The Harlem Renaissance: Transforming the black identity in America

In the early 20th century, between the 1910s and the 1930s, a cultural revolution unfolded in Harlem. Originally designed for upper-class white residents, this neighborhood became an unexpected haven for black Americans. In Harlem, a  period of artistic endeavors encompassing music, literature, and visual arts came to life

This era, known as the Harlem Renaissance, reshaped the perception of black artwork both locally and globally. This movement brought about profound social, political, and artistic transformations for New York’s residents. Its impact was monumental. 

The Harlem Renaissance not only changed how African-American culture was perceived but also served as an inspiration for the residents of Harlem who actively participated in this artistic renaissance.

Within this movement, participants discovered a platform to express their true selves and celebrate their heritage for the very first time. This newfound creative freedom left an enduring mark, laying the groundwork for the future of African-American artistry, and shaping the creative landscape for generations to come.

The Great Migration and the Urbanization of Harlem 

While the Harlem Renaissance didn’t take place until the 1900s, the seeds for it were planted during the Civil War. 

In 1865, thousands upon thousands of African Americans were freed from slavery. It was a hard-won victory, but once free, they found themselves still within the racially hostile South. Opportunities were slim, but violence was not. So, looking for opportunities and safety, freed African Americans began to move north.

This era was known as the Great Migration and lasted between 1910 to 1970. Up to 6 million African Americans made their way from the rural Jim Crow South and into the urban areas of the Northwest and Midwest. 

The largest cities were the destinations for a lot of people. Places like New York City, Chicago, and Detroit were melting pots of different cultures and races, so those partaking in the Great Migration found it easier to acclimate. 

Before the Great Migration, almost 90% of African Americans lived in the American South, but by the end of the migration, only a little over half of the population was left in the Southern states. African Americans were seeking out urban areas, and forming communities of their own within these bigger cities. 

Harlem, New York

By the early 20th century, many different populations were making their way to New York City, and in particular, the neighborhood of Harlem in Manhattan. After the passing of the Civil Rights Act and the ability for people of different races to seek higher education, a lot of those who were moving into Harlem were well-educated middle-class residents. Combined with African Americans from rural southern areas, these new Harlem residents formed a center of culture that was hard to find anywhere else in the country. 

Halem itself was uniquely suited to this influx. Developed in the 19th century, Harlem had originally been intended as a suburb for affluent white upper and middle classes, and as such, was full of superb architecture, beautiful homes, shopping areas, and other amenities like opera houses. The neighborhood served its purpose well initially but in the late 19th century there was a different migration, this one from European immigrants into the area. This migration was so huge that it overtook the neighborhood, and the white residents moved elsewhere.

With Harlem now somewhat empty, and many African Americans looking for a fresh start in New York, it was a match made in heaven. African American churches, realtors, residents, and businesses began to make the most of the grand neighborhood, making it their own within no time. 

By 1910, Harlem was officially a black neighborhood full of a hugely diverse population of people. Farmers from the South, middle-class African Americans, recent college graduates, veterans, and of course, artists of all sorts, made Harlem the perfect crucible for something like the Harlem Renaissance to be born. 

The Beginning of the Harlem Renaissance 

It’s almost impossible to pinpoint the origin point of something like the Harlem Renaissance, but in 1917, the premiere of three different plays by playwright Ridgely Torrence was noted as a turning point in the representation of African Americans in theater. These plays were titled  Granny Maumee, The Rider of Dreams, and Simon the Cyrenian: Plays for a Negro Theater. Torrence himself was white, but the actors in his plays were black. The scripts were deep, complex, and meaningful, and rejected previous stereotypes like minstrel shows. 

A few years later, communist Jamaican poet Claude McKay, writing under the pen name Eli Edwards, published a sonnet titled “If We Must Die”. Previously, McKay had published poems that were more racially connected, like “Harlem Dancer”, but “If We Must Die” was by far his most popular work. While “If We Must Die” was inspired by war, it shed light on his earlier works and the messages conveyed within. This poem was defiant and struck a chord with many people during the race riots and lynchings happening concurrently with the publication of the poem. 

Another important participant of the early Renaissance was writer James Weldon Johnson. Johnson published pieces of his own, but his first contribution that really shook the movement was his anthology of poems called, “The Book of American Negro Poetry”, which featured works by many different poets of the time. 

Popular Venues During the Harlem Renaissance 

Something as widespread as the Harlem Renaissance couldn’t have occurred without spaces for artwork to flourish. The venues in which Harlem Renaissance artists thrived were almost as critical to the movement as the artists themselves. 

A few of the most important venues from the Harlem Renaissance are:

  • The Savoy Ballroom: A lively dance venue for swing music. It featured an integrated dance floor, a rarity in the days of racial segregation. 
  • The Cotton Club: Unlike the Savoy Ballroom, the Cotton Club catered mostly to white patrons. That being said, it was still important for the Harlem Renaissance because of the popularity it gave artists like Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway. 
  • The Apollo Theatre: The Apollo is an important venue event today, but was even more so during the Harlem Renaissance. New artists and musicians found a stage to make a name for themselves at the Apollo Theatre. 
  • The Lenox Lounge: A jazz club, the Lenox Lounge was a place for Harlem’s intellectuals and artists to congregate. With an eye-catching interior, it was also a destination for visitors to the neighborhood, working as a showcase of the Harlem Renaissance for outsiders. 

The Harlem Renaissance at its Peak

Once the Harlem Renaissance had begun in earnest, people from all around took notice. The movement continued to grow, the art and music coming from it reflecting the change that had taken place in the community.

These changes came faster and faster at the end of World War I, due to the African American veterans returning from war. More than that, though, the Harlem Renaissance was affected by the countrywide change happening in the United States after the war. Industrialization had people flocking to the bigger cities, and artists were born from the tragedy of the war. It was the perfect time for something like the Harlem Renaissance to come about. 

Without some breakout artists and pieces, the Renaissance might have just stayed confined to the New York neighborhood. But this movement was so powerful that it all but demanded that the rest of the world listen. The Harlem Renaissance went hand in hand with the civil rights movement, and that fact was echoed in a vast amount of the artwork to come out of that time. 

One notable piece that brought attention from the wider world to Harlem was Alain LeRoy Locke’s essay, The New Negro: An Interpretation. Garnering a lot of attention, this essay asked for renewed “self-respect and self-dependence” from the African American community at large. 

Religion and the Renaissance

Despite being a hub for things like boundary-pushing art and theater, religion still played a huge part in both Harlem and the Harlem Renaissance. 

Christianity, especially, left its mark on many of the works to come out of this period. One of the most famous artists to come out of the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes, often wrote on the subject and the way that religion held a large, if somewhat odd, place in the movement. 

By design, the Harlem Renaissance also brought about art that challenged religion. Some African Americans in Harlem explored their heritage by reconnecting with some African religious practices, while others tried to find a middle ground between this history and their present-day Christianity. Traditional African religions like Voodoo and Santeria showed up in Harlem during the Harlem Renaissance, maybe for the first time in that area. 

All in all, religion was a large part of the Harlem Renaissance, whether it was being used as inspiration or being criticized in everything from writing to artwork.

Harlem Renaissance Writers and the Magazines of the Movement 

In order for a movement like the Harlem Renaissance to come about, there has to be communication and places for artwork and writing to be displayed. This need for connection is why the magazines of the Harlem Renaissance were so meaningful.

Publications like The Crisis and Opportunity provided a place for Harlem writers to publish their pieces and a way for the layman to read them easily. 

Writers were instrumental in the movement, and it spawned such poetic and literary powerhouses as Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen

Harlem Renaissance Music 

One of the most monumental things to come out of the Harlem Renaissance was, of course, jazz music. Jazz had been around for some time before, having origins in Southern states like Louisiana, but the Harlem Renaissance made jazz more accessible while also launching the stars of musicians like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. 

Ellington, especially, became well known even in white music clubs. With his eponymous jazz band, Duke Ellington was incredibly popular in segregated clubs like the Cotton Club, bringing black musicians in front of an audience they would otherwise never be able to play for. 

Jazz becoming such a huge part of the Harlem Renaissance was linked to a style of piano playing called the Harlem Stride. This style helped merge brass bands and piano players to make jazz even more popular. Jazz was all about innovation, just like other types of art coming out of the movement, so it’s fitting that the two are so closely linked.

Musical theater also had a place in the Harlem Renaissance, with playwrights penning musicals and being able to see them performed on some of Harlem’s amazing stages. Before, there was no place for musicals like this to be seen, but the Renaissance brought attention to pieces that might otherwise never make it to the stage.

Harlem Renaissance Art

Visual art created during the Harlem Renaissance tended to be avant-garde in nature and created a space for African American artists to experiment with styles like traditional African art and those styles used by the European masters of old. This mixing of styles made one-of-a-kind pieces that couldn’t be seen anywhere else. 

Aaron Douglas was another important figure in the Harlem Renaissance. Douglas was hired by the Public Works of Art Project to paint a set of four murals for the New York Public Library. These murals would become some of the most important pieces of art to come out of the Renaissance. They were beautifully detailed, simple yet full of depth, combining African influences, modernist movements like Cubism, and geometric shapes. Other artists heavily took inspiration from Douglas’s murals, and they continue to inspire artists to this day.

The End of the Harlem Renaissance 

As powerful as it was, the Harlem Renaissance could have possibly gone on for decades. But like so many new and impactful things happening in the United States, it was ended abruptly by the Stock Market Crash of 1929.

Following the crash, the Great Depression came right on its heels. African American business owners, just like all others, were greatly affected by the Depression, and many were forced to close their doors. Support and patrons of the arts pulled out to conserve funds, leaving very little for the artists of Harlem to continue with. 

So, with that, the movement was done. But the echoes of it still stick around.

The Harlem Renaissance gave a voice to black artists who might never have found a platform otherwise, and the art and music they produced influenced the world. The movement gave them confidence to continue creating and making their voices heard, which would be even more critical during the upcoming Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. 


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