Humans tend to favor positivity. Humans’ tendency to be positive influences how historians and literary critics portray the Harlem Renaissance. The Harlem Renaissance was described as a “duration of 10 or 15 years during the early 20th century by an exceptional group who celebrated the emergence” of African-American awareness in The Norton Introduction to Literature. They all display positive outcomes of the cultural movement. These descriptions miss the desperation of working-class African-Americans and the struggle they faced in Harlem. Harlem was home to some wealthy African-Americans but also to slums and disease-ridden poverty. The literature of African-American authors can show the economic changes that were prevalent throughout the Harlem Renaissance and prior to it.

The cultural and artistic influences of the black community were inevitable after World War I. They were especially evident in Harlem. More than 100,000 African-Americans decided to remain in the city after World War I. Harlem was described as “a distinctive, independant, creative centre of performance and arts and activities that attracted New York.” While the authors’ statements about the nightclubs and entertainment are true, they fail to address the issues of poverty and crime, which became dominant in Harlem. Harvard University’s well-known historian stated that “Harlem had poverty, unemployment and futility.” However, the optimistic and happy 1920s heightened this image. This shows that the focus is on more famous and fruitful writers and elites like Hughes. While it’s reasonable to focus on those who played a significant role in the movement, the Harlem Renaissance residents must also be given attention. By focusing on the lives of Harlem residents, we can create an inaccurate image of Harlem during the Harlem Movement.

Harlem residents’ lives are not as extravagant as they appear in the books or other sources. The African-Americans had to work in the most arduous, low-paying jobs because of prejudice and discrimination. According to Dr Jeffrey Ogbar of University of Kansas professor, 16.6% of Harlem’s residents received as little $75 per month. This is 25 percent less than the minimum income required for those who are considered inferior. Harlem residents also earned less than $133 per month to live a comfortable and happy life. This Harlem Life is a study of five black families in Harlem, during the Harlem Renaissance, that analyzes the financial struggles Harlemites faced. The income of one family member was all that they needed to survive. Thompson said his kids were the only ones to support their family. George was employed by a dressmaking firm and then later became a scarve maker. His sister, Elizabeth, worked in a hat-making factory. Both children donated their entire salary to the family. In order to keep their jobs, the parents had only daytime jobs. Harlem residents were not uncommon to face financial difficulties due to racial prejudice.

“White people owned several businesses in Harlem, including at least most of its clubs.”

Countee’s poem “Saturday Child”, based on the nursery rhyme “The Saturday’s Kid Works Hard for a Living”, is the best way to describe poverty. It compares a poor child with a rich one, using scholarly tools as well as a keen interest in emotion. “The first signs of financial stress are highlighted in the opening stanza. Countee Cullen outlines how:

Some teethed silver spoons.

Stars strung on a rattling;

The black racoon was my first employer.

The use of weapons and other combat implements

The child is born to a wealthy family. The silver spoon represents wealth. The third and forth lines emphasize the struggles a kid born in a low income family will endure. In the fourth line, the child is practicing his teeth for battles to come. The lines reveal Cullen’s discontent. Cullen also illustrates “Dame Poverty/and Pain godfathered” him. The author clearly shows his resentment in these lines. Cullen’s anger and despair are expressed through his experience of being raised by a mother who is “poor”.

Low-income families are irritants to their children because of the absolute poverty levels. The relationship between parent and child should not be affected by poverty. This was the reality of several Harlem families.


  • rhysgraham

    Rhys Graham is an educational blogger and professor who writes about topics such as literacy, mathematics, and science. He has written several books, including one on the history of science. He is also the co-founder of the website Learn Out Loud, which helps educators create and share classroom activities.