The Harlem Renaissance

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Compare and contrast the Harlem Renaissance with the Chicago Renaissance.

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Though both movements are referred to as "renaissances," they were periods of unprecedented cultural flowering in their respective communities. As the scholar Houston A. Baker Jr. astutely pointed out, the phrase "Harlem Renaissance" sounds like a misnomer given that it wasn't a revival; nothing like it had ever before occurred.

Though both movements, as the other educators have noted, expressed political concerns, the Harlem Renaissance was more concerned with the development of a black artistic sensibility and a construction of racial identity that was defined by more than a legacy of oppression.

As with any movement, there was disagreement about representation. For example, Alain Locke disliked Zora Neale Hurston's application of folk dialect, while Hurston famously wrote in her 1928 essay "How It Feels To Be Colored Me" about the "sobbing school of Negrohood"—a clever dig at contemporary writers who wrote about blackness less as a source of pride than as a condition.

I would argue that the Chicago Renaissance was more overtly political. Many writers from the period belonged to the Communist party, particularly Frank Marshall Davis.

Finally, as another educator mentioned, the Harlem Renaissance was more diasporic and included black people from the Caribbean, particularly Claude McKay and United Negro Improvement Association chairman Marcus Garvey, whereas the Chicago Renaissance was a more provincial affair.

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Both the Harlem Renaissance (in New York City) and the Chicago Renaissance were periods of the early twentieth century in which African American arts and culture flourished. The Great Migration from the Jim Crow South to the more progressive urban cities of the North and Midwest brought six million African Americans into cities like New York, Chicago, and St. Louis.

Both artistic movements explored questions both universal (such as identity and the search for life's meaning) and specific (such as the conflict among races and the African American identity). Many genres of artistic expression were the vehicle for these questions, including literature, music, drama, dance, and the visual arts, as well as philosophical questions addressed in essays.

Regional differences existed between the two; the Chicago Renaissance was concentrated on the city's south side, and several collectives formed, such as the South Side Writers Group and the South Side Community Art Center. The music scene was dominated not only by jazz, as was popular in the Harlem Renaissance, but also by gospel music and the American blues scene. The Harlem Renaissance was not unnoticed by white society, and though there were uptown clubs with integrated audiences, there were also clubs that featured African American performers who played to white audiences. Gradually, some Harlem Renaissance performers gained wider, more diverse audiences and expanded into Broadway theaters.

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There are many points of comparison between these two movements. Both were nationally prominent and historically significant flowerings of African American culture. Both emerged in predominately African American neighborhoods—the South Side in Chicago and Harlem in New York. Both were sparked by the "Great Migration" of African Americans from the South to Northern cities around World War I. Both featured writers (for example, Richard Wright and Gwendolyn Brooks in Chicago and Zora Neal Hurston and Langston Hughes in Harlem), jazz musicians, painters, and other artists. Both began in the 1920s, at the height of the "Great Migration," and both were touchstones for African American culture throughout the twentieth century and beyond. 

As for contrasts, most historians would argue that the Chicago Renaissance lasted much longer than its counterpart in Harlem. Many would argue that it was still ongoing in the 1950s. This leads to another difference noted by scholars. Some have argued that much of the literature produced during the Harlem Renaissance is more optimistic about the future of African Americans than the literature produced in Chicago. While both were highly politically charged, much of the writing of the Chicago Renaissance reflected the disillusionment prompted by the Great Depression and the persistence of Jim Crow and racism after World War II. Finally, the Harlem Renaissance, precisely because it was in New York, bore more of an Afro-Caribbean influence than the Chicago Renaissance. However, the similarities between the two movements outweigh their differences, and it should be noted that the artists, writers, musicians, and scholars associated with both movements were in constant dialogue with each other. In other words, these were two mutually reinforcing movements.

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What was the difference between the Harlem Renaissance and the Chicago Renaissance?

The term Harlem Renaissance is unambiguous as it refers to a movement in African American literature and other arts taking place in the 1920s in Harlem, in the northern part of Manhattan in New York City. It was interdisciplinary in nature, including jazz, poetry, theater, and visual arts, and it was a landmark in the development of a distinctive African American culture. It was also a politicized movement as many of the writers of the period decried racism and prejudice. It influenced styles in the arts in Paris as well as New York and was cosmopolitan in nature. Rather than rejecting European culture and Christianity, many of the artists and writers of the period attempted to fuse the best of both the inherited European and African American traditions.

The term "Chicago Renaissance" is ambiguous as it can refer to the movement in the 1920s in primarily white literature in Chicago, including such authors as Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, Carl Sandburg, Edgar Lee Masters, Vachel Lindsay, and Ring Lardner. In this case, the first difference is racial. The next is that the Chicago Renaissance was to a large degree focused on small town and regional issues rather than having the cosmopolitan flavor of the Harlem Renaissance; in fact, it reflects an ongoing concern of Midwestern writers of trying to argue for their place in the literary canon when most of the literary and political power centers are located on the east coast.

There was also a Chicago Black Renaissance in the middle of the twentieth century. Distinctive writers of this movement included African American writers as Richard Wright, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Lorraine Hansberry. It was even more focused on distinctive African American identity than the Harlem Renaissance and emphasized distinctively American racial tensions and identity. It was strongly influenced by the Harlem Renaissance but was less concerned with incorporation of European tradition.

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What was the difference between the Harlem Renaissance and the Chicago Renaissance?

I think that one primary difference between both intellectual movements was their time span.  The Harlem Renaissance was mostly concentrated in the 1920s.  Its focus and prevalence in the 1920s was designed to add an alternate dimension to the "Roaring '20s."  At the same time, the exploration of race and racial identity was commenced with enthusiasm, but also a sort of trepidation.  Nothing like this had been done before and there was an intrinsic challenge to expressing it in the Harlem Renaissance.  Questions abound as to what should this vision look like, and with the exploration of race already a challenging subject, this added to the challenging diversity of the movement, which some felt prevented its full embrace after the 1920s.

The Chicago Renaissance was more complex in its approach to exploring racial identity.  It brought this out through Realism, depicting a condition of race that deliberately embraced its eclectic nature.  It embraced its own diverse nature because the time period it spanned did the same.  Writers like Wright, Brooks, and Hansberry discussed the issues of race alongside class and social- economic reality.  This discussion was reflective of a time period that spanned beyond the 1920s, one that moved into the Great Depression.  The continuation of this into  the 1930s and beyond enabled more issues connected to racial identity to be explored.  In the process, the movement broadened because the discourse did.  This helped to sustain the movement into a longer historical context than the Harlem Renaissance.

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