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The Harlem Renaissance (also known as the Black Literary Renaissance and the New Negro Movement) refers to the flowering of African American cultural and intellectual life during the 1920s and 1930s. At the time, it was known as the "New Negro Movement", named after the 1925 anthology The New Negro edited by Alain Locke. Centered in the Harlemmarker neighborhood of New York Citymarker, the movement influenced urban centers throughout the United States. Across the cultural spectrum (literature, drama, music, visual art, dance) and also in the realm of social thought (sociology, historiography, philosophy), artists and intellectuals found new ways to explore the historical experiences of black America and the contemporary experiences of black life in the urban North. Challenging white paternalism and racism, African-American artists and intellectuals rejected imitating the styles of Europeans and white Americans and instead celebrated black dignity and creativity. Asserting their freedom to express themselves on their own terms, they explored their identities as black Americans, celebrating the black culture that had emerged out of slavery, as well as cultural ties to Africa.

The Harlem Renaissance had a profound impact not only on African-American culture but also on the cultures of the African diaspora. Afro-Caribbean artists and intellectuals from the British West Indies, who had migrated to New York in number, were part of the movement. Moreover, many French-speaking black writers from African and Caribbean colonies who lived in Parismarker were also influenced by the Harlem Renaissance.

Historians disagree as to when the Harlem Renaissance began and ended. It is unofficially recognized to have spanned from about 1919 until the early or mid 1930s. Many of its ideas lived on much longer. The zenith of this "flowering of Negro literature", as James Weldon Johnson preferred to call the Harlem Renaissance, is placed between 1924 (the year that Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life hosted a party for black writers where many white publishers were in attendance) and 1929 (the year of the stock market crash and the beginning of the Great Depression).

In 1917 Hubert Harrison, "The Father of Harlem Radicalism," founded the Liberty League and The Voice, the first organization and the first newspaper of the "New Negro Movement". Harrison's organization and newspaper were political, but also emphasized the arts (his newspaper had "Poetry for the People" and book review sections). In 1927, in the Pittsburgh Courier, Harrison challenged the notion of the renaissance. He argued that the "Negro Literary Renaissance" notion overlooked "the stream of literary and artistic products which had flowed uninterruptedly from Negro writers from 1850 to the present", and said the so-called "renaissance" was largely a white invention.

Origins

The Harlem Renaissance grew out of the changes that had taken place in the African American community since the abolition of slavery. These accelerated as a consequence of World War I and the great social and cultural changes in early 20th century United States. Industrialization was attracting people to cities from rural areas and gave rise to a new mass culture. Contributing factors leading to the Harlem Renaissance were the Great Migration of African Americans to northern cities, which concentrated ambitious people in places where they could encourage each other, and the First World War, which had created new industrial work opportunities for tens of thousands of people. Factors leading to the decline of this era include the Great Depression.

Until the end of the Civil War, the majority of African Americans had been enslaved and lived in the South. Immediately after the end of slavery, the emancipated African Americans began to strive for civic participation, political equality and economic and cultural self-determination. By the late 1870s, conservative whites managed to regain power in the South. From 1890 to 1908 they proceeded to pass legislation that disenfranchised most blacks and many poor whites, trapping them without representation. They established white supremacist regimes of Jim Crow segregation in the South and one-party block voting behind southern Democrats. The conservative whites denied African Americans their exercise of civil and political rights. The region's reliance on an agricultural economy continued to limit opportunities for most people. Blacks were exploited as share croppers and laborers. As life in the South became increasingly difficult, African Americans began to migrate North in great number.

Most of the African-American literary movement arose from a generation that had lived through the gains and losses of Reconstruction after the American Civil War. Sometimes their parents or grandparents had been slaves. Their ancestors had sometimes benefited by paternal investment in social capital, including better-than-average education. Many in the Harlem Renaissance were part of the Great Migration out of the South into the black neighborhoods of the North and Midwest. African Americans sought a better standard of living and relief from the institutionalized racism in the South. Others were people of African descent from racially stratified communities in the Caribbeanmarker who came to the United States hoping for a better life. Uniting most of them was their convergence in Harlem, New York City.

Development of African-American community in Harlem

By the turn of the twentieth century, the African American community had established a middle class, especially in the cities. Harlem, in New York City, became a center of this expanding black middle class. In the nineteenth century, the district had been built as an exclusive suburb for the white middle and upper middle classes, with stately houses, grand avenues and amenities such as the Polo Groundsmarker and an opera house. During the enormous influx of European immigrants in the late nineteenth century, the once exclusive district was abandoned by the native white middle-class. Harlem became a black neighborhood in the early 1900s. In 1910, a large block along 135th Street and Fifth Avenue was bought by various African-American realtors and a church group. Many more African Americans arrived during the First World War. Due to the war, the migration of laborers from Europe virtually ceased, while the war effort resulted in a massive demand for unskilled industrial labor. The Great Migration brought hundreds of thousands of African Americans to cities like Chicago, Philadelphia, Cleveland, and New York City.

The Great Migration greatly expanded black communities, creating a greater market for black culture and Jazz and Blues, the black music of the South, came to the North with the migrants and was played in the nightclubs and hotspots of Harlem. At the same time, whites were becoming increasingly fascinated by black culture. A number of white artists and patrons began to offer blacks access to "mainstream" publishers and art venues.

Despite the increasing popularity of black culture, virulent white racism, often by more recent ethnic immigrants, continued to impact African-American communities, even in the North. After the end of World War I, many African American soldiers—who fought in segregated units like the Harlem Hellfighters—came home to a nation whose citizens often did not respect their accomplishments. Race riots and other civil uprisings occurred throughout the US during the Red Summer of 1919, reflecting economic competition over jobs and housing in many cities, as well as tensions over social territories.

New intellectual and activist movements emerge

Despite the occurrence of racist mob violence, the relative political freedom in the North enabled African Americans to organize themselves politically and intellectually. In the first two decades of the twentieth century, during the so-called nadir of American race relations in the South, the Northern black middle class began to set up and support a number of political movements.

An explosion of culture in Harlem

The first stage of the Harlem Renaissance started in the late 1910s. 1917 saw the premiere of Three Plays for a Negro Theatre. These plays, written by white playwright Ridgely Torrence, featured black actors' conveying complex human emotions and yearnings. They rejected the stereotypes of the blackface and minstrel show traditions. James Weldon Johnson in 1917 called the premieres of these plays "the most important single event in the entire history of the Negro in the American Theatre." Another landmark came in 1919, when Claude McKay published his militant sonnet "If We Must Die". Although the poem never alluded to race, to black readers it sounded a note of defiance in the face of racism and the nationwide race riots and lynchings then taking place. By the end of the First World War, the fiction of James Weldon Johnson and the poetry of Claude McKay was describing the reality of contemporary black life in America.

The Harlem Renaissance and the 1920s embodied a great deal of jazz music. This genre blossomed during the 1920s, and became very popular with the citizens of Harlem. It later gained national and worldwide recognition. However, many of the middle and upper-class black families were unsure or even hostile towards jazz music because they believed that blacks--at least affluent blacks--should “assimilate into the white business culture” of the large cities in northeastern America such as Chicagomarker, New Yorkmarker, Saint Louis and Detroitmarker. Those that did enjoy jazz would attend nightclubs where these musicians performed. Some of the more popular nightclubs included the Savoy Ballroom, the Apollo Theatre, and The Cotton Club.Boland, Jesse. "Harlem Renaissance Music." 1920s Fashion and Music. Web. 23 Nov. 2009. /www.1920s-fashion-and-music.com/Harlem-Renaissance-music.html>.

A new way of playing the piano called the Harlem Stride Style was created during the Harlem Renaissance, and helped blur the lines between the poor blacks and socially elite blacks. The traditional jazz band was composed primarily of brass instruments and was considered a symbol of the south, but the piano was considered an instrument of the wealthy. With this instrumental modification to the existing genre, the wealthy blacks now had more access to jazz music. Its popularity soon spread throughout the country and was consequently at an “all time high.” Innovation and liveliness were important characteristics of performers in the beginnings of jazz. Jazz musicians at the time like Duke Ellington, Jelly Roll Morton, and Willie “The Lion” Smith were very talented and competitive, and were considered to have laid the foundation for future musicians of their genre.Boland, Jesse. "Harlem Renaissance Music." 1920s Fashion and Music. Web. 23 Nov. 2009. /www.1920s-fashion-and-music.com/Harlem-Renaissance-music.html>.

During this time period, the musical style and culture of blacks was becoming more and more attractive to whites. White novelists, dramatists and composers started to exploit the musical tendencies and themes of African-American in their works. Composers used poems written by black poets in their songs, and would implement the rhythms, harmonies and melodies of African-American music--such as blues, spirituals, and jazz—into their concert pieces (404, 405). Blacks began to merge with Whites into the classical world of composition. The first black male to gain wide recognition as a concert artist in both his region and internationally was Roland Hayes. He trained with Arthur Calhoun in Chattanoogamarker, and at Fisk University in Nashvillemarker. Later, he studied with Arthur Hubbard in Boston and with George Henshel and Amanda Ira Aldridge in London, Englandmarker. He began singing in public as a student, and toured with the Fisk Jubilee Singers in 1911 (409).

The Apollo Theater

While the Savoy Ballroom on Lenox Avenue was a renowned venue for swing dancing and jazz, immortalized in the popular song "Stompin' At The Savoy", the Apollo Theatermarker has been the most lasting physical legacy of the Harlem Renaissance. Opened on 125th Street on January 26, 1914, 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, it was the first place where 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 Sarah Vaughan (among many others) were launched at the Apollo.

With the advent of television and other popular entertainment changes, the Apollo Theater fell into a decline in the late 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. It reportedly draws 1.3 million visitors annually. It is the home of Showtime at the Apollo, a nationally syndicated variety show showcasing new talent.

Characteristics and themes

Characterizing the Harlem Renaissance was an overt racial pride that came to be represented in the idea of the New Negro, who through intellect and production of literature, art, and music could challenge the pervading racism and stereotypes to promote progressive or socialist politics, and racial and social integration. The creation of art and literature would serve to "uplift" the race.

There would be no uniting form singularly characterizing the art that emerged out of the Harlem Renaissance. Rather, it encompassed a wide variety of cultural elements and styles, including a Pan-Africanist perspective, "high-culture" and "low-culture" or "low-life," from the traditional form of music to the blues and jazz, traditional and new experimental forms in literature such as modernism and the new form of jazz poetry. This duality meant that numerous African-American artists came into conflict with conservatives in the black intelligentsia, who took issue with certain depictions of black life.

Some common themes represented during the Harlem Renaissance were the influence of the experience of slavery and emerging African-American folk traditions on black identity, the effects of institutional racism, the dilemmas inherent in performing and writing for elite white audiences, and the question of how to convey the experience of modern black life in the urban North.

The Harlem Renaissance was one of primarily African-American involvement. It rested on a support system of black patrons, black-owned businesses and publications. However, it also depended on the patronage of white Americans, such as Carl Van Vechten and Charlotte Osgood Mason, who provided various forms of assistance, opening doors which otherwise would have remained closed to the publication of work outside the black American community. This support often took the form of patronage or publication.

There were other whites interested in so-called "primitive" cultures, as many whites viewed black American culture at that time, and wanted to see such "primitivism" in the work coming out of the Harlem Renaissance. As with most fads, some people may have been exploited in the rush for publicity.

Interest in African-American lives also generated experimental but lasting collaborative work, such as the all-black productions of George Gershwin's opera Porgy and Bess, and Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein's Four Saints in Three Acts. In both productions the choral conductor Eva Jessye was part of the creative team. Her choir was featured in Four Saints. The music world also found white band leaders defying racist attitudes to include the best and the brightest African-American stars of music and song in their productions.

Blacks used art to prove their humanity and demand for equality. The Harlem Renaissance led to more opportunities for blacks to be published by mainstream houses. Many authors began to publish novels, magazines and newspapers during this time. The new fiction attracted a great amount of attention from the nation at large. Some authors who became nationally known were Jean Toomer, Jessie Fauset, Claude McKay, Zora Neale Hurston, James Weldon Johnson, Alain Locke, Eric D. Walrond and Langston Hughes.

The Harlem Renaissance helped lay the foundation for the post-World War II phase of the Civil Rights Movement. Moreover, many black artists who rose to creative maturity afterward were inspired by this literary movement.

The Renaissance was more than a literary or artistic movement, it possessed a certain sociological development—particularly through a new racial consciousness—through racial integration, as seen the Back to Africa movement led by Marcus Garvey. W. E. B. Du Bois' notion of "twoness", introduced in The Souls of Black Folk (1903), explored a divided awareness of one's identity that was a unique critique of the social ramifications of racial consciousness.

Impact of the Harlem Renaissance

A new black identity

The Harlem Renaissance was successful in that it brought the Black experience clearly within the corpus of Americanmarker cultural history. Not only through an explosion of culture, but on a sociological level, the legacy of the Harlem Renaissance 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 united 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 clothing, sophisticated manners and etiquette. 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 success.

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. Du Bois 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 art intend 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 Clubmarker, 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.

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 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. But the positive implications of American nativity have never been fully appreciated by them. It seems too simple: the African-American's history and culture is American, more completely so than most other ethnic groups within the United States.

Notable figures and their works

Novels



Drama



Poetry



Leading intellectuals



Visual artists



Popular entertainment



Musicians/Composers



See also



References

  1. http://www.jcu.edu/harlem/French_Connection/page_1.htm
  2. The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, Norton, New York, 1997, p. 931
  3. Southern, Eileen. Music of black Americans a history. New York: Norton, 1997. Print,ppg. 404, 405, 409
  4. "Eva Jessye", University of Michigan, accessed 4 Dec 2008


Bibliography

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  • Andrews, William L.; Foster, Frances S.; Harris, Trudier eds. The Concise Oxford Companion To African American Literature. New York: Oxford Press, 2001. ISBN 1-4028-9296-9
  • Bean, Annemarie. A Sourcebook on African-American Performance: Plays, People, Movements. London: Routledge, 1999; pp. vii + 360.
  • Greaves, William' documentary From These Roots.
  • Hicklin, Fannie Ella Frazier. 'The American Negro Playwright, 1920-1964.' Ph.D. Dissertation, Department of Speech, University of Wisconsinmarker, 1965. Ann Arbor: University Microfilms 65-6217.
  • Huggins, Nathan. Harlem Renaissance. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973. ISBN 0-19-501665-3
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  • Ostrom, Hans and J. David Macey, eds. The Greenwood Encylclopedia of African American Literature. 5 volumes. Westport: Greenwood Press, 2005.
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  • Perry, Jeffrey B. A Hubert Harrison Reader. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2001.
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  • Powell, Richard and David A. Bailey, editors. Rhapsodies in Black: Art of the Harlem Renaissance. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.
  • Rampersad, Arnold. The Life of Langston Hughes. 2 volumes. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986 and 1988.
  • Soto, Michael, ed. Teaching The Harlem Renaissance. New York: Peter Lang, 2008.
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  • Wintz, Cary D. Harlem Speaks: A Living History of the Harlem Renaissance. Naperville, Illinois: Sourcebooks, Inc., 2007



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