What was the Harlem Renaissance?
The Harlem Renaissance was a golden period in African American history that flourished from the 1920s until the mid 1930s. The name Harlem Renaissance was given to the movement that resulted in the social, cultural, and artistic explosion in Harlem, New York. Initially, the movement was known as the “New Negro Movement”, named after the 1925 anthology “The New Negro” by Alain Locke.
The Harlem Renaissance was the rebirth of African American culture, particularly performing arts and literature. This Black pride movement gave the African Americans in Harlem an opportunity to re-conceptualize “the Negro” apart from the white stereotypes. They asserted pride in their Black identity, rejecting all the previous notions that had influenced Black peoples’ relationship to their heritage and to each other. The participants of the movement, the new Negroes, embraced the new challenges and opportunities and expressed themselves through literature, music, arts, and theatre. In fact, the Harlem Renaissance triggered a social, cultural, and political awakening among African Americans.
The Historical Background of Harlem Renaissance
Before the Civil War, the majority of African Americans had been enslaved and lived in the South. With the end of the Civil war in 1865, the institution of slavery was abolished in the United States. But the end of slavery had not brought the promised land the Black slaves had envisioned. The war bankrupted the major part of the South, ruining the roads, firms, farms, and plantations. This destruction marked the beginning of the Reconstruction Era.
In order to protect the newly won freedom of Blacks, the American government sent soldiers to the Southern states. These Federal troops occupied much of the South to ensure the enactment of laws there. Later on, the South was rebuilt and gradually re-admitted to the United States. But the Reconstruction failed to accomplish its chief goals for the betterment of the people. Soon, the federal troops were removed from the South in 1877. As a result, the white persecutors and slave owners again returned to power.
Thus, the African Americans’ dream of social, political, and economic equality and empowerment in American society died once again. The white supremacy coupled with the discrimination against the African Americans was restored to the New South even after the abolition of slavery.
Officially Free, Actually slaves
Though the Blacks were officially free in the South, actually they were still slaves. There were only a few African Americans who possessed land, most of them lived in extreme poverty. This gave rise to the sharecropping system in the South. It was a form of legal slavery devised by the white supremacy to keep Blacks tied to land owned by the rich white farmers. Thus, Blacks began to be exploited as sharecroppers, who cultivated land occupied by whites and could only keep a share of what they grew for themselves. The Blacks remained poor, powerless and trapped in an endless cycle of debt, hence enslaved.
Moreover, the White segregation policies such as ‘Jim Crow laws’ became the law of the land. The laws declared African Americans as second-class citizens in America. They had no right to attend the same school or go to the same churches as whites. Also, they had no right to vote, buy a house, or even dream about a good future for their children.
The second half of the 19th century brought further agitation for the Blacks. At that time, the violent groups of Whites, the most famous of them was the Ku Klux Klan, started terrorizing the Blacks. Bands of white-hooded Klansmen appeared at night to beat up and murder the Blacks. They also murdered those Whites who display any sign of sympathy towards the Blacks. All these factors served to push African Americans to strive for better lives.
The Great Migration
Meanwhile, World War I (1914) broke out in Europe and all the foreign immigrants in the United States set sail for their homelands to participate in the war. This caused the shortage of laborers in the urban areas of the North, Midwest and West. Seeking social and economic opportunities and better life, the African Americans migrated to the North and West. This resulted in the Great Migration that relocated a number of African Americans from the rural South to the urban cities such as New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago.
However, the newly arrived African Americans soon disappointed since they had no education and skills required for a good job. They were only able to find odd jobs in slaughterhouses, factories, workshops, and foundries. Additionally, the works assigned to them were mostly laborious and dangerous.
Although there wasn’t any legalized segregation in the North, the Blacks still had to face racism and prejudice. The racial hatred among the people soon caused various race riots such as Red Summer in 1919, which occurred in more than three dozen cities in the United States during the summer.
The Harlem Renaissance
In the early 1900s, many African Americans began to settle in the New York neighborhood of Harlem – part of Manhattan borough. Later on, more Blacks continued to pour into Harlem, and soon it became the most popular destination for all African Americans. From the 1910s to 1930s, the African American population in Harlem grew over 40%—from 50,000 to over 200,000. The whites left the place as more blacks moved in. This inrush of blacks into Harlem contributed to the Black pride movement known as ‘Harlem Renaissance’. Harlem emerged as a flourishing center of black culture and artistic expression and became a symbol of the African American struggle for civil and economic equality.
Determined to forge a new identity as free individuals, African Americans of all backgrounds, from laborers to the educated middle-class, made Harlem their center of artistic and cultural activities. In unison, they shared their common experiences of slavery, liberation, racial discriminations, and instead of self-pity triggered an explosion of cultural pride through music, literature, and performing arts. It was at that time the African American culture was reborn.
Boosted with a ‘New Negro’ spirit and determination, the participants asserted pride in their Black identity and used art to prove their humanity and demand for equality. Self-respect and self-dependence became the most prominent characteristics of the Harlem Renaissance. These characteristics were exemplified in every facet of cultural, intellectual, and political life of African Americans.
Some Major Figures of Harlem Renaissance
Among the major figures of the Harlem Renaissance were W. E. B. Du Bois, Alain Locke, Langston Hughes, Aaron Douglas, Jean Toomer, Claude McKay, Zora Neale Hurston and others. All these intellectuals utilized their artistic creativity as a means of showing America and the whole world that Blacks are intellectual, artistic, humane, and therefore should be treated accordingly.
W.E.B. Du Bois
One of the earliest African American rights activists, W. E. B. Du Bois was the first African American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard University. A renowned historian, sociologist, activist, editor, essayist, novelist, and poet, Bois became the spokesperson for African American rights during the 20th century. He played a central role in the Harlem Renaissance, initially as an inspiration and patron, while later as an increasingly captious critic.
Focusing on black assertiveness, Bois co-founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909 and became its director of research. He also became the editor of its magazine, The Crisis. Moreover, with his masterwork, The Souls of Black Folk, he marked his entrance into the arena of racial politics. This book became the landmark of African American history. It had a profound impact on African-American readers, including all the intellectuals and artists who later distinguished themselves in the Harlem Renaissance.
It was W.E.B Du Bois who first insisted that the artistic and literary production could be a powerful weapon for African-Americans in their quest for justice, equality and respect. During the Harlem Renaissance, he vividly expressed his fondness for the writers of the ‘New Negro Movement’ and regarded them as his own heirs. Additionally, Du Bois, in collaboration with the novelist Jessie Fauset whom he hired as a literary editor of The Crisis, launched one of the era’s first competitions for young black writers. Among the young writers discovered by The Crisis, the most prominent was Langston Hughes. Also, it was Du Bois who first hailed the genius of Jean Toomer’s Cane, one of the literary masterpieces of the Harlem Renaissance.
Alain LeRoy Locke is the man who led the Harlem Renaissance. A distinguished scholar, educator and an important philosopher of race and culture, Locke was considered as the ‘father of the Harlem Renaissance’.
A landmark in Black literature, his 1925 anthology ‘The New Negro’, reflected the voice of African Americans who wanted to have equal civil rights like their white counterparts. Later called the “first national book” of African Americans, the anthology challenged old Negro stereotypes and replaced them with new visions of Black identity that resisted simplification.
According to Locke, the ‘New Negro’ must have self-respect, self-understanding, and self-dependence. Instead of adjusting and complying with unreasonable white requests, the Blacks should assert their potential Black identity and equality. Additionally, instead of becoming the object of others’ discourse, Locke said, African Americans should be the protagonists of their own history. He stressed on rejecting the old American ways of thinking which made ‘the Negro.. more of a formula than a human being’.
Locke’s views on African American identity differed sharply from other Harlem Renaissance leaders such as W.E.B. Du Bois. While Du Bois viewed the aim of African American artists to uplift their race, Locke believed that the Black artist’s responsibility should primarily be to himself or herself. Also, Locke believed that art was a key to the liberation of African Americans. He encouraged African American artists and writers to take artistic inspiration from their African heritage. His writings on the Harlem Renaissance communicated the potentials and vivacity of Harlem culture to a wide audience of both Black and white readers.
Langston Hughes was the most important and prolific figure of the Harlem Renaissance. His works were enormously important in shaping the artistic contribution to the movement. Hughes’s creative genius got inspiration from his life in Harlem. Unlike other Black writers, he refused to differentiate between his personal experience and the common experience of his Black community.
Hughes had a strong sense of racial pride. His poems recorded the actual stories of Black people, including both their sufferings and their love of music, laughter, and language. Hughes wrote poetry mainly to promote equality, condemn racism and injustice, and celebrate African American culture, humor, and spirituality.
During the Harlem Renaissance, Hughes stood up for the younger Negro artists. He took a radical stand for the possibilities of Black art and made his ling-lasting mark in ‘The New Negro’ movement by breaking boundaries in poetry. Casting off the influences of white poets, Hughes became the first African American poet to write with the rhythmic meter of blues and jazz. His manifesto, ‘The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain’ called for the importance of pursuing art from a Black perspective. His clarion call for a uniquely Black literature made him a prominent leader within the Harlem Renaissance.
Zora Neale Hurston
Novelist, folklorist, and anthropologist, Zora Neale Hurston was also one of the leading figures in the Harlem Renaissance. Electrified by the thriving literary movement, she soon became the voice of the movement and helped to protect the rights of African Americans.
When Hurston arrived in Harlem, the New Negro Movement was at its peak. With her striking wit, irreverence, and folk writing style, she soon gained a reputation as one of the major figures of Harlem Renaissance. Hurston’s works principally focused on the issues of individuality, racial issues, and the relationships between men and women.
Hurston’s famous short story “Spunk” was selected for a landmark anthology, The New Negro. In 1926, Zora Neale Hurston, in collaboration with a group of young black writers, such as Langston Hughes, Wallace Thurman, and others, launched a literary magazine called Fire!!. The magazine exerted a great impact on the Harlem Renaissance. It featured many of the young artists and writers of the movement.
Countee Cullen was another key figure of the Harlem Renaissance. He was famous for his poetry, fiction and plays. He used art as a vehicle to minimize the distance between blacks and whites and became one of the major representatives of the movement.
Cullen’s works confronted a history of oppression and reflected the urge to reclaim African arts. His close friendship with the Harlem Renaissance’s two key figures, Langston Hughes and Alain Locke, helped him to shape a new voice in the artistic movement.
Cullen believed that the Black poets should use their skills to bring the races closer together. Taking artistic inspiration from ancient Greek and Roman literature, his works continued to develop themes of race and identity. In his works, Cullen celebrated black beauty and lamented the effects of racism. He adopted a traditional style of writing poetry that, according to him, would allow African Americans to remove the barriers between the black and white communities.
Although Hughes criticized Cullen for his desire to run away spiritually from the Black race, he admired his work and realized the significance of his writing. Cullen wrote many beautiful romantic verses with racial themes and became a leading African American Romantic poet of his time. He won major literary prizes more than any other black writer of the 1920s.
Flourishing as a poet during the Harlem Renaissance, Jamaican-born Claude McKay is an unforgettable African American literary voice. He published his electrifying sonnet “If We Must Die”, in response to the Red Summer of 1919. The poem worked as a call to arms for African Americans. Through his powerful verses, McKay urged African Americans to stand up for their rights. His poetry helped to spark the Harlem Renaissance and the struggle for a new African American literary voice.
McKay was famous for his realistic portrayal of Black community. His perception of the variety in black communities cemented his place as a Harlem Renaissance touchstone. His famous novel Home To Harlem became the first best-selling novel by a Black writer. Despite the fact that he distanced himself from the movement in its heyday, Claude McKay was one of the first and most militant voices of the Harlem Renaissance.
Aaron Douglas was the signature artist of the Harlem Renaissance. Beginning his artistic career as a landscape painter, he turned to his African heritage for artistic inspiration. By linking his art to African heritage, he created powerful images of the struggles of marginalized people. Through his artistic talent, Douglas introduced a modern visual language that represented Black Americans in a new light, and thus emerged as the “father of African American art.”
While dealing with “Negro” subject matter, Douglas devised his own distinctive style of representation. In his art, he depicted Black Americans in an innovative and bold graphic style. His stylized, elegant silhouettes of recognizably Black characters filled with racial pride made him one of the key figures of the Harlem Renaissance.
Aaron Douglas also created several illustrations for Alain Locke’s The New Negro anthology. Soon after the success of this book, Douglas received various requests for illustrations from other Harlem Renaissance writers, such as Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Wallace Thurman, and others. He also won several awards for his remarkable Black illustrations.
No aspect of the Harlem Renaissance shaped African American history in the entire world as much as jazz. With its syncopated rhythms and improvised instrumental solos, jazz contravened many musical conventions.
Emerging as one of the greatest jazz composers, performers, and bandleaders, Duke Ellington had a major role in the development of the Harlem Renaissance. He played in various popular clubs in Harlem including the Cotton Club. The Cotton Club opened the door of fame for Duke Ellington as an artist and served to boost his compositions.
During the Harlem Renaissance, Ellington’s greatest compositions of jazz brought him recognition and respect from several composers in the world. He composed thousands of songs and became a key figure in the development of jazz music. He got the nickname, ‘The Ambassador of Jazz’ due to his immense popularity as a jazz musician.
Besides Duke Ellington, some other most celebrated names in Harlem Renaissance music were Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Fats Waller and Cab Calloway.
James Weldon Johnson
James Weldon Johnson was a man of many talents. He was famous during the Harlem Renaissance for his poems, novels, and anthologies reflecting the Black culture. He wrote the famous poem, Lift Every Voice and Sing. The poem later became the national anthem to millions of Black Americans. His works explored the issue of racial identity in the twentieth century.
Johnson also became the national organizer for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and battled racial discrimination with his words. He developed his own philosophy on lessening racism in America. Also, he stressed that African Americans should embrace their past and traditions while succeeding in a diverse culture. Johnson’s innovative writings made him one of the leading voices in the Harlem Renaissance.
Jean Toomer also emerged as a notable figure during the Harlem Renaissance. He wrote plays, short stories, and poems that captured the spirit of his times. His novel Cane, was considered a literary masterpiece that incorporated poems and stories to address the realities and emotions of the Black Americans. An emblem and harbinger of the Harlem Renaissance, the book also became an example of modernist literature.
Jessie Redmon Fauset
An African American novelist, critic, poet, and editor, J. R. Fauset is famous for her discovery and motivation of several writers of the Harlem Renaissance. She was the editor of The Crisis Magazine. Fauset published the works of Harlem Renaissance’s famous writers such as Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, and Jean Toomer.
Fauset’s works focused on the middle-class black characters forced to deal with self-hate and racial discrimination. Langston Hughes considered her as one of “the three people who midwifed the so-called New Negro literature into being.” The other two, according to Hughes, were Johnson and Locke.
James Van Der Zee
James Augustus Van Der Zee was an American photographer and a leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance. He is famous for his artistic portraits of Black Americans. Besides his artistic works, Van Der Zee also produced the most comprehensive documentation of the period. He crafted a dazzling record of middle-class Black life in America, a side rarely noticed at that time.
Van Der Zee’s photographs capturing Harlem’s growing middle class made him the most successful photographer of the time. His work was artistic and technically proficient, therefore, highly demanded. He has given African Americans a legacy of images so compelling that it’s hard to see Harlem through any other eyes.
The End of Harlem Renaissance
After all its boom and Black pride celebration, the Harlem Renaissance ended. All its writers and artists dispersed and the fire of the movement dimmed. The decline of the Harlem Renaissance was due to the stock market crash of 1929 and the resulting Great Depression. The economic instability forced people to seek their interests elsewhere rather than relishing in the revitalization of Harlem.
Moreover, the Harlem Race Riots of 1935 was the terminating event of that cultural flowering. These riots began with the rumors of beating and killing a teenage shoplifter. This event finally put an end to the idea of optimism in the Black community.
Harlem Renaissance’s Impact on America
The Harlem Renaissance was a turning point in the history of Black Americans. It helped African American writers and artists in the representation of Black culture and experience. Also, it provided the African Americans an opportunity to show themselves in a new light.
The Harlem Renaissance had an enormous impact on Black consciousness worldwide. People appreciated the variety of African Americans’ lives and culture. There is no doubt that the Harlem Renaissance radically shaped the African Americans’ new image in the whole world. They were no longer considered as dirty, blunt, and uneducated people. Instead, they were now sophisticated, well educated, talented members of society.
Thus, the Harlem Renaissance deeply impacted the dynamics of African American identity, arts, and culture, in the United States. It helped them to improve their living standards and escape the worst abuses of the racial caste system.
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