How the Harlem Renaissance was a fundamental step in improving the rights and lives of African Americans.
Writing by Ayesha Dawson. Illustration by Berenika Murray.
The Harlem Renaissance was a cultural revolution born out of what was known as the ‘Great Migration’ of African Americans in the 1910s. Sharecropping was a tough existence, especially after the hurricanes in 1915 and ’16, not to mention stringent Jim Crow laws being firmly in place. Many African Americans moved north in search of alternative work, called to aid the labour shortage with many men being drafted to fight in the war. And so, a large black community was established in Harlem, New York. With this a new mix of black culture came into fruition, born out of the tough existence of African Americans experiencing discrimination and many living in destitution. Developed in the late 1800s, Harlem was originally intended to house the wealthy white elite, but due to vast overpopulation and overdevelopment, it was undesirable and became home to the recently migrated black population. Most of the upper-class white residents fled in search of white-only communities. Subsequently, Harlem became known as the ‘Black Capital’ of the US and transformed into a hub of black creativity.
Writers such as Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston were heavily involved in the Harlem Renaissance and detailed the African American experience. They combined an array of black cultural artefacts, with Hughes using elements of Jazz and Blues in his writing, whilst Neale Hurston wrote using the dialect of black Americans from Southern states. James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, written in 1912 follows a biracial man, who has several traumatic encounters, including being witness to a lynching. The events force him to pass as a white man to ensure his safety. Weldon Johnson explores the heartache of losing one’s identity and the erasure of black culture to allow for assimilation.
The literature of the time speaks simultaneously to the fierce sense of pride in black culture and how it can be independent from white American culture, whilst also to the intense anguish of being black in such a hostile society. The National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) set about to emphasise the input of black creatives in several art movements – such as jazz – that had been appropriated and dulled in their revolutionary message to cater to a white audience. At this time, Duke Ellington was one of the central figures in the Harlem music scene, with his popular jazz performances in the Cotton Club, a glitzy New York nightclub that hosted the city’s elite. And yet, the rigid segregation laws meant that only white guests were allowed in, whilst they lapped up performances from some of New York’s finest black entertainers, who themselves could not be patrons of the club.
The Renaissance happened at a time where racist propaganda – such as the 1915 film, The Birth of a Nation – was being released and circulated among white elite and working-class audiences alike. This sparked even more racial violence and race related hate crimes. W.E.B Du Bois revealed that there had been more lynchings in 1915 than in the past ten years, particularly in the southern states, which pushed black populations further north. According to the NAACP, lynching continued in the US until 1968, so as well as being a key cultural movement, the Harlem Renaissance served to create predominantly black spaces, where African Americans could soak up their own culture without the constant fear of being harassed.
Around this time, black institutions were essential in forming a strong community of black people, the most notable being the NAACP, which fought for economic and civil equality for African Americans. Meanwhile, the role of the Black Church spanned far beyond faith and prayer and preached the importance of black self-determinism in fighting first for emancipation and later for racial equality. The suffering in the bible was understood by the Black Church to reflect black suffering both historically and in the contemporary day. W.E.B Du Bois described the Church as having a trinity of ‘the Preacher, the Music and the Frenzy’, which spoke to the hive of activity and performance that took place as well as the sense of togetherness, which was just as important as the faith itself. These institutions are still running today and seek to improve the lives of black people in the States, in a country where Jim Crow laws may no longer exist, but systematic racism and inequality still run rampant.
The Harlem Renaissance was a fundamental step in the recognition of black people as something other than amenities or burdens to society, decades before the Civil Rights Movement. The real emphasis on the Arts served to subvert the stereotype of black people as uneducated, uncultured, and unsophisticated. Instead, the movement served to assert the cultural and creative brilliance of black artists. Up until the riots of 1935, the Harlem Renaissance was a peaceful means of resistance, with the black community demanding respect. The movement lost momentum around the time of the Great Depression and the once great torrent of creativity began to slow and dry up. Whilst the Roaring 20s had provided enough economic security to uphold a rich exploration of art and ingenuity, the 30s brought a wave of job instability. Harlem’s cultural heart stopped beating as creatives were forced to move away in search of other more reliable work.
Out of the chaos of the interwar period and profuse racial prejudice materialised a revolutionary movement, in which the most powerful weapon was the written word. The Harlem Renaissance undoubtedly paved the way for future black artists and began to prove to the white population that black art and culture could be just as refined and influential as that created by white authors, musicians, and artists.
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