The Harlem Renaissance is the name given to the African-American literary, artistic, and intellectual movement that took place in the New York City district of Harlem, which became its centre, spanning the years after World War One to the mid-1930s. It was a notable historical period for African-Americans as their creative endeavours were, for the first time, met with considerable white recognition. African Americans greatly increased their cultural output with their newfound expression in literary, visual, and performing arts, producing a great body of literary works, paintings, sculptures, music etc. which were to help them shatter the notions of marginality and alienation ever bound to them by the concept of white supremacy. Although quite short-lasting in terms of being a cultural epoch, this movement saw such rekindling of the African-American personality and cultural identity. Through the Harlem Renaissance, African-Americans also nourished an overt racial pride and established the notion of the New Negro, implying the refusal of submission to the racist Jim Crow practices and laws. The objective of this essay will be to inform the reader on the topic of the Harlem Renaissance and its importance for African-Americans during the early 20th century.
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This sudden outburst of African-American creativity in the early 20th century, which is the Harlem Renaissance, happened due to several factors coming together. After the official end of slavery in 1865, the freed African-Americans “began to strive for civic participation, political equality and economic and cultural self-determination” (Hordan, 2013, str. p. 251) but, venturing into the 20th century, they still found themselves struggling against the white supremacist regimes of Jim Crow in the South. These former slaves began to migrate in great numbers from the South to the North in hopes of escaping such racist treatment, including frequent lynch mobs, race riots etc., setting into motion what became known as the Great Migration. This was, perhaps, the most important factor which lay the foundation for the Harlem Renaissance as, in its course, the African-American population in the North had increased tremendously, literally overwhelming industrial cities like Chicago, Detroit, and New York. The immigration stop in World War One caused a high demand for labour which, as well, encouraged African-Americans in moving to the urban areas of the North. There were others still: exiles from Africa, people of African descent from the Caribbean – they had all found themselves converging in places like Harlem after World War One, giving the whole Renaissance an important diverse international core.“They were hoping to find better jobs, more opportunities for education and, most importantly, a better climate of interracial relationship.” (Kramer, 2007)
The Northerners did not welcome the migratory African-Americans with open arms as they flooded the employment market and lowered wages, not to mention any prejudices. “Most migrants found themselves segregated by practice in run down urban slums. The largest of these was Harlem.” (U.S. History). But Harlem was “not merely the largest Negro community in the world, but the first concentration in history of so many diverse elements of Negro life.” (Locke, 1925). As such, it was a sort of a catalyst for the Renaissance itself and became its symbolic capital. The educated African-Americans settled in Harlem in increasing numbers, turning it into the political and cultural centre of black America as a whole. Harlem’s very location in the New York City, the communications capital of North America, proved to provide the New Negroes with “visibility and opportunities for publication not evident elsewhere” (Arora, 2015), transforming it into a fertile ground for cultural experimentation through which African-Americans would make false the common belief that they are uncivilized people, ones without culture. The Renaissance was in no way confined to Harlem; it spread itself well beyond.
Another important factor was the increased political and self-awareness amongst the African-American population at the time. They realized that racial equality would not happen by itself; it was necessary for them to become active to advance their rights and, in this name, organizations like the NAACP emerged. Even though the intent of the Harlem Renaissance was not political but aesthetic, it was closely related to such civil rights and reform organizations. They published African-American artists and served as mediators between them and the white publishing industry as the principal requirement for the success of this African-American artistic endeavor, the Harlem Renaissance, was the interest and support of white Americans like Carl Van Vechten and Charlotte Osgood Mason.“While the Renaissance built on earlier traditions of African American culture, it was profoundly affected by trends – such as primitivism – in European and white American artistic circles,” (Hutchinson, 1996), and the branching towards abstractionism among the European avant-garde artists in the early 20th century. The inspiration was drawn from Africans and their descendants in the belief that primitive people enjoy “a more direct relationship to the natural world and to elemental human desires” (Cromwell, 15th century), than civilized ones and that authentic expression could be found in the cultures of such primitive races. This caused “African American intellectuals to look on their African heritage with new eyes and in many cases with a desire to reconnect with a heritage long despised or misunderstood by both whites and blacks.” (Hutchinson, 1996). An artistic revolution came to being, one enkindling a long-dormant racial pride.
Whereas the uneducated part of the African-American community attempted to fight the pervading racism only or largely through militancy, educated African-Americans believed they had to find alternative ways of breaking free from the long-standing prejudices concerning their race. During the Harlem Renaissance, African-Americans turned to their cultural heritage and traditions expressing and affirming themselves through a plethora of artistic work. They believed that by showing intellectual competence through “an increased cultural output [it] would work against the American notion of white supremacy.” (Kramer, 2007) The writing of literature, the composing and performing of music and the production of visual arts ignited an explosion of cultural pride which uplifted the race and spread the image of the New Negro which “symbolized black liberation […] and the final shaking off of the residuals of slavery in the mind, spirit and character. […] This new man shed the costume of the shuffling darky, the uncle and aunty, the subservient and docile retainer, the clown; he was a man and a citizen in his own right: intelligent, articulate, self-assured and urban.” (Huggins, 2015). In this sense, the Harlem Renaissance contributed greatly to the way African-Americans perceived themselves and to the revival of their culture, but ultimately it did little concerning the rigid barriers of Jim Crow that continued to separate the races.
The most important names related to the Harlem Renaissance include those of Jean Toomer, Langston Hughes, Rudolf Fisher, Wallace Thurman, Jessie Redmon Fauset, Nella Larsen, Arna Bontemps, Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, Alain Locke, Zora Neale Hurston, James Weldon Johnson and others. The Renaissance was related to the New Negro Movement because of Alain Locke’s essay “The New Negro” (1925), the year some take as the actual beginning of the Harlem Renaissance, in which he tried to raise awareness about the newfound African-American self-confidence. Locke stressed “a turn away from social protest or propaganda towards self-expression built on what he termed ‘folk values” (Wallenfeldt, 2010), i.e. African and African-American traditions. The artists of the Harlem Renaissance developed distinct aesthetic tendencies inspired by these folk values.
Regarding poetry, Countee Cullen “came to resist any suggestion that his racial background should determine his notion of poetic inheritance” (U.S. History) and remained devoted to examples of Anglo-American poetry, whereas Langston Hughes announced in his manifesto “The Negro Artist” and the “Racial Mountain” (1926) that African-American poets should create a distinctive Negro art. Cullen believed that great poetry must transcend racial identity so he did not dwell much on racial subjects in his poems with the exception of ”Heritage”(1925), ” Incident”(1925), and “From the Dark Tower”(1925); ironically, his most memorable ones. Among other African-American poets who continued to write in traditional English literary forms was Claude McKay – a Jamaican immigrant and radical socialist whose works blended “a romantic sensibility with a race-conscious and, at times, revolutionary one” (U.S. History). His poems of political invective like “If We Must Die”, were his most famous but he also wrote about love, exile and nostalgia for his homeland, like “The Tropics in New York”, or “Harlem Dancer”.
Hughes, on the other hand, explored black vernacular speech and lyrical forms and tried to identify with the African-American masses. Instead of just writing about social prejudices, he celebrated the African-American lifestyle and wrote about the hardships of being African-American. He stated that “there is so much richness in Negro humor, so much beauty in black dreams, so much dignity in our struggle and so much universality in our problems, in us—in each living human being of color—that I do not understand the tendency today […] of running away from us, of being afraid to sing our own songs, paint our pictures, write about ourselves…” (Centennial, 2002), Jean Toomer experimented with lyrical modifications of prose form in his book “Cane” (1923), infusing its structure with tones and rhythms of African-American folk music and jazz. Arna Bontemps also drew inspiration from folklore – spirituals, blues, and jazz – and wrote about the despair of slavery and the African-American man’s experience such as in his poems “Southern Mansion”, and “A Black Man Speaks of Reaping”. African-American women poets also contributed greatly to the Renaissance as Alice Dunbar Nelson, Georgia Douglas Johnson and the likes “negotiated a number of difficulties concerning gender and tradition as they sought to extricate themselves from stereotypes of hyper-sexuality and primitive abandon. They worked variously within and against inherited constraints concerning the treatment of love and nature as well as racial experience in poetry.” ( Britannica Online Encyclopedia, 2015)
Concerning literature, it appeared to be highly modernist – focused on contemporary life, its downsides and instability.“The novelists of the Renaissance explored the diversity of black experience across boundaries of class, colour, and gender while implicitly or explicitly protesting anti-black racism.” ( Britannica Online Encyclopedia, 2015), W.E.B Du Bois, an American sociologist, historian and civil rights activist, used literature to motivate African-Americans and promote peace between the races, and his works represent a defining text of the New Negro Movement. His collection of essays “The Souls of Black Folk” (1903) helped show the potential and intellect of African-Americans that later sparked the Harlem Renaissance while his “Dark Princess” (1928) and McKay’s “Banjo” (1929) are politically radical novels which “show the strong influence of Marxism and the anti-imperialist movements of the early 20thcentury, and both place their hopes in the revolutionary potential of transnational solidarity to end what they consider to be the corrupt and decadent rule of Western culture.” ( Britannica Online Encyclopedia, 2015)
Nella Larsen and Rudolph Fisher’s works “explores issues of racial psychology, class, and sexuality in the modern city,” (Wallenfeldt, 2010), like her novels “Quicksand” (1928) and “Passing” (1929), while Jessie Redmon Fauset “advanced themes of racial uplift, patriotism, optimism for the future, and black solidarity.” (U.S. History). Through Zora Neale Hurston’s works the truth about African-American Southern experience was exposed and her novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God” (1937) is regarded as one of the hallmark achievements of the Harlem Renaissance. In the novel, she “treats the maturation of Janie Crawford through a series of relationships and dramatic experiences while using a free indirect discourse […] that melds vernacular language and folk motifs with a more standard ‘literary’ voice.” ( Britannica Online Encyclopedia, 2015), Wallace Thurman’s novels “The Blacker the Berry” (1929) and “Infants of the Spring” (1932) are considered comments on the failure of the Harlem Renaissance as they “direct fundamentally satirical barbs at the contradictions in American racial culture and at the Negro Renaissance itself.” (U.S. History).
Drama of the Harlem Renaissance showed “a steady development of dramatic form, with folk drama becoming a successful vehicle of reflection on the nature and significance of the black American experience that often included an indictment of white institutions” (U.S. History), and by the mid-1930s, African-Americans achieved a significant foothold in American theatre. The drama of the period had as an objective the overcoming of the stereotypes created through the decades of blackface minstrelsy, a type of theatrical comic entertainment, which severely damaged and constrained theatrical presentation of African-Americans. Among the playwrights were Dunbar Nelson, Hurston, Georgia Douglas Johnson, Hughes, Willis Richardson, Randolph Edmonds etc. The most prolific among them was Richardson whose plays were about folk experience in the South, oftentimes carrying an educational or encouraging message. Some of his more significant plays include “Compromise: A Folk Play” (1925) and “Broken Banjo” (1925). Hurston’s plays were also greatly inspired by Southern folklore but she used humour and exaggeration in depicting African-American life to such an extent that they actually reinforced stereotypes. The Renaissance’s most successful play was Hughes’s “Mullato” (1935) which dealt with the tragic consequences of a white man’s inability to acknowledge his only children because they are mulatto i.e. have both black and white ancestry.
In art, the Harlem Renaissance artists “attempted to win control over representation of their people from white caricature and denigration while developing a new repertoire of images,” (U.S. History), and had developed styles which looked back on the African traditions or, simply, folk art. The most famous artist of the Harlem Renaissance was Aaron Douglas whose “stylized, silhouette-like rendering of recognizably black characters, imbued with qualities of spiritual yearning and racial pride, became closely identified with the Harlem Renaissance generally.” (U.S. History). His work best demonstrates the New Negro philosophy and he is considered to be the father of African-American art. He said that “[…] our problem is to conceive, develop, establish an art era. Not white art painting black… let’s bare our arms and plunge them deep through laughter, through pain, through sorrow, through hope, through disappointment, into the very depths of the souls of our people and drag forth material crude, rough, neglected. Then let’s sing it, dance it, write it, paint it. Let’s do the impossible. Let’s create something transcendentally material, mystically objective. Earthy. Spiritually earthy. Dynamic.” (Urton). These very words describe, perhaps most eloquently, the very idea behind every aspect of art in the Harlem Renaissance, be it visual, performing or literary arts.
The Harlem Renaissance was an African-American artistic, literary and intellectual movement that took place in the New York district of Harlem; it was considered a phenomenon, party because it appeared at a time when racism was still at large. It represents the blossoming of authentic African-American culture which celebrates the return to African traditions. Through Harlem Renaissance African-Americans affirmed their cultural identity and their personality which led to opposition of white supremacy and the pervading stereotypes regarding their race and culture. Although ulimately achieving little in abolishing racism, it played a huge part in the development of African-American pride and is a historical period of the utmost importance for the whole of African-American people and their development of their own identity.
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