The Harlem Renaissance (also known as the Black Literary Renaissance and The New Negro Movement)
This term refers to the flowering of African American cultural and intellectual life during the 1920s and 1930s. At the time, it was known as the "New Negro Movement", named after the anthology The New Negro, edited by Alain Locke in 1925. Centered in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City, the movement impacted urban centers throughout the United States. Across the cultural spectrum (literature, drama, music, visual art, dance) and also in the realm of social thought (sociology, historiography, philosophy), artists and intellectuals found new ways to explore the historical experiences of black America and the contemporary experiences of black life in the urban North. Challenging white paternalism and racism, African-American artists and intellectuals rejected merely imitating the styles of Europeans and white Americans and instead celebrated black dignity and creativity. Asserting their freedom to express themselves on their own terms as artists and intellectuals, they explored their identities as black Americans, celebrating the black culture that had emerged out of slavery and their cultural ties to Africa.
The Harlem Renaissance had a profound impact not only on African-American culture but also on the cultures of the African diasporas as a whole. Afro-Caribbean artists and intellectuals from the British West Indies were part of the movement. Moreover, many French-speaking black writers from African and Caribbean colonies who lived in Paris were also influenced by the Harlem Renaissance.
Historians disagree as to when the Harlem Renaissance began and ended. It is unofficially recognized to have spanned from about 1919 until the early or mid 1930s, although its ideas lived on much longer. The zenith of this "flowering of Negro literature", as James Weldon Johnson preferred to call the Harlem Renaissance, is placed between 1924 (the year that Opportunity magazine hosted a party for black writers where many white publishers were in attendance) and 1929 (the year of the stock market crash and then resulting Great Depression).
The Harlem Renaissance grew out of the changes that had taken place in the black community since the abolition of slavery, and which had been accelerated as a consequence of the First World War. It can also be seen as specifically African-American response to and expression of the great social and cultural change taking place in America in the early 20th century under the influence of industrialization and the emergence of a new mass culture. Contributing factors that lead to the rise of the Harlem Renaissance included the great migration of African Americans to the northern cities and the First World War. Factors leading to the decline of this era include the Great Depression.
The Harlem Renaissance reflected social and intellectual transformations in the African-American community that had taken place since the late 19th century. At the end of the Civil War, the vast majority of African Americans had been enslaved and lived in the South. Immediately after the end of slavery, the emancipated African Americans began to strive for civic participation, political equality and economic and cultural self-determination. The failure of Reconstruction resulted in the establishment of a white supremacist regime of Jim Crow in the South, which through Jim Crow laws and through lynching denied African Americans civil and political rights, and undergirded their economic exploitation as share croppers and laborers. As life in the South became increasingly difficult, African Americans increasingly migrated North.
Most of the participants in the African-American literary movement descended from a generation that had lived through the gains and losses of Reconstruction after the American Civil War, and often their parents or grandparents had been slaves. Many participants in the Harlem Renaissance were part of the Great Migration out of the South into the black neighborhoods of the North and Midwest regions of the United States, where African-American sought a better standard of living and relief from the institutionalized racism in the South. Others were Africans and people of African descent from racially stratified communities in the Caribbean who had come to the United States hoping for a better life. Uniting most of them was their convergence in Harlem, New York City.
The Great Migration greatly expanded black communities, creating a greater market for black culture and Jazz and Blues, the black music of the South, came to the North with the migrants and was played in the nightclubs and hotspots of Harlem. At the same time, whites were becoming increasingly fascinated by black culture. A number of white artists and patrons began to view blacks and black culture less condescendingly, and began to offer blacks access to "mainstream" publishers and art venues.
An Explosion of Culture in Harlem
African-American literature and arts had begun a steady development just before the turn of the century. In the performing arts, black musical theatre featured such accomplished artists as songwriter Bob Cole and composer J. Rosamond Johnson (brother of writer James Weldon Johnson). Jazz and blues music moved with black populations from the South and Midwest into the bars and cabarets of Harlem.
In literature, the poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar and the fiction of Charles W. Chesnutt in the late 1890s were among the earliest works of African-Americans to receive national recognition. By the end of World War I the fiction of James Weldon Johnson and the poetry of Claude McKay anticipated the literature that would follow in the 1920s by describing the reality of black life in America and the struggle for racial identity.
The first stage of what was later called the Harlem Renaissance started in the late 1910s. 1917 saw the premiere of Three Plays for a Negro Theatre. These plays, written by white playwright Ridgely Torrence, featured black actors conveying complex human emotions and yearnings, and thus rejected the stereotypes of the blackface and minstrel show traditions. James Weldon Johnson in 1917 called these premiere of these plays "the most important single event in the entire history of the Negro in the American Theatre." Another landmark came in 1919, when Claude McKay published his militant sonnet If We Must Die. Although the poem never alludes to race, to black readers it sounded a note of defiance in the face of racism and the white racist violence of the nation-wide race riots and lynchings taking place at the time. By the end of the First World War, the fiction of James Weldon Johnson and the poetry of Claude McKay was describing the reality of contemporary black life in America and the struggle for black cultural self-definition, anticipating the characteristics of the Harlem Renaissance.
In the early 1920s, a number of literary works signaled the new creative energy in African-American literature. Claude McKay's volume of poetry, Harlem Shadows (1922), became one of the first works by a black writer to be published by a mainstream, national publisher . Cane (1923), by Jean Toomer, was an experimental novel that combined poetry and prose in documenting the life of American blacks in the rural South and urban North. Confusion (1924), the first novel by writer and editor Jessie Fauset, depicted middle class life among black Americans from a woman's perspective.
The Apollo Theater
While the Savoy Ballroom, on Lenox Avenue, was a renowned venue for swing dancing, and jazz and was immortalized in a popular song of the era, Stompin' At The Savoy, the Apollo Theater has been the most lasting legacy of the Harlem Renaissance. Opened on 125th Street on 26 January 1934, in a former burlesque house, it has remained a symbol of African-American culture. As one of the most famous clubs for popular music in the United States, many figures from the Harlem Renaissance found a venue for their talents and a start to their careers. The careers of Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and James Brown, and later Michael Jackson and Lauryn Hill, were launched at the Apollo.
End of an Era
A number of factors contributed to the decline of the Harlem Renaissance by the mid-1930s. The Great Depression of the 1930s increased the economic pressure on all sectors of life. Organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Urban League, which had actively promoted the Renaissance in the 1920s, shifted their interests to economic and social issues in the 1930s. Many influential black writers and literary promoters, including Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson, Charles S. Johnson, and W.E.B. DuBois, left New York City in the early 1930s, most relocating to France. Finally, the Harlem Riot of 1935—set off in part by the growing economic hardship of the Depression and mounting tension between the black community and the white shop-owners in Harlem who profited from that community—shattered the notion of Harlem as the Mecca of the New Negro. In spite of these problems the Renaissance did not disappear overnight. Almost one-third of the books published during the Renaissance appeared after 1929. In the last analysis, the Harlem Renaissance ended when most of those associated with it left Harlem or stopped writing. Among the new young artists who appeared in the 1930s and 1940s, social realism replaced modernism and primitivism as the dominant mode of literary and artistic expression.
Characterizing the Harlem Renaissance was an overt racial pride that came to be represented in the idea of the New Negro who through intellect, the production of literature, art, and music could challenge the pervading racism and stereotypes of that era to promote progressive or socialist politics, and racial and social integration. The creation of art and literature would serve to "uplift" the race.
For blacks, their art was a way to prove their humanity and demand for equality. For a number of whites, preconceived prejudices were challenged and overcome. Corresponding with the Harlem Renaissance was the beginning of mainstream publishing. Many authors began to publish novels, magazines and newspapers during this time. Publishers began to attract a great amount of attention from the nation at large.
The Harlem Renaissance would help lay the foundation of the Civil Rights Movement. Moreover, many black artists coming into their own creativity after this literary movement would take inspiration from it.
No common literary style, artistic style or political ideology defined the Harlem Renaissance. What united participants was their sense of taking part in a common endeavor and their commitment to giving artistic expression to the African-American experience. Some common themes existed, such as an interest in the roots of the 20th-century African-American experience in Africa and the American South, and a strong sense of racial pride and desire for social and political equality. But the most characteristic aspect of the Harlem Renaissance was the diversity of its expression.
The diverse literary expression of the Harlem Renaissance ranged from Langston Hughes's weaving of the rhythms of African-American music into his poems of ghetto life, as in The Weary Blues (1926), to Claude McKay's use of the sonnet form as the vehicle for his impassioned poems attacking racial violence, as in If We Must Die (1919). McKay also presented glimpses of the glamour and the grit of Harlem life in the above-mentioned Harlem Shadows. Countee Cullen used both African and European images to explore the African roots of black American life. In the poem Heritage (1925), for example, Cullen discusses being both a Christian and an African, yet not belonging fully to either tradition. Quicksand (1928), by novelist Nella Larsen, offered a powerful psychological study of an African American woman's loss of identity.
Diversity and experimentation also flourished in the performing arts and were reflected in the blues singing of Bessie Smith and in jazz music. Jazz ranged from the marriage of blues and ragtime by pianist Jelly Roll Morton to the instrumentation of bandleader Louis Armstrong and the orchestration of composer Duke Ellington. In the visual arts, Aaron Douglas adopted a deliberately "primitive" style and incorporated African images in his paintings and illustrations
African American musicians and other performers played to mixed audiences. Harlem's cabarets and clubs attracted both Harlem residents and white New Yorkers seeking out Harlem nightlife. Harlem's famous Cotton Club, where Duke Ellington performed, carried this to an extreme, by providing black entertainment for exclusively white audiences. Ultimately, the more successful black musicians and entertainers who appealed to a mainstream audience moved their performances downtown.
the Great Depression, and the Harlem Renaissance ended abruptly because of naive assumptions about the centrality of culture, unrelated to economic and social realities.
Influence on Culture Today
The Harlem Renaissance changed forever the dynamics of African-American arts and literature in the United States. The writers that followed in the 1930s and 1940s found that publishers and the public were more open to African-American literature than they had been at the beginning of the century. Furthermore, the existence of the body of African-American literature from the period inspired writers such as Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright to pursue literary careers in the late 1930s and the 1940s, even if they defined themselves against the various ideologies and literary practices of the Renaissance. The outpouring of African-American literature of the 1980s and 1990s by such writers as Alice Walker and Toni Morrison also had its roots in the writing of the Harlem Renaissance. The influence of the Harlem Renaissance themes and the richness of African-American culture has also been expressed through new media, as is seen in the films of director Spike Lee.
A Closer Look at Some Important People/Places
The Cotton Club was a famous night club in New York City that operated during and after Prohibition. While the club featured many of the greatest African American entertainers of the era, such as Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, and Ethel Waters, it generally denied admission to blacks. During its heyday, it served as a chic meeting spot in the heart of Harlem, featuring regular "Celebrity Nights" on Sundays, at which celebrities such as Jimmy Durante, George Gershwin, Al Jolson, Mae West, Irving Berlin, Moss Hart, New York mayor Jimmy Walker and other luminaries would appear.
Langston Hughes was an American poet, novelist, playwright, short story writer, and columnist. Hughes is known for his work during the Harlem Renaissance. The prose that would become the signature poem of Hughes appeared in his first book of poetry, The Weary Blues, published in 1926:
I've known rivers:
I've known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
flow of human blood in human veins.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
went down to New Orleans, and I've seen its muddy
bosom turn all golden in the sunset.
I've known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
Louis Armstrong (August 4, 1901 – July 6, 1971), nicknamed Satchmo and Pops, was an American jazz trumpeter and singer. Armstrong was a charismatic, innovative performer whose inspired, improvised soloing was the main influence for a fundamental change in jazz, shifting its focus from collective melodic playing, often arranged in one way or another, to the solo player and improvised soloing. One of the most famous jazz musicians of the 20th century, he was first known as a cornet player, then as a trumpet player, and toward the end of his career he was best known as a vocalist and became one of the most influential jazz singers.
Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington (April 29, 1899–May 24, 1974) was an American composer, pianist, and band leader who was one of the most influential figures in jazz, if not in all American music. As a composer and a band leader, Ellington's reputation has increased since his death, with thematic repackagings of his signature music often becoming best-sellers. Posthumous recognition of his work include a special award citation from the Pulitzer Prize Board.
Bessie Smith (July, 1892 or April, 1894 – September 26, 1937) was the most popular and successful female American blues singer of the 1920s and 1930s, and a strong influence on subsequent generations, including Billie Holiday, Mahalia Jackson, Nina Simone and Janis Joplin.
A speakeasy was an establishment that was generally used for selling and drinking alcoholic beverages during the period of United States history known as Prohibition (1920-1933, longer in some states), when the sale, manufacture, and transportation of alcohol was illegal. The term comes from a patron's manner of ordering alcohol without raising suspicion — a bartender would tell a patron to be quiet and "speak easy".
The Apollo Theater in New York City is one of the most famous clubs for popular music in the United States, and certainly the most famous club associated almost exclusively with African-American performers.
1. Name two alternative names for the Harlem Renaissance
2. During prohibition, a time when the government outlawed alcoholic beverages, these establishments continue to sell alcohol illegally.
3. What two types of music came with blacks as they moved to Harlem from the midwest and south?
4. Name three factors that contributed to the end of the Harlem Renaissance
5. What was the nickname for the phenomenon of so many blacks moving from other parts of the country to the north and particularly to areas like Harlem?
6. Who wrote the collection of poetry called The Weary Blues?
7. What piano player combined blues with ragtime music?
8. Who was the most successful female blues singer of the 1920s and 1930s?