had its origins in the Great Migration of African Americans from the rural South to the urban North from the turn of the twentieth century to mid-century. During this period scores of African Americans from the South settled in many Northern cities, but the Great Migration brought to Harlem in New York City the largest population of urban blacks anywhere in the world. Harlem became the cultural and literary capital of black America. Manhattan was the center for publishing, recording, and acting for white America during the Roaring Twenties—the Jazz Age. To be near the pulse of energy, vitality, and opportunity of the era, African American writers, painters, sculptors, actors, and musicians from the world over flocked to Harlem.

With the New Negro Movement came a revival of interest in African heritage and a renewed focus on Southern black cultural roots. The Harlem Renaissance was characterized by a tremendous outpouring of creativity by African American artists who used their art to explore their rich cultural heritage, to forge new black images and identities, and to create new modes of expression. This was the innovative era of writers like Jean Toomer, Zora Neale Hurston, Nella Larsen, and Langston Hughes; of painters and sculptors like William H. Johnson, Aaron Douglas, Richmond Barthe, and Meta Warrick Fuller; of musicians like W. C. Handy, Thomas Dorsey, Bessie Smith, Duke Ellington, and Louis Armstrong. The Harlem Renaissance is said to have ended with the stock market crash of 1929, but its impact extended well into the 1930s and 1940s and strongly influenced the form and direction of later African American creative expression.

Alabama Voices
Writers with connections to Alabama were mainstream participants in the creative activity of the Harlem Renaissance. Claude McKay, whose poem "If We Must Die" (1919) voiced the presence of a "New Negro" in America, attended Tuskegee Institute for a short time before enrolling in Kansas State College and then moving on to New York to pursue a literary career.

One native Alabama luminary of the Renaissance period was William Christopher (W. C.) Handy, the "Father of the Blues." Handy was born in 1873 in Florence, Alabama. He taught music for a brief period at Alabama A&M University in Huntsville. In 1917 he moved to New York City. During the early twentieth century, Handy was a main voice of the blues in America. He was a leader in cultivating the blues sound and promoting worldwide recognition for the music. Handy was a musician, but his blues lyrics were the work of a poet. In 1909 he wrote what many consider the first blues song in history, "The Memphis Blues," which he published in 1912. He was also one of the first composers to use the word "blues" in a song title and to include "blue notes" in a published composition. Handy found his "blues" in what he called "some old Negro song of the South" that was "a part of the memories" of his childhood and his race. His "Beale Street Blues" was named for what he called "the colored thoroughfare in Memphis" and was inspired by a "poor piano thumper" whom he heard playing one night in a "cheap cafe" on Beale Street. "The Memphis Blues" became a popular song throughout the country and inspired other songwriters to compose blues songs. It is said to have also inspired the "Fox Trot." "St. Louis Blues," Handy's most famous and best-selling composition, is one of the most widely recorded songs in the history of music.

Another Alabama native, George Wylie Henderson, is a lesser known voice of the Renaissance period. Henderson was born in Macon County, Alabama in 1904. He studied printing at Tuskegee Institute, and worked as a printer in New York City while completing his first novel, Ollie Miss (1934). Ollie Miss, apparently set in Macon County, presents a sensitive and compelling portrait of Ollie who emerges seemingly out of nowhere to live and work on a farm in a black community in rural Alabama. Jule continues with the story of Ollie's son, Jule, who grows up in a rural Alabama community which he ultimately leaves for a quite different environment in the glamour and glitter of Harlem. In his introduction to the 1989 University of Alabama Press reprint of Jule, J. Lee Greene says that in reclaiming "the Southern Black experience as a source for aesthetic inspiration and artistic direction, Jule looks backward to the Harlem Renaissance and forward to the novels of Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Ernest Gaines and Toni Morrison."

Ralph Ellison was born in Oklahoma City in 1914. He entered Tuskegee Institute in 1933 determined to study music and become a great musician. Instead, he was drawn into writing. Ellison left Tuskegee in 1936 for New York where he came under the influence of key literary artists from the Harlem Renaissance. In his essay collections Shadow and Act (1964) and Going to the Territory (1986), Ellison discusses the critical role of his Tuskegee years in his development as a writer. "Flying Home," a short story published in 1944, portrays a young man grappling with the lessons of flight and race at the only school that trained black pilots during the 1940s, Tuskegee Institute. Ellison's award-winning novel Invisible Man was published in 1952, six years after Henderson's Jule. An episode early in the novel draws a stark contrast between the middle-class environment of a nameless black college resembling Tuskegee Institute and the rural folk milieu surrounding it. Like Henderson's Jule, Ellison's hero leaves this community in the South and journeys north to Harlem. In their fiction, both Henderson and Ellison retrace their own journey, and that of many other African Americans, as they followed the Great Migration north.

Zora Neale Hurston, the most prolific black woman writer of the Harlem Renaissance, was drawn to Harlem during the early 1920s and quickly formed close associations with the most notable African American writers of the time. Although Eatonville, Florida, has usually been cited as her place of birth, some scholars have recently claimed that Hurston was actually born in Notasulga, Alabama, and her family moved to Eatonville during the first year or two of her life. Adding to the confusion, some sources list her date of birth as 1891; others say she was born in 1901. This confusion is characteristic of the enigma that surrounds Hurston, her life, and her personality. In any event, Alabama was one of the locations for her field studies in black folklore. Hurston was one of the first professionally trained black folklorists, and Mules and Men (1935)was the first book of black folklore collected by an African American and published by a major company for a general audience. This pioneering book was a product of Hurston's 1928-1930 field trip to the South and the West Indies. The author of several short stories, Hurston reached her peak as a fiction writer in the 1930s with the publication ofher highly acclaimed African American folk novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937).

Langston Hughes, the most famous writer of the Harlem Renaissance, was perhaps Zora Hurston's closest literary associate, that is, before a disagreement over a play they were writing together damaged their friendship. One of the most gifted writers of the twentieth century, Hughes led the way among African American poets in adapting traditional forms of poetry to the rhythms of blues and jazz music. He is also unequaled in his unique use of folk characters and speech to convey the vibrant essence of urban black culture. Over a span of some forty years, Hughes wrote about almost every aspect of the African American experience. He also wrote about Alabama. During the summer of 1927 Hughes visited Tuskegee Institute with Zora Hurston and was asked to write an anthem for the school. He wrote "Alabama Earth (At Booker T. Washington's Grave)," which was first published in the Tuskegee Messenger in June of 1928. During a tour of black colleges in 1931, Hughes returned to Tuskegee Institute, and went to Kilby Prison to read his poetry to the Scottsboro Boys. He describes this visit in his autobiography, I Wonder as I Wander (1956). Hughes was particularly moved by the Scottsboro Case. He participated in fundraising for the defense of the youths, and he wrote several poems about the case: "Christ in Alabama" (1931), "Scottsboro" (1931), "The Town of Scottsboro" (1932), and Scottsboro Limited (1932)—a book containing four poems and a play. Hughes' other Alabama poems include "Ballad of Booker T." (1941), "From Selma" (1948), "Daybreak in Alabama" (1948), and "From Spain to Alabama" (1949). Still a prolific writer during his later years, Hughes responded to the bombing of a church in Alabama in "Birmingham Sunday (September 15, 1963)." His volume of poetry titled The Panther and the Lash: Poems of Our Times (1967) is dedicated, in poetry, "To Rosa Parks of Montgomery."

As a young poet, Margaret Walker, an Alabama native, received encouragement from Langston Hughes, and she acknowledges him as a major influence in her development as a writer. Walker was one of the most talented writers of the thirties who also, like Hughes, spoke with creative fervor to succeeding generations. Actually, Walker's later years have seen some of her most memorable creative output. Her signature poem, "For My People," was published in 1937, followed by "We Have Been Believers" in 1938. Her first collection of poems, completed for her master's thesis, was titled For My People and published in 1942. Following several years thereafter were Prophets for a New Day (1970), October Journey (1973), ForFarish Street Green (1983), and This is My Century: New and Collected Poems (1988). Also in 1988, Walker published Daemonic Genius, a biography of the famed black novelist Richard Wright who was one of her closest literary associates in the 1930s while she studied and worked in Chicago. Though considered a native Mississippian, Walker was born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1915. After completing her studies in Chicago, she returned South to teach and retired from Jackson State University in Mississippi. Jubilee (1966), her fictional masterpiece, is a historical novel replete with the folklore, folkways, the folk sayings and beliefs of the rural black South. It tells the story of her great-grandmother who lives through slavery and the Civil War in Georgia and through Reconstruction and sharecropping in Greenville, Alabama.

Ellen Tarry, a little-known Alabama writer, was born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1906, nine years before Margaret Walker. Tarry's father had moved to Birmingham from Athens, Alabama, and her mother had moved there from LaFayette, Alabama. Tarry grew up in Birmingham, attended Alabama State Normal School (now Alabama State University) in Montgomery, taught in the Birmingham Public Schools, and then moved to New York to pursue her dream of becoming a writer. She arrived in New York only a few months before the Wall Street Crash of 1929. While in New York, she formed associations with many of the people who figured prominently in the Harlem Renaissance, most notably Claude McKay, James Weldon Johnson, Langston Hughes, and Countee Cullen. Tarry has written a number of books for young people, including a biography of James Weldon Johnson. Her autobiography, TheThird Door, was published in 1955 and reprinted by the University of Alabama Press in 1992. In telling the story of her life,Tarry covers a broad range of experiences and events in African American cultural history from the turn of the century through the turbulent years of the Civil Rights Movement. She presents a view of Alabama during these years from the perspective of one who came of age in a middle-class black family, all of whom could "pass" for white.

Another Alabama writer who migrated north and came under the influences of the Harlem Renaissance was John Henrik Clarke. Clarke was born into a family of sharecroppers in Union Springs, Alabama in 1915. He grew up in Columbus, Georgia and moved to Harlem in 1933. In Harlem, he rediscovered African history and became involved in the reinterpretation of African American history and culture. His most popular short story, "The Boy Who Painted Christ Black" (1940), is one example of his creative efforts during this period. Clarke earned universal acclaim as a poet and fiction writer, as an editor, scholar, and teacher. A few months prior to his death in July 1998 a film about his life, "A Great and Mighty Walk," was released, and he was honored for his achievements in Alabama—in his hometown of Union Springs and in Montgomery.

Albert Murray, another writer influenced by the Harlem Renaissance,was born in Nokomis, Alabama, one year after Clarke. Like Clarke, Murray would eventually migrate north. Murray grew up in Magazine Point outside of Mobile and attended Tuskegee Institute where he first met Ralph Ellison, with whom he later formed a lasting friendship. Murray also taught at Tuskegee. Following a career in the Air Force, he settled in New York during the 1960s. Murray has completed three installments on a novel which he began in the mid 1940s. The trilogy follows the experiences of "Scooter" as he moves from childhood in Gasoline Point, Alabama (Train Whistle Guitar, 1974), to college at a school resembling Tuskegee Institute (The Spyglass Tree, 1991), and, after graduation, to an occupation as a bass player in a band (The Seven League Boots, 1996). In all of his fiction, Murray artfully fuses elements of the blues, jazz, and folklore to dramatize infrequently explored aspects of the African American experience. Murray is not only a highly acclaimed novelist; he is also a music, social, and literary critic. South to a Very Old Place (1971), a book of social commentary, is a memoir of Murray's return to the South. As he travels from New York and New Haven, he retraces his earlier journey from the South to the North. The book includes sections on Tuskegee and Mobile. In recent years, Murray has returned to Alabama for a number of recognitions and awards. Still a potent literary voice in America, Murray continues to write fiction and will soon publish a collection of letters between him and Ralph Ellison on literary craft and American identity.