The Harlem Renaissance was an African-American cultural, social, artistic, and intellectual flowering that fostered a new Black cultural identity in the 1920s and ’30s.
The Harlem Renaissance kicked off after a summer of bloody race-related riots in 1919 (see the “Red Summer of 1919” article in “The Reflector” Part 1 in our Jan. 24, 2019, issue). It was soon after 200,000 Black soldiers returned from Europe at the end of World War I. In France, the soldiers had been treated with a level of respect they were rarely afforded at home. Now, returning victorious, they demanded equality with renewed urgency.
Meanwhile during the four years of the war in Europe, half a million Blacks had left the American South for northern cities such as Chicago, Detroit, Columbus, Cleveland and New York, where they settled in Harlem.
How did a so-called “renaissance” emerge from so much strife?
The New Negro
Originally the Harlem Renaissance was called the New Negro Movement and philosopher and professor Alain Locke is credited with being the dean of the New Negro – and ultimately the Harlem Renaissance – Movement.
Locke was a Harvard PhD in Philosophy and is acknowledged as the first African-American Rhodes Scholar. A writer, critic and teacher, Locke wrote extensively about the “New Negro” and his concepts began to catch on. Locke’s philosophy of the New Negro was grounded in the concept of race-building. Its most important component was the overall awareness of the potential of Black equality.
The New Negro would no longer allow themselves to adjust or comply with unreasonable White requests. Locke’s philosophical idea of The New Negro was not about changing the law, it was about changing the Negro.
This idea was based on self-confidence and political awareness. If they wanted this idea to flourish, they were the one who would need to “enforce” it through their actions and overall points of view.
Locke described it as a “spiritual coming of age” in which African Americans transformed “social disillusionment to race pride.”
Locke promoted African-American artists, writers, and musicians, encouraging them to look to Africa as an inspiration for their works. He encouraged them to depict African and African-American subjects, and to draw on their history for subject material.
The Harlem Renaissance encompassed poetry and prose, painting and sculpture, jazz and swing, opera and dance. What united these diverse art forms was their realistic presentation of what it meant to be Black in America, what writer Langston Hughes called an “expression of our individual dark-skinned selves,” as well as a new militancy in asserting their civil and political rights.
Among the Renaissance’s most significant contributors were intellectuals W.E.B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey, Cyril Briggs, and Walter Francis White; electrifying performers Josephine Baker and Paul Robeson; writers and poets Zora Neale Hurston, Effie Lee Newsome, Countee Cullen; visual artists Aaron Douglas and Augusta Savage; and an extraordinary list of legendary musicians, including Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Eubie Blake, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Ivie Anderson, Josephine Baker, Fats Waller, Jelly Roll Morton, and countless others.
Contributing to the Harlem Renaissance were a dramatic rise in levels of literacy among Black citizens; development of several national organizations dedicated to their cause like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; increased interaction among Black intellectuals; in addition to the development of pride for their race that Locke pushed for.
Journals & Publications
In 1910, the NAACP launched its official magazine, The Crisis. It published the work of many young African-American writers associated with the Harlem Renaissance. By 1918, The Crisis had over 100,000 readers. In 1917, Hubert Harrison, who has been described as “the father of Harlem radicalism,” founded the Liberty League and The Voice, the first organization and the first newspaper dedicated to the Harlem Renaissance.
Opportunity, The Messenger and Negro World were other prominent journals associated with the movement.
The Negro Vogue
African American music; such as blues, spirituals and especially jazz; became a worldwide sensation and amplified the renaissance. Harlem Stride Piano, a jazz piano style, was developed during the 1920s and contributed in spreading the popularity of the music form among the wealthy. Also Blacks began to emerge in the classical world of music compositions, an area previously dominated by Whites.
Such was the popularity of jazz among Whites that it sparked a “Negro Vogue” in cities such as New York and Paris.
Another trend that led to further popularizing the renaissance was primitivism. Freudian psychology held that primitive people held a more direct relationship with nature. It led to increased interest in the creative works of African Americans among Whites.
At the height of the movement, Harlem was the epicenter of American culture. The neighborhood bustled with African-American-owned-and-run publishing houses and newspapers, music companies, playhouses, nightclubs, and cabarets. The literature, music, and fashion they created defined culture and “cool” for Blacks and White alike, in America and around the world.
The Great Depression
As the 1920s came to a close, so did the Harlem Renaissance. Its heyday was cut short largely due to the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and resulting Great Depression, which hurt African-American-owned businesses and publications and made less financial support for the arts available from patrons, foundations, and theatrical organizations.
However, the Harlem Renaissance’s impact on America was indelible. The movement brought notice to the great works of African-American art, and inspired and influenced future generations of African-American artists and intellectuals. The self-portrait of African-American life, identity, and culture that emerged from Harlem was transmitted to the world at large, challenging the racist and disparaging stereotypes of the Jim Crow South. In doing so, it radically redefined how people of other races viewed African Americans and understood the African-American experience.
Most importantly, the Harlem Renaissance instilled in African Americans across the country a new spirit of self-determination and pride, a new social consciousness, and a new commitment to political activism, all of which would provide a foundation for the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. In doing so, it validated the beliefs of its founders and leaders like Alain Locke and Langston Hughes that art could be a vehicle to improve the lives of the African Americans.