The Harlem Renaissance, also called the New Negro Movement, was a period in which African American citizens contributed immensely to society through literature, music, art, and politics. From approximately 1918 to the mid-1930s, this movement encapsulated the African American desire to contribute their unique experiences and prove to white America that they were capable and intelligent members of society. However-contrary to the implications of the name-the movement was not limited to Harlem, although the city was a central figure. The Harlem Renaissance touched the entire nation, inspiring both male and female African Americans in almost every avenue. One such avenue was literature.
Poets and authors such as Nella Larson, Langston Hughes, and Claude McKay were extremely influential within African American society and popular within white society. These authors portrayed the everyday struggles, aspirations, and discrimination faced by the average African American in their work. Literary contemporaries indirectly addressed religion and African Americans’ cultural relationship with Christianity, a religion professing equality but used as a tool of oppression by white people. These authors also explore how the typical African American claimed Christianity as their religion, however unexpectedly. This essay argues that African American authors during the Harlem Renaissance referenced their culture’s relationship and history with Christianity in a tenuous manner through their work.
Nella Larsen, author of Quicksand and Passing, was a nurse and librarian during the Harlem Renaissance. She was born in 1891 to a Danish immigrant mother and Afro-Caribbean father. Her father, Peter Walker, left their family when she was a young child, and her mother remarried another white Danish immigrant and settled in a white Chicago neighborhood. Thus, since she was the only person of color in her family, Larsen was brought up with little connection to the black community, never truly identifying with them completely. She never attended a black church, and never shared history of slavery with her peers. She found herself living a unique experience, unable to stake valid claims to Denmark or the African-American community. This condition later manifested itself in her writing; her main female characters, Irene Redfield in Passing and Helga Crane in Quicksand, are both mixed and light-skinned and face obstacles regarding feeling a sense of belonging. Larsen adds yet another layer of complexity to their characters by introducing the element of religion.
To each character, Christianity means and represents something different. To Irene Redfield, Christianity is a symbol of white oppression, a device that white people use to justify their inhumane actions. Clare asserts that though her Christian, white great-aunts made her work menial, unending hours of labor due to her race, they nevertheless provided her with compassion and safety. Irene hotly replies that “unhappiness and downright cruelty are laid to the loving-kindness of the Lord…” (Passing 40). Throughout Quicksand, Helga Crane strives to discover fulfillment in her life. She eventually convinces herself that it lies within religion and marries a pastor. Larsen portrays Helga as disillusioned and depressed after a couple of years of marriage. According to Larsen, Christianity is not the answer to Helga’s lifelong search. Influenced by her upbringing, Larsen portrays Christianity as a faulty religion in her literary works, implying that belief in God is ultimately foolhardy and illogical.
Langston Hughes was a prolific poet and author of the Harlem Renaissance, penning countless poems and short stories. Born in 1901 in Joplin, Missouri, Hughes was brought up by his maternal grandmother, who taught him to be proud of his heritage. Hughes, unlike Larsen, felt extremely connected to the African-American community and empathized deeply with them. Because of his upbringing firmly rooted in culture, Hughes referenced Christianity as it related to the typical African-American in his works. In what is arguably his most controversial poem, “Goodbye Christ”, Hughes pens radical prose “Goodbye, / Christ Jesus Lord God Jehovah, / Beat it on away from here now.” Hughes is embittered with Christianity; in his eyes, the religion has failed to create an equal, nondiscriminatory society.
Instead, it allows Americans oppress and stifle others while hiding behind the safety of a righteous veil. In fact, Hughes is so disillusioned by Christianity that in a later verse, he praises Communism for achieving what Christianity could not, equality and legal protection for all races. In his novel, Tambourines to Glory, Hughes tells the story of two poor women who decide to open a church to uplift their financial situation. Hughes portrays the rampant capitalism of Christianity within African-American society, as his protagonists establish a church not to lead people to Christ, but for personal monetary gain. Once again, Hughes turns a critical eye to the blind usage of Christianity by society, whether for personal justification or personal gain.
Claude McKay was a poet and author born in Sunny Ville, Jamaica, in 1889. Sunny Ville was a predominantly black town, and McKay developed a firm sense of African pride which he carried strongly with him throughout his adult life. When he was a teenager, he left Sunny Ville to work in mostly white Kingston as a constable. While in Kingston he was exposed to severe racism, and unable to understand or cope with it, he soon returned to his hometown. His experiences in Kingston led him to write works which examined the hatred and condescension directed towards African and African-American people, and the religion that granted them the liberty and justification to do so.
In his novel Banana Bottom, McKay writes of a female rape victim named Bita, who is adopted by white missionaries. The adoptive family attempt to convert Bita to Christianity, demonstrating their skewed intentions to aid her. They forcefully arrange her marriage to a minister. It is revealed that the minister is a sexual predator, and with this terrifying knowledge Bita escapes white society. Her happy ending entails marrying a fellow Jamaican peasant and living with her family in an African town, away from the racially oppressive hold of white Christianity.
In this way, McKay portrays Christianity as a white institution-wholly removed from African identity-and thus a religion to be shunned.