Godmother of the Harlem Renaissance

  • Arts & Culture
  • 1917

Charlotte Mason was a wealthy white widow who in the 1920s thought black art had a spirituality and “primitive energy” that nothing else mustered. She was a controversial figure even then, bearing the classic marks of the old-style patron: demanding loyalty from her artists, meddling with their work, and holding a very specific vision of what Negro art should and shouldn’t be. One of her bemused artists wondered if she realized he’d been born in the Bronx and not the Sudan. As one might imagine, some of her artistic relationships didn’t end well. Langston Hughes, for example, relied on her for support from 1926 to 1930 (at $150 a month), but broke with her in 1930 over her efforts to control his work. (He later tried to reconcile.)

Yet in other ways, Mason was different from the original Renaissance patrons. For one thing, she stayed out of the public eye. For another, she was truly devoted to the art; her meddling was usually due less to her desire to make the art fit her whims than to her determination that the art should be authentic.

Whatever her quirks, Mason’s energy, passion, and major financial involvement earned her her favorite title: “godmother.” Many of the Harlem Renaissance artists and writers could not have accomplished what they did without her support. Among the individuals whose artistic creativity she supported were Alain Locke, Aaron Douglas, and Zora Neale Hurston.