Zora Neale Hurston and the Harlem Renaissance: Searching for Identity

Aspects of Negro Life

Aaron Douglas, Aspects of Negro Life: Idylls of the Deep South, 1934

This exhibition includes an array of talents from the Harlem Renaissance period, the cultural movement that spanned the early 1902s through the 1930s. It has been known as the “New Negro Movement” and, while it was centered in Harlem in New York City, other locations were also influenced. Zora Neale Hurston served an influential role during this time period. It is important to understand the significance of this era in history and how African American people were able to develop and adapt their own ideals, morals, and customs through creativity and art. Therefore, the focus of the exhibition is on the African American search for identity in the post-slavery period and the creation and self-expression through art during the Harlem Renaissance. As a novelist, anthropologist, and folklorist, Hurston was recognized for her distinctive way of relaying her feelings and ideals about racial division and for her efforts to connect both the artistic world and the African American population. Through her creativity, meaningful and ornate words, and undeniable talent, Hurston helped develop a common identity for her people during an influential time in history.

Virtual Exhibition

Virtual Exhibition

The Works

This exhibition presents a special opportunity to explore connections between the historic literary works of Zora Neale Hurston and the analytical expressive arts of the Harlem Renaissance. Zora Neale Hurston and the Harlem Renaissance: Searching for Identity is an innovative display of art and sculpture from the Harlem Renaissance combined with literary works that will explore connections between Hurston’s written expression of African-American heritage and parallel examination by notable African-American artists working contemporaneously during the Harlem Renaissance. Themes of identity were extremely prominent in African American art during this period of cultural flux. This exhibition, therefore, focuses on this analytical topic in three sub-categories: Music and Cultural Identity, Female Identity, and Land and Labor. Applicable quotes by Harlem Renaissance arts and excerpts of Hurston’s works have been paired with artworks in order to demonstrate the cohesion of this cultural movement.

Female Identity

The Migration Series, Panel No. 57

Jacob Lawrence, The Migration Series, Panel No. 57: "The female worker was also one of the last groups to leave the South,” 1940-41

Zora Neale Hurston had a sense of humor about women’s issues. A lighthearted attitude was almost necessary for an African American woman in the period following the Reconstruction, as such existence meant twofold discrimination. Much of the art produced during this time therefore expresses issues of feminine identity during this period of change and instability. During the 1920s and ’30s, African American culture was undergoing a shift of domestic dynamics. In the ages of slave labor, African American families were generally matriarchal—led by the female members. As African American male slaves often felt emasculated by their duties and treatment by white masters, women assumed dominated positions and domestic responsibilities. Emancipation and Reconstruction brought change to these dynamics as African American males began working at paying jobs and women were left at home. African American women were assimilated only on the most superficial of levels into a subcategory of human existence defined by gender-based discrimination and disrespect.

Music and Cultural Identity

Aspects of Negro Life

Aaron Douglas, Aspects of Negro Life: From Slavery Through Reconstruction, 1934

“Now I can say loudly and openly what I have been saying to myself on my knees.” –Duke Ellington

Zora Neale Hurston was very interested in preserving African heritage and identity through art and music during the Harlem Renaissance. Art during this time reflected the desire to use music to keep African heritage alive. Jacob Lawrence’s painting Jazz typifies the growing expression of music in African American communities, especially through jazz. The rhythms and beats of jazz were unique to African America roots in tribal music and gave them an individual voice. August Christine Savage’s bronze cast Lift Every Voice and Sing (1939),built for the World’s Fair, was based on the African American National Anthem, also titled “Lift Every Voice and Sing, written by James Weldon Johnson. This sculpture was a physical representation for the song, created to enhance the message and give hope to the black community. The painting Aspects of Negro Life: From Slavery Through Reconstruction (1934) by Aaron Douglas is part of a series of wall paintings that depict different aspects of black history. This painting is an example of how African Americans were building a new identity after the reconstruction. The painting shows the shift in the place of African Americans in society, from slavery to emancipation. Douglas depicts the emancipated slaves as celebrating their triumph through music and dance. This painting provides an example of how African Americans use music to celebrate and continue their heritage. Together, these paintings exhibit the Hurston’s desire to keep the African heritage and identity alive through the use of music.

Land and Labor

Ascent of Ethiopia

Lois Mailou Jones, Ascent of Ethiopia, 1932

“Sweat, sweat, sweat! Work and sweat, cry and sweat, pray and sweat!” –Zora Neale Hurston

Land and labor were an important theme used in Hurston’s work. African Americans have had a strong connection to the land that they live on because of their past as slave workers and sharecroppers. William Johnson’s painting Chain Gang (1939) provides an example of African American people being literally bound to the land that they are working on. Because of this past, African Americans have had  a deep relationship with the earth. In the painting Ascent of Ethiopia (1932), Lois Mailou Jones expresses the journey of African Americans from slavery to their current struggles. It is meant to represent these trials and their fight to overcome them. In the painting Soul History (1969), Romare Bearden shows a group of celebratory African Americans holding their instruments in jubilant song. Bearden is known for creating collages about black lifestyle and music. All of these pieces provide examples of the strong connections between African Americans and the land.

Aaron Douglas (1898-1979)

Into Bondage

Aaron Douglas, Into Bondage, 1936

“Our problem is to conceive, develop, establish an art era. Not white art painting black. Let’s bare our arms and plunge them deep through laughter, through pain, through sorrow, through hope, through disappointment, into the very depths of the souls of our people and drag forth material crude, rough, neglected. Then let’s sing it, dance it, write it, paint it. Let’s do the impossible. Let’s create something transcendentally material, mystically objective. Earthy. Spiritually earthy. Dynamic.” –Aaron Douglas

Aaron Douglas was the Harlem Renaissance artist who was best known for the “New Negro” philosophy. He created murals for public buildings and produced illustrations and cover designs for many black works including the literary magazine, The Crisis and Opportunity. He moved to Nashville, Tennessee in 1940, where he founded the Art Department at Fisk University and shared his passion for writing for 29 years.

Aaron Douglas, Aspects of Negro Life, Panel 3: Idylls of the Deep South, 1934,

Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960)

Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston

“Sometimes, I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It’s beyond me.”  -Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston is considered to be one of the most influential contributors to the Harlem Renaissance period. She was an established American anthropologist, folklorist, and novelist who was not only an inspiration to those surrounding her, but she affected aspiring creators all across the country. She is perhaps most known for producing the magazine Fire!, which featured and showcased numerous writers from the Harlem Renaissance. Through the production of the literary magazine, Hurston inspired and encouraged other novelists to be courageous and embark on a personal journey to reveal individual identity.

William H. Johnson (1901-70)

Chain Gang

William Johnson, Chain Gang, 1939

William H. Johnson arrived in Harlem when the Renaissance was just beginning. He had come to New York in search of inspiration in 1918 from Florence, South Carolina, and became a student at the National Academy of Design in the heart of the city. He studied and remained there for five years, absorbing the teachings of Charles Hawthorne and George Luks, two well-known and established artists. Johnson was inspired by their artistic abilities and styles. It was clear that he was readying himself for a career in art that would take him to foreign places, specifically North Africa and Europe in search of a permanent residence. It was through the influence of Hawthorne that Johnson traveled to Paris in 1926, where he settled, painted, and studied the works of modern European masters.