The Harlem Renaissance was an intellectual and cultural revival of African American music, dance, art, fashion, literature, theater and politics centered in Harlem, Manhattan, New York City, spanning the 1920s and 1930s. At the time, it was known as the “New Negro Movement“, named after The New Negro, a 1925 anthology edited by Alain Locke. The movement also included the new African-American cultural expressions across the urban areas in the Northeast and Midwest United States affected by a renewed militancy in the general struggle for civil rights for African-Americans that occurred in the wake of civil rights struggles in the then-still-segregated US Armed Forces in WWI and which was further inspired by the NAACP, the Garveyite movement and the Russian Revolution, combined with the Great Migration of African-American workers fleeing the racist conditions of the Jim Crow Deep South, Harlem being the final destination of the largest number of those who migrated north.
Though it was centered in the Harlem neighborhood, many francophone black writers from African and Caribbean colonies who lived in Paris were also influenced by the movement, which spanned from about 1918 until the 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, took place between 1924—when 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. The Harlem Renaissance is considered to have been a rebirth of the African-American arts. Many people would argue that the Harlem Renaissance never ended and has continued to be an important cultural force in the United States through the decades: from the age of stride piano jazz and blues to the ages of bebop, rock and roll, soul, disco and hip-hop.
Until the end of the Civil War, the majority of African Americans had been enslaved and lived in the South. During the Reconstruction Era, the emancipated African Americans, freedmen, began to strive for civic participation, political equality and economic and cultural self-determination. Soon after the end of the Civil War the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871 gave rise to speeches by African-American Congressmen addressing this Bill. By 1875, sixteen African Americans had been elected and served in Congress and gave numerous speeches with their newfound civil empowerment. The Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871 was denounced by black Congressmen[why?][dubious – discuss] and resulted in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1875, part of Reconstruction legislation by Republicans.
During the mid-to-late 1870s, racist whites organized in the Democratic Party launched a murderous campaign of racist terrorism to regain political power throughout the South.
From 1890 to 1908, they proceeded to pass legislation that disenfranchised most African Americans 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. Democratic Party politicians (many having been former slaveowners and political and military leaders of the Confederacy) conspired to deny African Americans their exercise of civil and political rights by terrorizing black communities with lynch mobs and other forms of vigilante violence as well as by instituting a convict labor system that forced many thousands of African Americans back into unpaid labor in mines, on plantations, and on public works projects such as roads and levees. Convict laborers were typically subject to brutal forms of corporal punishment, overwork, and disease from unsanitary conditions. Death rates were extraordinarily high.
While a small number of African Americans were able to acquire land shortly after the Civil War, most were exploited as sharecroppers. As life in the South became increasingly difficult, African Americans began to migrate north in great numbers.
Most of the future leading lights of what was to become known as the “Harlem Renaissance” movement arose from a generation that had memories of the gains and losses of Reconstruction after the Civil War. Sometimes their parents, grandparents – or they themselves – had been slaves. Their ancestors had sometimes benefited by paternal investment in cultural capital, including better-than-average education. Many in the Harlem Renaissance were part of the early 20th century Great Migration out of the South into the African-American neighborhoods of the Northeast 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.
In 1917 Hubert Harrison, “The Father of Harlem Radicalism”, founded the Liberty League and The Voice, the first organization and the first newspaper, respectively, 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.
Nevertheless, with the Harlem Renaissance came a sense of acceptance for African-American writers; as Langston Hughes put it, with Harlem came the courage “to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame.” Alain Locke’s anthology The New Negro was considered the cornerstone of this cultural revolution. The anthology featured several African-American writers and poets, from the well-known, such as Zora Neale Hurston and communists Langston Hughes and Claude McKay, to the lesser-known, like the poet Anne Spencer. Many poets of the Harlem Renaissance were inspired to tie in threads of African-American culture into their poems; as a result, jazz poetry was heavily developed during this time. “The Weary Blues” was a notable jazz poem written by Langston Hughes. Through their works of literature, black authors were able to give a voice to the African-American identity, as well as strive for a community of support and acceptance.
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 African Americans and socially elite African Americans.
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 African Americans 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 performers and composers at the time such as Eubie Blake, Noble Sissle, Jelly Roll Morton, Luckey Roberts, James P. Johnson, Willie “The Lion” Smith, Andy Razaf, Fats Waller, Ethel Waters, Adelaide Hall, Florence Mills and bandleaders Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Fletcher Henderson were extremely talented, skillful, competitive and inspirational. They are still considered as having laid great parts of the foundations for future musicians of their genre.
Duke Ellington gained popularity during the Harlem Renaissance. According to Charles Garrett, “The resulting portrait of Ellington reveals him to be not only the gifted composer, bandleader, and musician we have come to know, but also an earthly person with basic desires, weaknesses, and eccentricities.” Ellington did not let his popularity get to him. He remained calm and focused on his music.
During this period, the musical style 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 Americans in their works. Composers (including William Grant Still) used poems written by African-American 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. African Americans began to merge with Whites into the classical world of musical composition. The first African-American male to gain wide recognition as a concert artist in both his region and internationally was Roland Hayes. He trained with Arthur Calhoun in Chattanooga, and at Fisk University in Nashville. Later, he studied with Arthur Hubbard in Boston and with George Henschel and Amanda Ira Aldridge in London, England. He began singing in public as a student, and toured with the Fisk Jubilee Singers in 1911.