In literary terms, what was the primary achievement and significance of the Harlem Renaissance?
A turning point in African American cultural history, the Harlem Renaissance yet retains great symbolic as well as literary importance today. For the New Negro, as the urban African-Americans who migrated from the South were termed, there was a promised land, where freedom from Jim Crow laws and from poverty and suppression was, perhaps, possible. The final destination of this migration was Harlem, the center of the New Negro culture. This section of New York became the setting and a rich source of material for the imagination of black writers.
Furthermore, the Harlem Renaissance became important to other arts besides literature. The concert stage held performances of Negro spirituals by such artists as Marian Anderson, Roland Hayes, and Paul Robeson. From these performances burgeoned the new form of religious spirituals called gospel, a genre that borrowed some of its lyrics from spirituals with the accompaniment with the rhythms and tone of the Blues. The Harlem Renaissance was the zenith of classic blues singers such as Bessie Smith. Moreover, the birth of jazz occurred during this time. Among the major innovators of this form were trumpeter Louis Armstrong, pianist and bandleader Duke Ellington, and Fletcher Henderson, known as having started the first "big band."
On Broadway from 1921 to 1929, new black productions were presented on stage. For instance, the musical Shuffle Along was performed starring Josephine Baker, who later became an international star. Also touching international soils was African sculpture and design which later affected leading artists such as Georges Braque, Pablo Picasso, and Matisse.
Thus, there was established a new pride in Negro culture and identity. For women's independence, new voices such as that of Zora Neale Hurston emerged. Also, more radical visions emerged such as those suggested by poet Claude McKay's impassioned sonnet, "If We Must Die." From his writings the political activisim of the period emerged; however, there was also the reverence for the relationship to Africa, as witnessed, for example, in Langston Hughes'a "The Negro Speaks of Rivers." The more recent past was also explored in Cane, a volume of poetry, prose, and drama that presents a speaker who has returned to the South in order to find his roots.
Utilizing the vernacular and dialect of the period in which a work was set, African-American writers expressed realistically the culture of the Old and New Negroes. Hughes and Hurston were innovators in this new form, and they are credited with being very influential in developing modern African American literature. Very sensitive to the rhythms of the Negro's music, Langston Hughes created new literary forms, such as blues and jazz poetry. Folklore achieved new realms under the pen of James Weldon Johnson, whose novels and poetry assess the American racial situation. Furthering this motif of disillusionment rather than hope, Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God has been said "to fulfill the romise of the Harlem Renaissance."
[Additional Source: African-American Literature, Holt, Rhinehart, and Winston]
The Harlem Renaissance was the first major literary movement to give a voice to African Americans. It is significant both for its subject matter, a portrayal of the post-Reconstruction experience of African Americans both in the north and the south and also literary techniques that fused African and African American genres such as jazz, oral tradition, and folk tale with the sophisticated techniques of literary modernism. Because the works of this group of writers reached a wide audience, they served not only to make African-Americans aware of the unique value of their own literary heritage, but also brought increased awareness of African-American culture to a broader national and international audience.