The Black Caribbeans of the Harlem Renaissance

claude mckay

As the son of a Black Jamaican woman and Black Bajan man and an admirer of the Harlem Renaissance, I was intrigued by this JSTOR article by Matthew Wills.

Black Caribbeans in the Harlem Renaissance examined some of the Black Caribbeans that had an influence on the 1920s movement including:

  • Claude McKay (Jamaica)
  • Eric Waldron (British Guiana; raised in Barbados)
  • Arturo Schomburg (Puerto Rico)
  • Wilfred A. Domingo (Jamaica)
  • Marcus Garvey (Jamaica)

Domingo himself argued, “West Indians were better prepared to challenge racial barriers in the United States” because they came from countries in which “Blacks had experienced no legalized segregation and limitations upon opportunity.” The brutality of American racism, so very different from that of imperial Britain and France, shocked them into action. In the 1920s, of course, “the great colonial empires were alive and well, but the intellectual seeds were already being sown for their eventual dismantling.”

Almost a quarter of Harlem’s Black population was foreign-born in the 1920s. They included, most famously, Marcus and Amy Jacques Garvey. Garveyism, with its “ideological mixture of Black pride, diaspora consciousness, and defiance of white racism” was foundational to the growth of Black nationalism in the United States, the Caribbean, and the world.

Of course, this only covers the Black Caribbean men. There were plenty of influential Black Caribbean women in the Harlem Renaissance such as:

  • Hermina Huiswoud (Guyana)
  • Amy Jacques Garvey (Jamaica)
  • Maymie de Mena (Martinican and French Guianan grandparents)

“This freedom from spiritual inertia characterizes the women no less than the men, for it is largely through them that the occupational field has been broadened for colored women in New York. By their determination, sometimes reinforced by a dexterous use of their hatpins, these women have made it possible for members of their race to enter the needle trades freely.”

Wilfred A. Domingo, Gift of the Black Tropics

Recommended reading

The influential art of Aaron Douglas

aaron douglas

Aaron Douglas was an African-American artist who became a significant part of the Harlem Renaissance during the 1920s. His work included illustrations and paintings depicting the racism and segregation suffered in the US.

In 1922, he earned a bachelor’s degree in fine arts and worked as an instructor at Lincoln High School in Kansas City, Missouri before his talent came to the attention of important people in Harlem, New York. Two years after gaining his fine arts degree, he left his teaching job for New York at the behest of Charles S. Johnson, the first Black president of Fisk University.

He went onto become one of the most influential artists of the era and returned to teaching in 1944, when founded the Art Department at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. He taught visual art there until his retirement in 1966.

Recommended reading and viewing

Below is a video about one of Aaron Douglas’s most beautiful pieces, “Aspiration”.

A beacon of hope, Aaron Douglas's Aspiration

Augusta Savage and her influence on the Harlem Renaissance

augusta savage

Augusta Savage was an African-American sculptor and teacher known for her activism and work during the Harlem Renaissance.

Kelly Richman-Abdou wrote a piece on Augusta and her influence on the movement, from her beginnings in late 19th century Florida to her golden age in the 1930’s.

An excerpt:

At the time of her death, Savage’s contributions to the Harlem Renaissance and to modernism as a whole were largely forgotten. But now, at a crucial point in history, Savage is finally starting to receive the recognition she deserves.

“We are in a moment where the canon is being challenged and expanded because of how history overlooks women and artists of color,” Jeffreen Hayes, the curator of the 2019 exhibition Augusta Savage: Renaissance Woman, said. “For many of us in the art world who have spent our careers researching, writing, and curating exhibitions about women and artists of color, these artists have always had a place in art, regardless of their social or racial identity. When thinking about Savage, her place has always been an artist who was a brilliant sculptor who used her art to forge a path for staying true to one’s artistic passion.”

Exploring both Savage’s self-described “monument” and her own striking sculptures, this exhibition revealed the artist for what she is: “one of America’s most influential 20th-century artists.”

Related: The influential art of Aaron Douglas