The Harlem Renaissance was a diverse artistic movement of great creativity that took place in New York City during the 1920s and 1930s. Not only did it spark great work like the books of Zora Neale Hurston or the music of Duke Ellington, it also launched a new political and social movement focused on achieving equality for African Americans. We tend to think of it as homegrown but many writers drew inspiration from a surprising place: Spain.
One of the most well known American voices reporting the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) was the poet Langston Hughes for the Baltimore African American. He also published a number of poems inspired by the conflict and the country. The writings of Hughes reflected a broader appreciation of Spain expressed by key members of the Harlem Renaissance. These writers and thinkers presented a romantic vision of historical Spain as a time and place where the art and literature of Africa played a key role in shaping the broader culture. Although not blind to the racial realities of Spain, either in the past or in the present, they reported experiencing less outright prejudice when visiting the Iberian nation.
Interest in Spain among African Americans was undoubtedly influenced by the growing popularity of Spanish culture in the United States during the first decades of the twentieth century. From the scholarly to the popular, the imagery of Spain tended to be focused on the historical periods of the Middle Ages and Early Modern period, exactly the time when African influences were strongest. For black scholars and writers the keen interest in all things Spanish gave them an excellent opportunity to emphasize the contributions of people of color to the development of western civilization.
W.E.B. Du Bois made clear to readers of Crisis magazine that “the black blood of Africa was all through the builders of Moorish civilization in Spain.” In A Long Way Home, Claude McKay argued that the whole of the European poetic tradition was based on African and Arabian poetry that arrived through Spain, which he described as “the antique bridge between Africa and Europe.” McKay viewed Spain through the lens of his identification with Africa and also from his experiences as an English-speaking West Indian. He claimed that Spain had a special place for those who had grown up on islands controlled by the British: “[Spain] is the romantic European country, which gave the Caribbean islands their early names and terribly exciting tales of caribs and conquistadors, buccaneers and golden galleons and sugar-cane, rum and African slaves.” Arthur A. Schomburg, an Afro-Latino originally from Puerto Rico, also highlighted the African presence in Spain. Although known mainly as a collector and not a writer, Schomburg published several articles in Opportunity magazine recounting the historical experiences of people of color in Spain.
Often the writers who celebrated the historical links between Spain and Africa continued to see that influence in modern times. Schomburg described the spectacle of Holy Week, when the religious brotherhoods of Seville paraded in costumes and “the Andalusian woman, seldom seen from her monastic retreat and flowery garden, is freely seen glowing in her African beauty, garlanded with her high comb and mantilla over her lovely head.” During his first trip to Spain, originally scheduled for three days but ultimately lasting more than three months, McKay immediately noted the “strong African streak in [Spain’s] character.” McKay had a special interest in sport and once traveled the country with a Senegalese boxer who was scheduled to fight in Barcelona. His experience watching the bout and the crowd’s reaction to it led the poet to gush: “The magnificent spectacle of the sporting spirit of the Spaniards captured my senses and made me an aficionado of Spain.” In his book The Negroes in America, McKay cited the Spaniards’ favorable treatment of heavyweight champion Jack Johnson as proof that Latin, Catholic countries “treat Negroes tolerantly and in a friendly fashion.” Johnson had lived in Spain for several years during his “exile” from the U.S. after 1915 and later wrote in his autobiography that he received “an enthusiastic reception” in Madrid and called his time there both “pleasant and profitable.”
For Du Bois, McKay, and Schomburg the history of Spain was a time when Western culture valued African influence. The experiences of these men also highlighted differences in the way that people of African descent were treated in Europe and in the United States. Perhaps the best explanation for the popularity of Spain among these members of the Harlem Renaissance comes from Du Bois’s description of how he felt while traveling the country: