The Harlem Renaissance

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When considering a ’Renaissance’, it is natural to think of the developments which occurred in 15th and 16th Century Italy. The 1920s and 1930s movement in Harlem, New York is less likely to come to mind, but it was as culturally significant a moment in American history as its earlier counterpart had been for Europe. Following the Great Migration from the rural South, Harlem became a densely populated melting pot, where black excellence was showcased to all America. Just as the Italian Renaissance witnessed a rebirth of interest in classical philosophy, architecture and literature, as the Peninsula’s artists reflected on their Greco-Roman roots, the Harlem Renaissance saw a rebirth of all aspects of African American culture, as black people harnessed the frustrations of socio-economic oppression into art.

Spearheading the Harlem Renaissance were the black nationalists, who provided a political and philosophical framework in which the rest of the movement could take shape. W.E.B Du Bois had been the first black man to gain a PhD from Harvard, and he asserted that African Americans had a ‘double consciousness’. This referred to the psychological challenge that black people were faced with, as they viewed themselves through the lens of a racist white society. Du Bois concluded that this ‘double consciousness’ could be removed through “work, culture and liberty.” To further that aim, he established the Niagara Movement in 1905, which advocated political, civil and social rights for African Americans. Though this never gained mass support, many white liberals joined the Niagara ‘militants’ to establish the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909, following the 1908 Springfield Race Riot. Through editing the NAACP’s quarterly magazine, The Crisis, Du Bois created an important medium for young black writers during the Harlem Renaissance. Gradually, black people began drifting away from the philosophy of Booker T. Washington, who had argued that black people ought to accept discrimination in the short term in order to appease whites by contributing to the economy, towards Du Bois’ position that social change could only be achieved through ceaseless agitation and protest – ideas that still stimulate the movement today.

At the same time, black nationalism was also being fuelled by Marcus Garvey. Garvey had grown up in colonial Jamaica, where he had attended school until he was 14. On 1 August 1914, Garvey founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), which sought to build a black-governed nation in Africa. To further his cause, he emigrated to the United States and began establishing branches of the UNIA in Harlem. Dubbed “the Black Moses”, he had gained a following of around two million by 1919 and from Liberty Hall, Harlem, he promoted the idea of the “new Negro”, which encouraged people to be proud of being black. His newspaper, Negro World, further celebrated African culture. Garvey was convinced black people would only be respected once they had economic strength, and he argued that an independent black economy ought to be established within the framework of white capitalism. These views led to a series of disputes between Garvey and Du Bois. Garveyism, however, restored hope to African Americans who had previously become disenchanted with the American dream, and through the UNIA he built the largest mass movement among black people that the country had ever seen. Garvey’s activism only ended in 1922, when he was investigated by the justice department and arrested for mail fraud.

Alain Locke, a Harvard alumnus who had become the first black Rhodes scholar at Oxford, was one of many who expanded upon these ideas. He began supporting black artists, urging them to draw inspiration from their race. As the guest editor of the March 1925 issue of Survey Graphic (titled ‘Harlem, Mecca of the Negro’), he began educating white readers about Harlem’s blossoming culture. Later that year, Locke produced The New Negro, a landmark in black literature. The book was a collection of writings produced by him and other African American authors, and it put forth the argument that race was more an issue of society and culture than it was a hereditary issue. Locke asserted that African Americans should no longer accept discrimination and fuelled a resurgence in black self-confidence. The ideas and institutions established at the turn of the century by figures like Du Bois, Garvey and Locke laid the groundwork for the Harlem Renaissance.

The African American experience was further explored in literature by the enormously influential works of Langston Hughes. After graduating from high school in Cleveland, he wrote a poem, The Negro Speaks of Rivers, which spoke of the origins and history of the African race. When it was published in the NAACP’s Crisis in 1921, Hughes received great acclaim and, after studying at Columbia University, he moved to Harlem. The twenty-two-year-old was immediately attracted to the nightlife and, as he experienced “the great dark city”, he began incorporating jazz into his poetry when writing The Weary Blues. Hughes began spreading the Harlem Renaissance beyond the confines of New York, and in 1931 he toured the South and read his poetry to large audiences. In 1940, his autobiography, The Big Sea, gave his account of the “Black Renaissance” and this influenced how the movement was remembered. Yet Hughes also became concerned that people were too fixated on the superficial elements of the Harlem Renaissance, fearing that the art was being seen as an exotic spectacle which only reinforced black stereotypes. 

This art, however, was one of the main features of the Harlem Renaissance. Aaron Douglas had been born in Kansas, but he had moved to New York City in 1925. He soon joined the blossoming arts scene in Harlem and his distinctive style, a blend of cubism and traditional African art, soon attracted popular interest. His first major commission was to illustrate Alain Locke’s The New Negro, and this was soon followed by other requests from esteemed writers. His illustrations showed the aspirations of the ‘New Negro’ and conveyed the black struggle for political and creative freedom, and his murals framed the African American experience through the lens of the potential of fulfilling the American Dream. For his work highlighting racism and segregation through this visual medium, Douglas has since been hailed as “the Father of Black American Art.”

Black film and theatre also prospered in these years. From the age of ten, Zora Neale Hurston had lived in Eatonville, Florida, the first all-black town in America. Her authorial career began in 1920, when she published a series of short stories focusing on the experiences of black women – a direct challenge to the literary norms of the day. Five years later, having earned a scholarship to study anthropology at Barnard College, she moved to New York. During her time there, Hurston befriended other literary figures of the Harlem Renaissance, such as Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen and, though she struggled to gain mainstream attention, she generated a considerable following in the African American community. In addition to being a successful novelist, Hurston was also one of the first female African American dramatists, writing plays such as Color Struck (1926) and Mule Bone (1931). Though works were often not fully appreciated by contemporaries, she gained posthumous recognition towards the late 20th century and is now regarded as a revolutionary figure, who helped to protect the rights of African Americans through her novels, plays and anthropology.

Oscar Micheaux was born in 1884 in North Carolina, the son of a slave in Kentucky. Having defied the prejudices of the Hollywood film industry, Micheaux would go on to become the first African American feature filmmaker. His creations were ‘race films’, which had all black casts and featured contemporary black life, describing racial relationships and the struggle for black people to achieve success in wider society. They depicted discrimination, mob violence, economic exploitation, rape and lynching. Between 1919 and 1948, Micheaux wrote, produced, directed and distributed more than forty-five films for African American audiences, which were shown in 700 theatres around the ‘ghetto circuit’. By fighting against the negative portrayals of African Americans, Micheaux set a precedent for subsequent black filmmakers.

Finally, black music also gained a new level of appreciation during the Harlem Renaissance, as the Cotton Club popularised jazz artists such as the Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway. Opened in 1920 by Jack Johnson, the Club Deluxe (as it was then known) was taken over by Owen Madden two years later and renamed. From 1927, Duke Ellington and his orchestra performed as the house band at the venue, and Ellington soon became renowned for his ‘jungle style’, performing numbers such as the Mood Indigo, Black and Tan Fantasy, Creole Love Call and Rockin’ in Rhythm. Cab Calloway’s band took over in 1931, and they too were a hit. Calloway was a master of scat singing (vocal improvisation), and his best known song, Minnie the Moocher, featured on the Billboard Charts for five decades in a row. Other famed musicians who performed in the Cotton Club were Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters, Lena Horne, Bill Robinson and the Nicholas Brothers. The Cotton Club moved location after the Harlem Riots of 1935, before closing five years later. Both races enjoyed the music that Harlem was producing, but black people were not allowed in some of the clubs, and many white people only saw the entertainment value of African Americans. Jazz in Harlem reinforced negative stereotypes for its unorthodoxy and “voodoo” nature. However, it captured the black experience in a unique and inexplicable way.

The Harlem Renaissance was seminal. For the first time, mainstream publishers and critics paid serious heed to African American literature, art, music and politics, while African Americans redefined ‘the Negro’ by challenging white stereotypes with a sense of black pride. Though the movement was ultimately strangled by the Great Depression, the impact of the Harlem Renaissance was felt throughout the US and internationally, and it was truly a watershed moment in the history of black culture. It paved the way for Kendrick Lamar to express the duality of the black experience in America through his rap, and for Ava Duvernay to highlight racial injustice in her films. A century on from the Harlem Renaissance, black culture is more prominent in society, but it is still walking the tightrope between being celebrated and being appropriated.