Harlem Renaissance

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The Harlem Renaissance was a flowering of African-American social thought and culture based in the African-American community forming in Harlem in New York City (USA). This period, extending from roughly 1920 to 1940, was expressed through every cultural medium—visual art, dance, music, theatre, literature, poetry, history and politics. Instead of using direct political means, African-American artists, writers, and musicians employed culture to work for goals of civil rights and equality. Its lasting legacy is that for the first time (and across racial lines), African-American paintings, writings, and jazz became absorbed into mainstream culture. At the time, it was known as the "New Negro Movement", named after an anthology of notable African-American works entitled The New Negro and published by philosopher Alain Locke in 1925.


History of Cultural Revolution

Historical Roots of Harlem

In 1658, Dutch settlers formally incorporated a village on the northern tip of Manhattan Island, and christened it Nieuw Haarlem (New Haarlem) after the city of Haarlem in the Netherlands. From its origins until the latter half of the 19th Century, the area remained a rural farming community, many of the farms being owned by upper-class New Yorkers who resided only a few miles south in the lower sections of Manhattan. In 1880, elevated railroad lines were extended to Harlem, and their introduction gave birth to a rapid explosion in urban development. Early New York entrepreneurs created grand plans for Harlem, constructing fine townhouses, the original Polo Grounds (where polo was played before becoming home to the New York Giants baseball franchise), and in 1889 an opera house opened by theatre impresario Oscar Hammerstein I.

By the turn of the century, Harlem became an attractive location for immigrants, and by early 1900s the population was chiefly German, Eastern European, or Jewish in the west, and Italian in the east (where Spanish Harlem is now).

Development of Harlem as an African-American Community

Before relocating to Harlem, most of New York City's African-American population lived in neighborhoods like Tenderloin, San Juan Hill (Upper West Side), and Hell's Kitchen (now called Clinton). These neighborhoods were known as "Black Bohemia." Starting in 1904, several middle-class African American families abandoned Black Bohemia in favour of Harlem. This initiated a move north of educated African Americans and a foothold into Harlem. In 1910, a large block along 135th Street and Fifth Avenue was bought by various African-American realtors and a church group.

As World War I approached, unskilled European labor decreased so drastically that a shortage of labor ensued. To fill this void, large numbers of African-Americans from the Old South—attracted not only by the prospect of paid labor but an escape from the inherent inequities and institutional racism of the South.—relocated to New York City.

Emerging Black Identity

"The New Negro Has No Fear" — supporters of Marcus Garvey parade in Harlem during the U.N.I.A. convention in 1920
"The New Negro Has No Fear" — supporters of Marcus Garvey parade in Harlem during the U.N.I.A. convention in 1920

During the 1910s, a new political agenda advocating racial equality arose in the African-American community, particularly in its growing middle class. Championing the agenda were black historian and sociologist W.E.B. DuBois and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which was founded in 1909 to advance the rights of blacks. This agenda was also reflected in the efforts of Jamaican-born black nationalist Marcus Garvey, whose Back to Africa movement inspired racial pride among working-class blacks in the United States in the 1920s.

With the close of World War I, African-American soldiers (fighting in segregated regiments like the Harlem Hellfighters) returned home from the European front with a new sense of pride and purpose, and drove efforts to improving their communities and delving deep into expanding their social order through cultural endeavours in the new peace.

An Explosion of Culture in Harlem

African American literature and arts had begun a steady development just before the turn of the century. In the performing arts, black musical theatre featured such accomplished artists as songwriter Bob Cole and composer J. Rosamond Johnson (brother of writer James Weldon Johnson). Jazz and blues music moved with black populations from the South and Midwest into the bars and cabarets of Harlem. In literature, the poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar and the fiction of Charles W. Chesnutt in the late 1890s were among the earliest works of African-Americans to receive national recognition. By the end of World War I the fiction of James Weldon Johnson and the poetry of Claude McKay anticipated the literature that would follow in the 1920s by describing the reality of black life in America and the struggle for racial identity.

In the early 1920s three works signaled the new creative energy in African-American literature. Claude McKay's volume of poetry, Harlem Shadows (1922), became one of the first works by a black writer to be published by a mainstream, national publisher . Cane (1923), by Jean Toomer, was an experimental novel that combined poetry and prose in documenting the life of American blacks in the rural South and urban North. Finally, There Is Confusion (1924), the first novel by writer and editor Jessie Fauset, depicted middle class life among black Americans from a woman's perspective.

Aspiration (1936), a painting by Aaron Douglas, juxtaposes techniques of modernism in Western culture with nativistic African themes
Aspiration (1936), a painting by Aaron Douglas, juxtaposes techniques of modernism in Western culture with nativistic African themes

With these early works as the foundation, three events between 1924 and 1926 launched the Harlem Renaissance. First, on 21 March 1924, Charles S. Johnson of the National Urban League hosted a dinner to recognize the new literary talent in the black community and to introduce the young writers to New York's white literary establishment. As a result of this dinner, the Survey Graphic, a magazine of social analysis and criticism that was interested in cultural pluralism, produced a Harlem issue in March 1925. Devoted to defining the aesthetic of black literature and art, the Harlem issue featured work by black writers and was edited by black philosopher and literary scholar Alain Locke. Later that year Locke expanded the special issue into an anthology, The New Negro. The second event was the publication of Nigger Heaven (1926) by white novelist Carl Van Vechten. The book was a spectacularly popular exposé of Harlem life. Although the book offended some members of the black community, its coverage of both the elite and the baser sides of Harlem helped create a Negro vogue that drew thousands of sophisticated New Yorkers, black and white, to Harlem's exotic and exciting nightlife and stimulated a national market for African-American literature and music. Finally, in the Autumn of 1926 a group of young black writers produced their own literary magazine, Fire!! With Fire!!, a new generation of young writers and artists, including Langston Hughes, Wallace Thurman, and Zora Neale Hurston, emerged as an alternative group within the Renaissance.

Jazz in the Big Apple

(coming soon)

A Lasting Legacy: The Apollo Theater

While the Savoy Ballroom, on Lenox Avenue, was a renowned venue for swing dancing, and jazz and was immortalized in a popular song of the era, Stompin' At The Savoy, the Apollo Theater has been the most lasting legacy of the Harlem Renaissance. Opened on 125th Street on 26 January 1934, in a former burlesque house, it has remained a symbol of African-American culture. As one of the most famous clubs for popular music in the United States, many figures from the Harlem Renaissance found a venue for their talents and a start to their careers.

The careers of Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and James Brown, and later Michael Jackson and Lauryn Hill, were launched at the Apollo.

The club fell into a decline in the 1960s but was revived in 1983 through city, state, and federal grant money. It is now operated by a non-profit organization, the Apollo Theater Foundation Inc., and reportedly draws 1.3 million visitors annually. It is the home of Showtime at the Apollo, a nationally syndicated variety show showcasing new talent.

End of an Era

A number of factors contributed to the decline of the Harlem Renaissance by the mid-1930s. The Great Depression of the 1930s increased the economic pressure on all sectors of life. Organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Urban League, which had actively promoted the Renaissance in the 1920s, shifted their interests to economic and social issues in the 1930s. Many influential black writers and literary promoters, including Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson, Charles S. Johnson, and W.E.B. DuBois, left New York City in the early 1930s, most relocating to France. Finally, the Harlem Riot of 1935—set off in part by the growing economic hardship of the Depression and mounting tension between the black community and the white shop-owners in Harlem who profited from that community—shattered the notion of Harlem as the Mecca of the New Negro. In spite of these problems the Renaissance did not disappear overnight. Almost one-third of the books published during the Renaissance appeared after 1929. In the last analysis, the Harlem Renaissance ended when most of those associated with it left Harlem or stopped writing. Among the new young artists who appeared in the 1930s and 1940s, social realism replaced modernism and primitivism as the dominant mode of literary and artistic expression.

Diverse and Common Themes

No common literary style, artistic style or political ideology defined the Harlem Renaissance. What united participants was their sense of taking part in a common endeavor and their commitment to giving artistic expression to the African-American experience. Some common themes existed, such as an interest in the roots of the 20th-century African-American experience in Africa and the American South, and a strong sense of racial pride and desire for social and political equality. But the most characteristic aspect of the Harlem Renaissance was the diversity of its expression.

Some common themes presented in the Harlem Renaissance are: alienation; marginality of blacks through institutional racism and the attempt to integrate into a diverse community; the use of African folk material; the blues tradition; and the paradox of writing or performing for elite audiences. However, the Renaissance was more than a literary or artistic movement; it possessed a certain sociological development—particularly through a new racial consciousness—through racial pride, as seen the efforts of Marcus Garvey. However, W.E.B DuBois's notion of "twoness", first introduced in The Souls of Black Folks (1903), explored a divided awareness of one's identity which provided a unique critique of the social ramifications of this racial consciousness

The diverse literary expression of the Harlem Renaissance ranged from Langston Hughes's weaving of the rhythms of African-American music into his poems of ghetto life, as in The Weary Blues (1926), to Claude McKay's use of the sonnet form as the vehicle for his impassioned poems attacking racial violence, as in If We Must Die (1919). McKay also presented glimpses of the glamour and the grit of Harlem life in the abovementioned Harlem Shadows. Countee Cullen used both African and European images to explore the African roots of black American life. In the poem Heritage (1925), for example, Cullen discusses being both a Christian and an African, yet not belonging fully to either tradition. Quicksand (1928), by novelist Nella Larsen, offered a powerful psychological study of an African American woman's loss of identity.

Diversity and experimentation also flourished in the performing arts and were reflected in the blues singing of Bessie Smith and in jazz music. Jazz ranged from the marriage of blues and ragtime by pianist Jelly Roll Morton to the instrumentation of bandleader Louis Armstrong and the orchestration of composer Duke Ellington. In the visual arts, Aaron Douglas adopted a deliberately "primitive" style and incorporated African images in his paintings and illustrations.

Impact of the Harlem Renaissance

A New Black Identity

Langston Hughes, novelist and poet, photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1936
Langston Hughes, novelist and poet, photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1936

The Harlem Renaissance was so successful that it proceeded to bring the Black experience into the corpus of American cultural history. The legacy of the Harlem Renaissance--not only on the cultural but also on a sociological level--is that it redefined how America, and the world, viewed the African-American population. The migration of southern Blacks to the north changed the image of the African-American from rural, undereducated peasants to one of urban, cosmopolitan sophistication. This new identity led to a greater social consciousness, and African-Americans became players on the world stage, expanding intellectual and social contacts internationally.

The progress—both symbolic and real—during this period, became a point of reference from which the African-American community gained a spirit of self-determination that provided a growing sense of both Black urbanity and Black militancy as well as a foundation for the community to build upon for the Civil Rights struggles in the 1950s and 1960s.

The urban setting of rapidly developing Harlem provided a venue for African-Americans of all backgrounds to appreciate the variety of Black life and culture. Through this expression, the Harlem Renaissance encouraged the new appreciation of folk roots and culture. For instance, folk materials and spirituals provided a rich source for the artistic and intellectual imagination and it freed the Blacks from the establishment of past condition. Through sharing in these cultural experiences, a consciousness sprung forth in the form of a unified racial identity.

Criticism of the Movement

Many critics point out that the Harlem Renaissance could not escape its history and culture in its attempt to create a new one, or sufficiently separate itself from the foundational elements of White, European culture. Often Harlem intellectuals, while proclaiming a new racial consciousness, resorted to mimicry of their White counterparts by adopting their manner of clothing, sophisticated manners and etiquette. This abandonment of the authentic culture of their African roots was seen as hypocritical, and intellectuals who engaged in such mimicry earned the epithet "dicty niggers" from disillusioned blacks. This could be seen as a reason by which the artistic and cultural products of the Harlem Renaissance did not overcome the presence of White-American values, and did not reject these values. In this regard, the creation of the "New Negro" as the Harlem intellectuals sought, was considered a failure.

The Harlem Renaissance appealed to a mixed audience. The literature appealed to the African-American middle class and to whites. Magazines such as The Crisis, a monthly journal of the NAACP, and Opportunity, an official publication of the National Urban League, employed Harlem Renaissance writers on their editorial staffs; published poetry and short stories by black writers; and promoted African-American literature through articles, reviews, and annual literary prizes. As important as these literary outlets were, however, the Renaissance relied heavily on white publishing houses and white-owned magazines. In fact, a major accomplishment of the Renaissance was to push open the door to mainstream white periodicals and publishing houses, although the relationship between the Renaissance writers and white publishers and audiences created some controversy. W.E.B. DuBois did not oppose the relationship between black writers and white publishers, but he was critical of works such as Claude McKay's bestselling novel Home to Harlem (1928) for appealing to the "prurient demand[s]" of white readers and publishers for portrayals of black "licentiousness." Langston Hughes spoke for most of the writers and artists when he wrote in his essay The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain (1926) that black artists intended to express themselves freely, no matter what the black public or white public thought.

African American musicians and other performers also played to mixed audiences. Harlem's cabarets and clubs attracted both Harlem residents and white New Yorkers seeking out Harlem nightlife. Harlem's famous Cotton Club, where Duke Ellington performed, carried this to an extreme, by providing black entertainment for exclusively white audiences. Ultimately, the more successful black musicians and entertainers who appealed to a mainstream audience moved their performances downtown.

The Savoy Ballroom on Lenox Avenue in Harlem
The Savoy Ballroom on Lenox Avenue in Harlem

Certain aspects of the Harlem Renaissance were accepted without question, without debate, and without scrutiny. One of these was the future of the "New Negro." Artists and intellectuals of the Harlem Renaissance echoed the American progressivism in its faith in democratic reform, in its belief in art and literature as agents of change, and in its almost uncritical belief in itself and its future. This progressivist worldview rendered Black intellectuals—just as their White counterparts— totally unprepared for the rude shock of the Great Depression, and the Harlem Renaissance ended abruptly because of naive assumptions about the centrality of culture, unrelated to economic and social realities.

However, what emerges as a chief criticism of the Harlem Renaissance is that while African-American culture became absorbed into the mainstream American culture, a strange separation emerged of the Black community from American culture. As African-Americans with roots in this country dating to beginning of the North American slave trade in the early 17th Century, their worldview is distinctly native. Blacks, unlike other immigrants, had no immediate past, history and culture to celebrate as they were separated by generations from their roots in Africa. Some would argue that the positive implications of American nativity have never been fully appreciated by most African-Americans, especially given that the African-American's history and culture is, arguably, more completely American than most other ethnic groups within the United States.

Influence on Culture Today

The Harlem Renaissance changed forever the dynamics of African-American arts and literature in the United States. The writers that followed in the 1930s and 1940s found that publishers and the public were more open to African American literature than they had been at the beginning of the century. Furthermore, the existence of the body of African American literature from the period inspired writers such as Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright to pursue literary careers in the late 1930s and the 1940s, even if they defined themselves against the various ideologies and literary practices of the Renaissance. The outpouring of African American literature of the 1980s and 1990s by such writers as Alice Walker and Toni Morrison also had its roots in the writing of the Harlem Renaissance. The influence of the Harlem Renaissance themes and the richness of African American culture has also been expressed through new media, as is seen in the films of director Spike Lee.

The influence of the Harlem Renaissance was not confined to the United States. Writers Claude McKay, Langston Hughes, and Countee Cullen, actor and musician Paul Robeson, dancer Josephine Baker, and others traveled to Europe and attained a popularity abroad that rivaled or surpassed what they achieved in the United States. The founders of the Négritude movement in the French Caribbean traced their ideas directly to the influence of Hughes and McKay. South African writer Peter Abrahams cited his youthful discovery of the anthology The New Negro as the event that turned him toward a career as a writer. For thousands of blacks around the world, the Harlem Renaissance was proof that whites did not hold a monopoly on literature and culture.

Notable Figures and their Works




Painting and Sculpture



Intellectual and Social Thought


"Negro life is seizing upon its first chances for group expression and self-determination."
Alain Locke, in The New Negro (1925)
"Harlem is indeed the great Mecca for the sight-seer; the pleasure seeker, the curious, the adventurous, the enterprising, the ambitious and the talented of the whole Negro world."
James Weldon Johnson, in Survey Graphic (1925)
"One ever feels his two-ness - an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled stirrings: two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder."
W.E.B. DuBois, in The Souls of Black Folks (1903)
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
Langston Hughes, Montage of a Dream Deferred (published 1951)
"The Complex of color...every colored man feels it sooner or later. It gets in the way of his dreams, of his education, of his marriage, of the rearing of his children."
Jessie Redmon Fauset, There is Confusion (1924)


Background Information

  • Houston A. Baker, Jr. Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance (University of Chicago Press, 1989) ISBN 0226035255
  • Lionel C. Bascom, A Renaissance in Harlem : Lost Essays of the WPA, by Ralph Ellison, Dorothy West, and Other Voices of a Generation (Amistad, 2001) ISBN 0380799022
  • Mary Schmidt Campbell, Harlem Renaissance : Art of Black America (Abrams, 1994) ISBN 0810981289
  • Nathan Irvin Huggins, Harlem Renaissance (Oxford University Press, 1973) ISBN 0195016653
  • Nathan Irvin Huggins, Voices from the Harlem Renaissance (Oxford University Press, 1995) ISBN 0195093607
  • George Hutchinson, The Harlem Renaissance in Black and White (Belknap, 1997) ISBN 0674372638
  • David Levering Lewis, When Harlem Was in Vogue (Penguin, 1997) ISBN 0140263349
  • Alain Locke, The New Negro (1925)
  • Steven Watson, The Harlem Renaissance : Hub of African-American Culture, 1920-1930 (Pantheon, 1996) ISBN 0679758895
  • Cary D. Wintz, Black Culture and the Harlem Renaissance (University of Texas Press, 1997) ISBN 089096761X

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