The Harlem Renaissance was a cultural movement in the United States that spanned the 1920s and 1930s. While the zenith of the movement occurred between 1924 and 1929, its ideas lived on much longer. At the time, it was known as the "New Negro Movement," named after the 1925 anthology by Alain Locke. The cultural and political renaissance produced novels, plays, poems, music, dance, and other artwork that represented the flowering of a distinctive African-American expression. Along with the artists, political leaders such as Marcus Garvey founded potent philosophies of black self-determination and unity among black communities in the United States, the Caribbean, and Africa. At the same time, activists like Hubert Harrison challenged the notion of the renaissance, arguing that the term was largely a white invention that overlooked the continuous stream of creativity that had emerged from the African-American community since 1850.
The district of Harlem had originally developed in the 19th century as an exclusive suburb for the white middle and upper classes. During the enormous influx of European immigrants in the late 19th century, the once exclusive district was abandoned by its native whites, who moved further north. Harlem became an African-American neighborhood in the early 1900s, during the Great Migration in which many sought a better standard of living and relief from the institutionalized racism in the South. Others of African descent came from racially stratified communities in the Caribbean, seeking a better life in the U.S. By 1930, 90,000 new arrivals joined the African Americans already living there, creating a community of nearly 200,000.
Despite the increasing popularity of Negro culture, virulent white racism continued to affect African-American communities. Race riots and other civil uprisings occurred throughout the US during the Red Summer of 1919, reflecting economic competition over jobs, housing, and social territories.
An Explosion of Culture
The first stage of the Harlem Renaissance started in the late 1910s. Three Plays for a Negro Theatre, written by white playwright Ridgely Torrence,premiered in 1917 and featured African-American actors conveying complex human emotions and yearnings. They rejected the stereotypes of the "blackface" and minstrel show traditions. That same year Hubert Harrison, known as "The Father of Harlem Radicalism," founded The Liberty League and The Voice, the first organization and newspaper of the New Negro Movement. Harrison's organization and newspaper were political, but also emphasized the arts with sections for poetry and book reviews. Another landmark came in 1919, when the poet Claude McKay published his militant sonnet, "If We Must Die". Although the poem never alluded to race, African-American readers heard its note of defiance in the face of racism. By the end of WWI, the fiction of James Weldon Johnson and the poetry of Claude McKay were describing the reality of contemporary African-American life in America.
Characteristics and Themes
Characterizing the Harlem Renaissance was an overt racial pride and the developing idea of the New Negro, who through intellect and production of literature, art, and music could challenge the pervading racism and promote progressive politics. The creation of art and literature would serve to "uplift" the race. There was no uniting form characterizing the art that emerged, however. It encompassed a wide variety of styles, including Pan-African perspectives; "high-culture" and "low-culture"; traditional music to blues and jazz; traditional and experimental forms in literature such as modernism; and the new form of jazz poetry. Because of this diversity, numerous artists came into conflict with conservatives in the black intelligentsia, who took issue with certain depictions of black life.
Some common themes represented during the Harlem Renaissance were the influence of slavery, black identity, the effects of institutional racism, the dilemmas of performing and writing for elite white audiences, and how to convey the experience of modern black life in the urban North.
New authors attracted a great amount of national attention, and the Harlem Renaissance led to more opportunities for blacks to be published by mainstream houses. Some authors who became nationally known were Jean Toomer, Jessie Fauset, Claude McKay, Zora Neale Hurston, James Weldon Johnson, Alain Locke, Eric D. Walrond and Langston Hughes . A new way of playing the piano called the Harlem Stride Style was also created during the Renaissance, and jazz musicians like Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, Jelly Roll Morton, and Willie "The Lion" Smith are considered to have laid the foundation for future musicians of their genre. Visual artists of the time included Charles Alston, Henry Bannarn, Leslie Bolling, Aaron Douglas, Jacob Lawrence, and Archibold Motley .
The Harlem Renaissance helped lay the foundation for the post-World War II phase of the Civil Rights Movement and inspired countless future black artists. The Renaissance was more than a literary or artistic movement; it possessed a certain sociological development—particularly through a new racial consciousness—through racial integration.