The ‘Harlem Renaissance’ is now a dominant term for what is commonly used to describe
a cultural movement that emerged between the First and Second World Wars. The term
became the hegemonic around the early 1970s, displacing similar, yet distinct, alternatives
including the New Negro, the New Negro movement and the Negro/Black Renaissance.This essay traces a genealogy of such terms, metanarratives and historiographical
currents. The aim here is to demonstrate how the hegemony of the term Harlem Renaissance
is linked to its institutionalization as a subject and the rise of Black studies in
the United States. The weighting of Harlem as a geographical reference point both
localized and nationalized the subject area which resulted in a selective historiography
and diminished the transnational dimensions of the New Negro and the Negro Renaissance.
The framework is trans-American and the scope transnational, while the chronology
covers an inner 1890s–1940s period, and a broad outer period which begins in 1701
and spans post-WWII writing. In marking these flows, this essay problematizes the
notion of distinct political or cultural channels of the ‘movement’ or ‘movements’.
Recent scholarship attentive to some of the limitations of earlier Harlem Renaissance
studies has illustrated the intertwined relationship of political, often radical,
and artistic-aesthetic aspects of early twentieth-century black cultural activity
and the key role played by Caribbeans. Drawing on these insights, this essay outlines
that the transnational aspects of a black-centred cultural phenomenon have been better
understood through a greater emphasis on Caribbean cross-currents.