The Harlem Renaissance was a cultural movement that spanned the 1920s. At the time, it was known as the “New Negro Movement”, named after the 1925 anthology by Alain Locke. Though it was centered in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City, many French-speaking black writers from African and Caribbean colonies who lived in Paris were also influenced by the Harlem Renaissance.
The Harlem Renaissance grew out of the changes that had taken place in the African-American community since the abolition of slavery, as well as the expansion of communities in the North. 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.
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 Negro 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 Caribbean who came to the United States hoping for a better life. Uniting most of them was their convergence in Harlem, New York City.
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-African 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
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 in 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.
The Harlem Renaissance was successful in that it brought the Black experience clearly within the corpus of American cultural history. Not only through an explosion of culture, but on a sociological level, the legacy of the Harlem Renaissance redefined how America, and the world, viewed African-Americans. 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 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, which freed 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.
The above excerpts from Wikipedia explaining The Harlem Renaissance will serve as an introduction to those who never knew about the era or will be refreshed about this rich and wonderful period of cultural evolution in African-American History.
Over the remaining days of Black History Month, The Family Meeting will explore some of the historical figures of The Harlem Renaissance.
Read, learn, and share…Have a Family Meeting!