The Harlem Renaissance
(1919 – 1930s)
[su_note note_color=”#40cd11″ radius=”5″]Noteworthy Accomplishments & Historical Facts [su_list icon_color=”#191f17″]
- The first major recognition of Black culture
- The most influential movement in Black literary history
- An intellectual, social, and artistic movement that shined a spotlight on Black historical and contemporary experiences
- The movement that resulted in the birth of jazz and blues music
- This movement created an era in art, music, and literature which created an openness to talk about sexuality
- Also known as the “New Negro Movement”
The Emergence of Blacks in Harlem
From the very beginning, New York City was one of the most important cities in the United States. Settled first by the Dutch in 1613 when they built Fort Manhattan on the island which Peter Minuit later bought from the Indians, they called it New Amsterdam. The colony was later taken by the British, and they renamed it New York (NY). However, long before the British took over NY, there were two other villages (now known as boroughs) in the area – Brooklyn and Harlem. It wasn’t too long before NY engulfed them, making them a part of New York.
Harlem became a Black neighborhood in the early 1900s. In 1910, a large block along 135th Street and Fifth Avenue was bought by various African-American realtors and a church group. For many years after Black people moved to New York, Harlem was still the home of wealthy whites. They raced their harness horses on its wide streets and their Black servants lived in another part of town near Wall Street. New York has long been number one in almost everything in the US, so it was natural that NY be home to the first major recognition of Black culture – which sparked a decade long movement. Once Harlem turned black, it was only a matter of time before it would become synonymous with the best for Black America.
Blacks migrated from the South in droves. It was like they couldn’t get here fast enough to escape the terrible conditions they were in back home! Really, this migration was a part of the Great Migration. Not, only did they hail from the South, but very talented and ambitious Blacks came fro the West, Midwest, North and the islands of the West Indies.
“When these migrants joined the indigenous black intelligent of the metropolis in the years immediately following World War I, they sparked one of the most exciting and unusual periods in Black American history – the Harlem Renaissance.” – Ebony Pictorial History of Black America (Harlem Renaissance)
The Heart and Soul of the Harlem Renaissance
The talent (writers, artists, singers, dancers, actors, and musicians) came to Harlem because The Crisis and Opportunity magazines had given them a chance to publish their work – stories and poems. Back then, there were no white companies publishing and recording Black works of art – everything in a sense is a form of art. The Black novelists, artists, poets, and dramatists of the Harlem Renaissance were men and women with a sense of social consciousness. It gave them an opportunity to share with people the struggles that they overcame, been through, and seen their fellow Black person endure – many of their creations were directed toward Blacks. They felt strongly connected with their experiences and the struggles felt as black people.
Another shining moment in the Renaissance is when the white world discovered it. White writers like Theodore Dreiser and Sinclair Lewis were writing serious novels that questioned the values of the system. There was a trend among whites to create works of art that pointed out the flaws of a capitalistic democratic society with the aim of persuading others to extinguish these flaws. Many white writers saw that one of the greatest flaws in this democratic society was the undemocratic treatment of the Black man.
After this realization, wealthy white dilettantes gave parties downtown and invited a select number of Black literary guests. On occasions, they (wealthy white people) would take their white friends with them for “an evening in Harlem.” It was a strange period in New York City. For instance, there was the Cotton Club in Harlem where the show was all Black, but the audience was all white. The only Black people the bouncer would let in were employees – strange.
The were a great number of artists, poets, actors, authors, and musicians that were major players in this movement, including W.E.B. Du Bois, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, just to name a few.
“Let it be said that in the years following World War I, Black people put their artistic talents to use and whites had to admit that Black artists were more than novelties.” – Ebony Pictorial History of Black America (Harlem Renaissance)
How the Harlem Renaissance Helped Blacks
The increasing Black middle class began pushing a new political agenda that advocated racial equality. In turn, the Harlem Renaissance created a new Black identity, not only for black people, but for white America – and what they thought of Blacks. It was successful because it brought the Black experience clearly within the body of American cultural history. Not only through an explosion of culture, but on a sociological level, the legacy of the Harlem Renaissance redefined how America, and the world, viewed Blacks. The migration of Blacks from the South to the North changed the image of the Blacks from rural, under-educated peasants to one of urban, cosmopolitan sophistication. This new identity led to a greater social consciousness, and for the first time, Blacks became players on the world stage, expanding intellectual and social contacts internationally.
While the renaissance was not confined to the Harlem district of New York, Harlem attracted a remarkable concentration of intellect and talent and served as the symbolic capital of this cultural awakening.
Ebony Pictorial History of Black America – Volume 2: Reconstruction to Supreme Court Decision 1954