Discover Langston Hughes’ Rent Party Ads & The Harlem Renaissance Tradition of Playing Gigs to Keep Roofs Over Heads

Both com­mu­ni­ties of col­or and com­mu­ni­ties of artists have had to take care of each oth­er in the U.S., cre­at­ing sys­tems of sup­port where the dom­i­nant cul­ture fos­ters neglect and depri­va­tion. In the ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, at the nexus of these two often over­lap­ping com­mu­ni­ties, we meet Langston Hugh­es and the artists, poets, and musi­cians of the Harlem Renais­sance. Hugh­es’ bril­liant­ly com­pressed 1951 poem “Harlem” speaks of the sim­mer­ing frus­tra­tion among a weary peo­ple. But while its star­tling final line hints grim­ly at social unrest, it also looks back to the explo­sion of cre­ativ­i­ty in the sto­ried New York City neigh­bor­hood dur­ing the Great Depres­sion.

Hugh­es had grown reflec­tive in the 50s, return­ing to the ori­gins of jazz and blues and the his­to­ry of Harlem in Mon­tage of a Dream Deferred. The strained hopes and hard­ships he had elo­quent­ly doc­u­ment­ed in the 20s and 30s remained large­ly the same post-World War II, and one of the key fea­tures of Depres­sion-era Harlem had returned; Rent par­ties, the wild shindigs held in pri­vate apart­ments to help their res­i­dents avoid evic­tion, were back in fash­ion, Hugh­es wrote in the Chica­go Defend­er in 1957.

“Maybe it is infla­tion today and the high cost of liv­ing that is caus­ing the return of the pay-at-the-door and buy-your-own-refresh­ments par­ties,” he said. He also not­ed that the new par­ties weren’t as much fun.

But how could they be? Depres­sion-era rent par­ties were leg­endary. They “impact­ed the growth of Swing and Blues danc­ing,” writes dance teacher Jered Morin, “like few oth­er peri­ods.” As Hugh­es com­ment­ed, “the Sat­ur­day night rent par­ties that I attend­ed were often more amus­ing than any night club, in small apart­ments where God-knows-who lived.” Famous artists met and rubbed elbows, musi­cians formed impromp­tu jams and invent­ed new styles, work­ing class peo­ple who couldn’t afford a night out got to put on their best clothes and cut loose to the lat­est music. Hugh­es was fas­ci­nat­ed, and as a writer, he was also quite tak­en by the quirky cards used to adver­tise the par­ties. “When I first came to Harlem,” he said, “as a poet I was intrigued by the lit­tle rhymes at the top of most House Rent Par­ty cards, so I saved them. Now I have quite a col­lec­tion.”

The cards you see here come from Hugh­es’ per­son­al col­lec­tion, held with his papers at Yale’s Bei­necke Rare Book and Man­u­script Library. Many of these date from the 40s and 50s, but they all draw their inspi­ra­tion from the Harlem Renais­sance peri­od, when the phe­nom­e­non of jazz-infused rent par­ties explod­ed.  “San­dra L. West points out that black ten­ants in Harlem dur­ing the 1920s and 1930s faced dis­crim­i­na­to­ry rental rates,” notes Rebec­ca Onion at Slate. “That, along with the gen­er­al­ly low­er salaries for black work­ers, cre­at­ed a sit­u­a­tion in which many peo­ple were short of rent mon­ey. These par­ties were orig­i­nal­ly meant to bridge that gap.” A 1938 Fed­er­al Writ­ers Project account put it plain­ly: Harlem “was a typ­i­cal slum and ten­e­ment area lit­tle dif­fer­ent from many oth­ers in New York except for the fact that in Harlem rents were high­er; always have been, in fact, since the great war-time migra­to­ry influx of col­ored labor.”

Ten­ants took it in stride, draw­ing on two long­stand­ing com­mu­ni­ty tra­di­tions to make ends meet: the church fundrais­er and the Sat­ur­day night fish fry. But rent par­ties could be rau­cous affairs. Guests typ­i­cal­ly paid a few cents to enter, and extra for food cooked by the host. Apart­ments filled far beyond capac­i­ty, and alcohol—illegal from 1919 to 1933—flowed freely. Gam­bling and pros­ti­tu­tion fre­quent­ly made an appear­ance.  And the com­pe­ti­tion could be fierce. The Ency­clo­pe­dia of the Harlem Renais­sance writes that in their hey­day, “as many as twelve par­ties in a sin­gle block and five in an apart­ment build­ing, simul­ta­ne­ous­ly, were not uncom­mon.” Rent par­ties “essen­tial­ly amount­ed to a kind of grass­roots social wel­fare,” though the atmos­phere could be “far more sor­did than the aver­age neigh­bor­hood block par­ty.” Many upright cit­i­zens who dis­ap­proved of jazz, gam­bling, and booze turned up their noses and tried to ignore the par­ties.

In order to entice par­ty-goers and dis­tin­guish them­selves, writes Onion, “the cards name the kind of musi­cal enter­tain­ment atten­dees could expect using lyrics from pop­u­lar songs or made-up rhyming verse as slo­gans.” They also “used euphemisms to name the par­ties’ pur­pose,” call­ing them “Social Whist Par­ty” or “Social Par­ty,” while also sly­ly hint­ing at row­di­er enter­tain­ments. The new rent par­ties may not have lived up to Hugh­es’ mem­o­ries of jazz-age shindigs, per­haps because, in some cas­es, live musi­cians had been replaced by record play­ers. But the new cards, he wrote “are just as amus­ing as the old ones.”

via Slate

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Langston Hugh­es Presents the His­to­ry of Jazz in an Illus­trat­ed Children’s Book (1955)

Langston Hugh­es Cre­ates a List of His 100 Favorite Jazz Record­ings: Hear 80+ of Them in a Big Playlist

Watch Langston Hugh­es Read Poet­ry from His First Col­lec­tion, The Weary Blues (1958)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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