The Harlem Renaissance

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What conditions led to the Harlem Renaissance?

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One condition that led to the Harlem Renaissance was the return of black veterans from France at the end of WWI. In general, the French treated African Americans with more respect than white America treated them. Exposure to new cultural experiences in France led many African Americans to be more vocal and expressive when they arrived back home.

Another condition was the migration of African Americans from the South to the North both before and during the 1920s. African Americans came to large cities in search of work and better opportunities than the South offered. African Americans started to develop a unique response to white America and to describe their experiences in general. Many turned to literature, such as Langston Hughes. In the North, the writing and artwork of the Harlem Renaissance found mainstream approval and the literature and music of the period was popular with both white and black audiences.

Yet another condition was the need for Americans to express themselves during the 1920s. Many Americans turned to literature, art, and music in order to express themselves. With the rise of mass media such as new magazines and radio stations, many of these new artists found receptive audiences.

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A major element which led to the Harlem Renaissance was the Great Migration during and shortly after World War I when large numbers of Black Americans moved to the North.Between 1910-1920, the Southeast lost 323,000 blacks; five percent of the native black population. By the end of 1920, 13% of the black population had moved north. Between 1910 and 1930, over one million blacks moved North. With this blacks slowly but surely gained political leverage by concentrating in large cities in states with many electoral votes. In the North they could speak and act more freely than in the North. Along with political activity came a spirit of protest that was expressed in a literary and artistic movement which became known as the Harlem Renaissance. The first significant writer of the time was Claude McKay, a Jamaican immigrant, who wrote a collection of poems known as Harlem Shadows. Among the poems were works such as "If We Must Die," and "To the White Fiends." Other writers included: Langston Hughes, Zoral Neale Hurston, and James Weldon Johnson who portrayed the black mecca in Black Manhattan. Johnson is perhaps best known as the author of "Lift Every Voice."

A substantial element was a movement known as Negro Nationalism, largely the work of Marcus Garvey, which exalted black cultural expression. All of this, or course, was part of the great upheaval of the Roaring Twenties when all previous standards were questions and the New Woman appeared as well as the "New Negro" to use the phrase of the time.

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The Harlem Renaissance was caused by a combination of the black migration to the North (the "Great Migration") during and after WWI and the economic and social boom times of the "Roaring '20s."  These factors made it possible for an upwelling of literary and cultural expression among African Americans that was centered in Harlem.

The Great Migration brought large numbers of African Americans to Northern cities.  New York, of course, was the major center for those who were artists and writers and other sorts of intellectuals.  By coming to New York, they were freed from many of the sorts of pressures and intimidation that kept them subjugated in the South.

The Roaring '20s provided the atmosphere of social ferment that helped to inspire the Harlem Renaissance.  It was a time when social values seemed to be changing very fast and people were living life in new and more exciting ways.  This atmosphere of cultural change also inspired artists and writers to examine their society in new ways.

The presence (for the first time) of large numbers of African Americans in the North, combined with the economic and social changes of the 1920, allowed the Harlem Renaissance to occur.

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What factors or events prompted the Harlem Renaissance?

There were at least three major factors or events that led to the Harlem Renaissance.

First, there was World War I.  This war led to the Harlem Renaissance in two ways.   On the one hand, it gave many African Americans some experience of life outside of the United States.  This opened their eyes to new perspectives.  On the other hand, the war brought about a movement of many African Americans to cities in the North.  Once there, they were freed from many of the constraints of life in the more racially oppressive South.

Second, there was an influx of African Americans into Harlem.  Part of this influx was from the “Great Migration from the South.  However, some of the people moving into Harlem were from the Caribbean.  This, too, added to the broadening of horizons.  It also helped to create a sense of pan-African unity and identity such as was promoted by Marcus Garvey.

Finally, there was the “zeitgeist” of the 1920s.  This was a time when American society as a whole was in a boom period.  It was a time of excitement and new ways.  This would have helped promote the idea that African Americans, too, could experiment with new cultural forms.

All of these factors helped to bring about the Harlem Renaissance.

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