During the Harlem Renaissance Black people became known for setting trends, defining culture, and innovating art. Black people settled in Harlem as they sought a promised land to escape the violence of the South and usually subtle hostilities of the North. Harlem would prove to have its share of issues and fall short of the ideal in many ways. But, it would provide a cultural, creative, and intellectual oasis for Black people. Within this community, Black people would funnel their hopes and miseries into creative art forms that would define a generation and provide inspiration for many more to come.
Harlem, An Urban Black Mecca
Exodus: Fleeing The South
Before the Civil War, Black people were living in New York City and other parts of the North but the majority of America’s Black population lived in the South. With the end of the Civil War, participants in the Confederacy were removed and blocked from positions of political power. This offered an opportunity for newly freed slaves as well as pre-existing free men to participate in government. During Reconstruction, some Black people in the South prospered in the new environment of federal protection and local freedom. The future seemed to promise new possibilities for Black people in the South but things drastically changed by the turn of the century.
The decision to not maintain a federal presence in and supervision of the South resulted in many of Reconstruction’s progressive changes being rolled back. Many of the Black politicians who obtained local and federal government positions were removed from power within one to two terms. Also, various biased laws were instituted to place unfair requirements on potential Black voters.
Having their rights to vote curtailed and lack of representation in government meant that Black people in the South faced great difficulties in trying to protect their rights. In addition to gerrymandering and other political shenanigans, Black people also had to contend with violent opposition to them exercising their rights. While slavery had been legally outlawed, political and social maneuvering attempted to force Black people back into a place of subservience. Resistance to equality for Black people and efforts to maintain the unfair systems that had been created by slavery trapped Black people in a new form of continued bondage.
A series of events that occurred around 1915 combined to push Black people to leave the South. Boll weevils and other natural disasters devastated crops which put the livelihood of many families at risk. World War I required a large workforce to make the munitions needed for the war effort. And with a lot of the traditional workforce, White males, fighting overseas factories began recruiting and hiring Black workers from the South.
These factors combined into Black people seeking to escape oppression while also pursuing better economic opportunities. Approximately 6 million Black residents from the South would go on to migrate to the North and West. Large amounts of these people made their way to Northern Manhattan and settled in Harlem.
Black People Head Uptown
Harlem was originally planned as a New York City outpost to house the city’s growing White population. Some residents settled in the community as planned but a large amount moved further north. By the turn of the century, over-development of Harlem and a population shortfall resulted in a large number of residential vacancies. Black people began to move to Harlem from other parts of the city as well from the South.
When Black residents began moving into Harlem they were initially met with resistance from White residents who had already settled in the area. But as Harlem became increasingly Black, White residents eventually gave up and either condensed in the few remaining pockets of White neighborhoods or fled further north to the suburbs.
The Black Mecca
During the first wave of migration, approximately 300,000 Black people moved from the South to the North. Also, many Black people from the Caribbean, Europe, and Africa settled in Harlem when they moved to America. Thus Harlem had become an international mecca for Black people from around the world. The congregation of so many Black people from around America, as well as the world, led to the free exchange of culture and ideas.
This convergence of various people and factors resulted in the creation of a new Black identity. The art and culture from this special period in time was then referred to as the “New Negro Movement” or “Negro Renaissance” but would eventually come to be known as “The Harlem Renaissance”.
Redefining The Black Identity
A New Beginning
Up to this point in Black American history, the identity of Black people had been publicly defined by slavery and racist stereotypes. Finally having the latitude to express their thoughts and ideas Black people of this time took the opportunity to question and define for themselves what it meant to be Black. While artists and other prominent figures from this period are celebrated, average everyday people also contributed to the movement. They both inspired and consumed the art that was being created.
As a means of control, efforts had been made to keep enslaved Black people illiterate. Thus during Reconstruction, the formerly enslaved placed great value on the obtainment of education. By the start of the Harlem Renaissance, literacy rates were dramatically increasing within the Black population.
With more Black people both reading and writing, the content they were creating and consuming shifted. Black writers wrote less stereotypical Black characters and more realistically about the Black experience than mainstream writers. Black readers could more easily find books about people like themselves and/or to whom they could relate.
An Early Push for Civil Rights
In the public discourse on the creation of a new Black identity many artists and activists also began to question the position of Black people in American society. While the Harlem Renaissance took place in the North, distant from the open racial terrors of the South, Harlem was not the promised land that many envisioned. Fleeing the South removed the ever-present fears associated with lynchings, convict leasing, sharecropping, etc. But, Black residents in Harlem still had to deal with poverty, crime, overcrowding, slum level living conditions, and other aspects of a modified form of segregation.
Harlem was a haven for some who were fleeing to the neighborhood. But, the Harlem Renaissance offered an escape from the crushing reality of living in the neighborhood. These subjects were included within the art of the time and journalists and activists also called attention to these social and political issues.
Tired of the racism in America, some artists fled the country completely and sought refuge in European cities such as Paris. Black men who served in the military had an opportunity to see and experience other parts of the world. Likewise, Black people from other parts of the world immigrated to America bringing their cultures and perspectives with them. The merging of these viewpoints and experiences led to the development of early forms of Civil Rights, Black Pride, and Pan-Africanism Movements.
The Crisis magazine was founded by W.E.B DuBois in 1910 and as an NAACP publication focused on issues related to civil rights. It served as an outlet for the Harlem Renaissance by including written pieces and artwork by Black artists and later developing a guild to support theater production by and for the Black community. As the NAACP grew and established new regional offices it became physically easier to distribute The Crisis which expanded its reach. Black people outside of Harlem were now more efficiently exposed to the cultural changes and creative pieces that were being developed.
It was also during this time that Jamaica-born Marcus Garvey arrived in America and began promoting the concept of Pan-Africanism. Garvey had launched the Universal Negro Improvement Association (U.N.I.A.) in Jamaica intending to unite the Black diaspora. Upon arriving in America he established a chapter of the U.N.I.A. in Harlem and later founded the Negro World newspaper, the Black Star Line shipping company, and the Negros Factories Association. Marcus Garvey advocated for Black people to take pride in their African heritage and history as well as establishing “separate but equal” Black societies around the world. Garvey was one of the first major figures to promote an idea of Black pride and his ideologies would go on to influence later civil rights movements and organizations.
During the Harlem Renaissance Alain LeRoy Locke was a major supporter of Black artists. A scholar in his own right, Locke helped to promote many artists of the day and encouraged them to seek their fulfillment as well as feeling free to include inspiration from African art. The 1925 publication of his anthology, The New Negro: An Interpretation included early pieces from writers who would become synonymous with the Harlem Renaissance. Locke’s mentorship of these young artists and guidance of the movement would result in him being regarded as the “Father of the Harlem Renaissance”.
Langston Hughes emerged as one of the most influential poets from this period and covered familiar subjects related to Black life such as discrimination and segregation but also touched on taboo topics such as homosexuality. Zora Neale Hurston’s release of Their Eyes Were Watching God charted the life of a Black woman through various relationships and played with character voice and perspective. Countee Cullen was a poetry prodigy who won various awards as a college student and would go on to write literary reviews for Opportunity magazine. Claude McKay used his poetry to motivate Black people to push for recognition of their civil rights.
Jazz originated in New Orleans and was derived from the Blues which originated in the deep South during the 1870s. As early jazz artists made their way to the Midwest and North they brought the music of the South with them. Larger orchestras and symphonies in the North combined with the new forms of free expression led to innovations within the music. Musicians such as Louis Armstong, Cab Calloway, and Duke Ellington were mainstays in Harlem. Dance forms such as tap dancing, Lindy Hop, and Jitterbug were popular during the time and drew inspiration from the improvisations of jazz.
The music of the period, in particular, drew White patrons to Harlem. In a form of slumming it, White residents from other parts of Manhattan were able to temporarily escape from their regular lives to drink and watch Black entertainers perform. Some of the major venues of the time such as the Cotton Club and Connie’s Inn allowed Black people to perform on stage but forbade Black people from being a part of the audience. This enabled White patrons of these clubs to gawk at the locals without having to interact with them as human beings.
Unlike other areas of the arts during the Harlem Renaissance, Black visual artists struggled to gain recognition in the wider art world. Sculptors Meta Warrick Fuller and Augusta Savage created memorable busts of important figures of the time but also everyday people and themes. Savage later contributed to gathering Black artists to participate in the Federal Art Project under the Work Progress Administration. Aaron Douglas became the preeminent visual artist of the period with his iconic African-centric murals, illustrations, and paintings that often featured abstract silhouettes focused on racial and social issues.
Traditionally theater productions presented Black characters in minstrel shows where they typically portrayed stereotypes. Often White performers would appear in blackface, dark makeup with overdrawn lips, a mocking stereotyped appearance of Black people. In the rare instances when Black performers appeared on stage, it was in unflattering non-dramatic roles.
The advent of the Harlem Renaissance provided an opportunity for more Black performers to appear on stage in roles that represented more realistic portrayals of Black life. The success of these plays proved that there was a market for staged Black stories beyond the minstrel show. As with other areas of the Harlem Renaissance, there was debate over whether plays should function as a form of protest/racial uplift or artistic expression.
Several Black playwrights, all-Black theater troupes, and performers emerged during this time. Two of the most notable performers were Paul Robeson and Josephine Baker. After achieving some success in New York City, Josephine Baker traveled to Paris to take advantage of the city’s interest in jazz and openness to new creative ideas. Baker served as an ambassador of sorts by introducing exotic dances and wardrobe pieces to Paris. Paul Robeson was a multi-talented performer who rose to international acclaim and used his platform to speak out against racial and social injustices.
The End of a New Beginning
The Harlem Renaissance began to lose steam in 1929 when the stock market crashed and ushered in The Great Depression. With rampant job losses and economic instability, Harlem’s residents were more preoccupied with trying to survive than they were with the arts. By the mid-1930s some Harlemites had to relocate elsewhere in search of jobs that created a vacuum. A new wave of migrants from the South began arriving in Harlem in search of work and financial assistance. When the Harlem Race Riot erupted in 1935 it brought an end to the Harlem Renaissance.
While the art that was created during the Harlem Renaissance was popular with Black audiences it also garnered interest from White audiences and patrons. Factions within the Harlem Renaissance were at odds over whether some particular topics or ideas should not be touched as well as the inclusion of White consumers and publishers. W.E.B. DuBois, in particular, expressed disapproval of the publication of works that didn’t uplift the race and which might portray Black people in a negative light that would be consumed by White people.
When White artists, patrons, and publishers became involved with promoting the work of Black artists it brought in an additional group of consumers. Some of the artists didn’t object to White patronage and saw White interest in Black art as a form of acceptance to be welcomed and celebrated regardless of how patronizing it might be. As Black artists, publications, and venues came to rely on the support of White audiences they faced difficulties when The Great Depression began. These larger publications and venues had driven smaller Black-owned entities out of business so when they failed, there were few alternatives to pick up the mantle.
While the Harlem Renaissance only lasted about 20 years, its cultural significance is still relevant today. Many of the writers who emerged during the period utilized literary styles and themes that have inspired modern Black writers. The contributions to jazz and the blues would later influence soul music and Rhythm & Blues. Overall, the Harlem Renaissance helped a group of people who had had their humanity and identity stripped away independently rediscover themselves. For a brief beautiful moment in time Black people in Harlem, across America, and around the world were able to use the arts and other forms of intellectual expression to reconnect with themselves and each other.
- “A New African American Identity: The Harlem Renaissance.” 2018. National Museum of African American History and Culture. March 14, 2018. https://nmaahc.si.edu/blog-post/new-african-american-identity-harlem-renaissance.
- “Harlem Renaissance.” n.d. National Gallery of Art. Accessed February 21, 2020. https://www.nga.gov/education/teachers/lessons-activities/uncovering-america/harlem-renaissance.html.
- “Harlem Renaissance.” 2009. History.com. A&E Television Networks. October 29, 2009. https://www.history.com/topics/roaring-twenties/harlem-renaissance.
- “Harlem Renaissance.” 2020. Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. February 8, 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harlem_Renaissance.
- Hutchinson, George. 2019. “Harlem Renaissance.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. November 26, 2019. https://www.britannica.com/event/Harlem-Renaissance-American-literature-and-art.
- “The Harlem Renaissance.” n.d. Ushistory.org. Independence Hall Association. Accessed February 21, 2020. https://www.ushistory.org/us/46e.asp.
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