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Everyone knows about the Roaring Twenties, which were nowhere as apparent as in Harlem, New York City! This era particularly took hold in the African-American community where artists, musicians, and philosophers met to celebrate new ideas, explore new freedoms, and artistically experiment.
Content warning: the following text contextualises the lived experiences of the African American community during the Harlem Renaissance (c. 1918–1937). The inclusion of certain terms may be deemed offensive to some readers.
The Harlem Renaissance was an artistic movement that lasted roughly from 1918 to 1937 and centred in the Harlem neighbourhood of Manhattan in New York City. The movement led to the development of Harlem as the heart of an explosive revival of African American arts and culture, including, but not limited to, literature, art, music, theatre, politics, and fashion.
Black writers, artists and scholars sought to redefine 'the Negro' in the cultural consciousness, moving away from racial stereotypes created by a white-dominant society. The Harlem Renaissance formed an invaluable foundation for developing African American literature and consciousness through to the Civil Rights movement that happened decades later.
We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too.
('The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain' (1926), Langston Hughes)
To understand the Harlem Renaissance and its importance, we must consider its beginnings. The movement began after a period called 'The Great Migration' during the 1910s when many formerly enslaved people in the South moved north in search of work opportunities and greater freedoms after the Reconstruction Era of the late 1800s. In the urban spaces of the North, many African Americans were allowed greater social mobility and became part of communities that created invigorating conversations about Black culture, politics, and art.
The Reconstruction Era (1865–77) was a period that followed the American Civil War, during which the Southern states of the Confederacy were readmitted to the Union. At this time, attempts were also made to redress the inequalities of slavery, which had just been outlawed.
Harlem, only encompassing three square miles of northern Manhattan, became the epicentre of Black revival where artists and intellectuals gathered and shared thoughts. Because of New York City's famed multiculturalism and diversity, Harlem provided fertile ground for the cultivation of new ideas and the celebration of Black culture. The neighbourhood became the symbolic capital of the movement; though a formerly white, upper-class area, by the 1920s Harlem became the perfect catalyst for cultural and artistic experimentation.
Many figures were involved in the Harlem Renaissance. In the context of literature, many Black authors and poets flourished during the movement, combining the traditional forms of Western narrative and poetry with African American culture and folk traditions.
Langston Hughes is a major poet and central figure of the Harlem Renaissance. His early works were seen as some of the most important artistic endeavours of the period. His first collection of poetry, The Weary Blues, and his widely revered manifesto 'The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain', both published in 1926, were often referred to as cornerstones of the movement. In the essay, he proclaims that there should be a distinct 'Negro Voice' that confronts the 'urge within the race towards whiteness', encouraging Black poets to use their own culture as artistic materials in a revolutionary stance against the domination of 'whiteness' in art.
In developing this 'Negro Voice', Hughes was an early pioneer of jazz poetry, incorporating phrases and rhythms of jazz music into his writing, infusing Black culture with traditional literary form. Much of Hughes' poetry heavily evokes jazz and blues songs of the period, even becoming reminiscent of spirituals, another important genre of Black music.
Jazz poetry incorporates jazz-like rhythms, syncopated beats, and phrases. Its advent during the Harlem Renaissance developed further during the Beat era and even into modern-day literary phenomenons in hip-hop music and live 'poetry slams'.
Hughes' poetry further explored domestic themes, paying particular attention to working-class Black Americans in a notably non-stereotypical way by exploring its hardships and joys in equal parts. In his second poetry collection, Fine Clothes to the Jew (1927), Hughes dons a working-class persona and uses the blues as a poetry form, incorporating Black vernacular lyrical and speech patterns throughout.
The Harlem Renaissance authors include the following
Jean Toomer became inspired by Southern folk songs and jazz to experiment with literary form in his 1923 novel, Cane, in which he radically departed from traditional narrative methods, especially in stories about Black life. Toomer forgoes a moralising narrative and explicit protest in favour of experimentation with form. The novel's structure is infused with elements of jazz music, including rhythms, phrases, tones and symbols. Dramatic narratives are woven together with short stories, sketches and poems in the novel, creating an interestingly multi-genre work that uniquely utilised Modernist literary techniques to depict a truthful and authentic African American experience.
However, unlike Hughes, Jean Toomer did not himself identify with the 'Negro' race. Instead, he ironically proclaimed himself separate, calling the label limiting and inappropriate for his work.
Zora Neal Hurston was another major writer of the period with her 1937 novel Their Eyes were Watching God. African American folk tales influenced the book's lyrical prose, telling the story of Janie Crawford and her life as a woman of African American descent. The novel builds a uniquely female Black identity that considers women's issues and issues of race.
The creative period of the Harlem Renaissance seemed to decline after the 1929 Wall Street crash and into the subsequent Great Depression of the 1930s. By then, significant figures of the movement had moved from Harlem to seek work opportunities elsewhere during the recession. The 1935 Harlem Race Riot can be called the definitive end of the Harlem Renaissance. Three people were killed, and hundreds were injured, ultimately halting most artistic developments that had been flourishing in the decade prior.
Even with the movement over, the legacy of the Harlem Renaissance still stood as an important platform for growing cries for equality in the Black community throughout the country. It was a golden period for the reclamation of African American identity. Black artists began to celebrate and proclaim their heritage, using it to create new schools of thought in art and politics, creating Black art that resembled the lived experience more closely than ever before.
The Harlem Renaissance stands as one of the most significant developments in African American history, and indeed American history. It set the stage and laid the foundations for the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. In the migration of Black people in the rural, uneducated South to the cosmopolitan sophistication of the urban North, a revolutionary movement of greater social consciousness emerged, where the Black identity came to the forefront of the world stage. This revival of Black art and culture redefined how America and the rest of the world and viewed African Americans and how they viewed themselves.
The Harlem Renaissance was an artistic movement, mostly during the 1920s, in Harlem, New York City, that brought about the revival of African American art, culture, literature, politics, and more.
Artists, writers, and intellectuals flocked to Harlem, New York City, to share their ideas, and art with other creatives and contemporaries. New ideas were born during the time, and the movement established a new, authentic voice for the everyday Black American.
In a literature context, there were lots of important writers during the period, including Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, Claude McKay, and Zora Neal Hurston.
The period lasted approximately from 1918 to 1937, with its largest boom during the 1920s.
What was the Harlem Renaissance?
This was an artistic movement in Harlem, largely during the 1920s, that saw the explosive revival of African-American culture, art, politics and more.
When did the Harlem Renaissance occur?
The movement lasted approximately from 1918 to 1937.
What caused the end of the Harlem Renaissance?
The 1935 Harlem Race Riot.
What caused the Harlem Renaissance to start?
The beginnings of the movement started when many African Americans moved to Harlem from the South. This was called the Great Migration.
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