The Harlem Renaissance had social and historical causes, among them the arrival to Harlem of many rural, Southern, African Americans who were migrating to the urban North in search of better economic and social conditions. World War I and the generally improving economy of the 1920’s inspired hope of finding jobs and a better life in New York City. Most of the writers, artists, and musicians of the Harlem Renaissance were born elsewhere. Their creations did not always center on Harlem, either, but the acknowledged focal point of African American culture during the 1920’s and 1930’s was Harlem.
Early in the twentieth century, hundreds of thousands of African Americans fled poverty and racial discrimination in the South to search for employment in northern cities. In their new northern homes, they gained a feeling of freedom, relieved of some of the weight of southern oppression, and some of them began to express themselves in artistic ways. During the 1920’s, many of these artists were drawn to the Harlem district of New York City, which gave birth to a flurry of creativity so fresh and so productive that it became known as the Harlem Renaissance.
The Harlem Renaissance involved artists from all realms of the creative world: painters, sculptors, poets, novelists, actors, screenwriters, and musicians. Magazines such as The Crisis, a publication of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and Opportunity, the official publication of the National Urban League, were among the first to publish works by African American writers, poets, and essayists. Renaissance writers drew on common cultural experiences to create an elevated awareness and appreciation of their unique heritage. Jamaican immigrant Claude McKay gained a large audience with Harlem Shadows in 1922. McKay’s popularity was soon matched by other writers, including Jean Toomer (Cane, 1923) and James Weldon Johnson (The Book of American Negro Poetry, 1922). Author Langston Hughes became unofficial spokesperson for the Harlem Renaissance and its most prolific writer, publishing more than fifty books. In his works, he gave poetry a new jazz beat and spoke of African American experiences and emotions.
Renaissance sculptors and painters looked away from European masters to African art for inspiration. Painters such as Aaron Douglas, Palmer Hayden, and William H. Johnson and sculptors such as Meta Warrick Fuller, Selma Burke, and Richmond Barthe concentrated on ancestral rituals and dance, native customs and folklore, slave experiences, and themes of African American urban life.
In 1920, actor Charles Gilpin appeared in Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones. A few years later, Paul Robeson debuted on Broadway in a revival of that play and then appeared in the title role in William Shakespeare’s Othello. He received nationwide acclaim for his role in Showboat in 1927. African American musicians demonstrated why the 1920’s was known as the Jazz Age. Louis Armstrong brought New Orleans jazz to popular audiences, and Duke Ellington developed big-band jazz into a new art form.
The Harlem Renaissance coincided with a highly xenophobic age in the United States. The Ku Klux Klan reached new heights of popularity, and lynchings occurred in the South at an alarming rate. However, African American artists received encouragement and financial support from many members of the white community, and audiences nationwide showed new interest in the art forms produced in a small area of Manhattan. As Hughes wrote, “The Negro was in vogue.” White patrons flocked to Harlem to attend shows, readings, and exhibitions.
The economic devastation of the Great Depression in 1930 ended a significant portion of the financial support Harlem artists had received, and audiences and patrons decreased in number. Though the quantity of artistic expression diminished during the 1930’s, the cultural awareness and racial pride inspired by the Harlem Renaissance continued.
Redefining African American Identity
Harlem Renaissance writers boldly rejected prevalent stereotypes that portrayed African Americans as nothing more than pitiable societal problems. Harlem Renaissance...
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