The Harlem Renaissance was an artistic, literary, musical and theatrical movement that began in the late 1920s and lasted for about 10 years. A blossoming of the African American culture is also called the Negro Renaissance, the New Negro Movement, or the Jazz Age. (1) This creative activity occupied almost all spheres of art and demonstrated the unique culture of African Americans. The movement influenced the later African American literature and had a significant impact on consciousness worldwide. The Harlem Renaissance was a cultural awakening, the reborn and rise of the intellectuals and great artists.
The Harlem Renaissance was a part of a larger movement that had begun in the early 20th century. It was caused by several factors: the Great Migration of African Americans from the rural places to urban spaces, the rise of literacy, creation of socioeconomic opportunities and various organizations aimed at defending the civil rights. (2) The movement is unusual among other artistic and literary activities for its close relationship to the reform groups and civil rights. The migration, combined with the trends in American society and the activity of the radical intellectuals (including Locke, Marcus Garvey, W.E.B. Du Bois) contributed to the success of black artists. Writers, artists, actors, musicians praised African American traditions and created the new ones at the same time.
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Situating the Harlem Renaissance in space can be quite difficult. Surely, Harlem is central to the movement, but it doesn’t serve as its only location. The New Negro Movement spread across the USA, the Caribbean, and the world. Harlem was the artistic capital of black America, it contained the infrastructure to develop and support the arts. However, despite its size, infrastructure and physical presence, the relation of Harlem to Renaissance is really complex. It was a rapidly growing black metropolis, but its residents lived on the edge of poverty experiencing crimes, drug addiction and debts. The problem was that talented young people migrated to the north to find a better life, but Harlem failed to resolve their problems and fulfill their dreams. In spite of this, the city continued to be a center of nightlife, a fertile place for cultural experiments.
The most popular writer of the movement was Langston Hughes. He wrote with the rhythmic meter of blues and jazz. Claude Mckey asked African Americans to stand up for their rights. Lean Toomer wrote plays and poems that demonstrated the spirit of his time. No aspect of the Renaissance shaped America as jazz. The citizens visited concerts every night to see the same performers. Harlem’s Cotton Club was a popular place for improvisation performances that were so beloved by the city dwellers. Such talented singers as Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith popularized the blues and jazz vocals. (3)
The Harlem Renaissance was primarily a literary movement that later influenced all African American creative arts. The artists aimed to show the African American experience and believed in racial equality, however, they had no common artistic style, political or social beliefs. This movement was free of any general manifesto. The Harlem Renaissance was the first time when critics and publishers took the African American literature seriously and it was the first time when it attracted so much attention of the public. The end of the movement varies from one artistic field to another. In musical theatre, black performers and musicians continued to work till the World War II era. In art, the artist continued to work after the 1930th, but their work was not associated with the Harlem Renaissance. In literature, a number of figures went silent, left Harlem, or died. Surely, some continued to write and publish their works, but there was no feeling that they belonged to the movement. In any case, few people were talking about the Harlem Renaissance by the mid-1930s. (4)
Harlem Renaissance is considered as the “golden age” of the black art. The level of cultural production and artistic rise cannot be overestimated. The movement influenced the future generations of writers, musicians and artists, and laid the groundwork for future art.
Harlem Renaissance, a blossoming (c. 1918–37) of African American culture, particularly in the creative arts, and the most influential movement in African American literary history. Embracing literary, musical, theatrical, and visual arts, participants sought to reconceptualize “the Negro” apart from the white stereotypes that had influenced black peoples’ relationship to their heritage and to each other. They also sought to break free of Victorian moral values and bourgeois shame about aspects of their lives that might, as seen by whites, reinforce racist beliefs. Never dominated by a particular school of thought but rather characterized by intense debate, the movement laid the groundwork for all later African American literature and had an enormous impact on subsequent black literature and consciousness worldwide. While the renaissance was not confined to the Harlem district of New York City, Harlem attracted a remarkable concentration of intellect and talent and served as the symbolic capital of this cultural awakening.
The Harlem Renaissance was a phase of a larger New Negro movement that had emerged in the early 20th century and in some ways ushered in the civil rights movement of the late 1940s and early 1950s. The social foundations of this movement included the Great Migration of African Americans from rural to urban spaces and from South to North; dramatically rising levels of literacy; the creation of national organizations dedicated to pressing African American civil rights, “uplifting” the race, and opening socioeconomic opportunities; and developing race pride, including pan-African sensibilities and programs. Black exiles and expatriates from the Caribbean and Africa crossed paths in metropoles such as New York City and Paris after World War I and had an invigorating influence on each other that gave the broader “Negro renaissance” (as it was then known) a profoundly important international cast.
The Harlem Renaissance is unusual among literary and artistic movements for its close relationship to civil rights and reform organizations. Crucial to the movement were magazines such as The Crisis, published by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); Opportunity, published by the National Urban League; and The Messenger, a socialist journal eventually connected with the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, a black labour union. Negro World, the newspaper of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association, also played a role, but few of the major authors or artists identified with Garvey’s “Back to Africa” movement, even if they contributed to the paper.
The renaissance had many sources in black culture, primarily of the United States and the Caribbean, and manifested itself well beyond Harlem. As its symbolic capital, Harlem was a catalyst for artistic experimentation and a highly popular nightlife destination. Its location in the communications capital of North America helped give the “New Negroes” visibility and opportunities for publication not evident elsewhere. Located just north of Central Park, Harlem was a formerly white residential district that by the early 1920s was becoming virtually a black city within the borough of Manhattan. Other boroughs of New York City were also home to people now identified with the renaissance, but they often crossed paths in Harlem or went to special events at the 135th Street Branch of the New York Public Library. Black intellectuals from Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and other cities (where they had their own intellectual circles, theatres, and reading groups) also met in Harlem or settled there. New York City had an extraordinarily diverse and decentred black social world in which no one group could monopolize cultural authority. As a result, it was a particularly fertile place for cultural experimentation.
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. Modernist primitivism was inspired partly by Freudian psychology, but it tended to extol “primitive” peoples as enjoying a more direct relationship to the natural world and to elemental human desires than “overcivilized” whites. The keys to artistic revolution and authentic expression, some intellectuals felt, would be found in the cultures of “primitive races,” and preeminent among these, in the stereotypical thinking of the day, were the cultures of sub-Saharan Africans and their descendants. Early in the 20th century, European avant-garde artists had drawn inspiration from African masks as they broke from realistic representational styles toward abstraction in painting and sculpture. The prestige of such experiments 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.