The Social & Artistic Nature of the Harlem Renaissance

The Social & Artistic Nature of the Harlem Renaissance
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  • 0:01 Travel Back in Time
  • 1:00 A Cultural Movement
  • 2:42 Experiments in Music &…
  • 4:25 High Art/Low Culture
  • 5:07 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy Roberts is an adjunct instructor in English, film/media studies and interdisciplinary studies.

Learn about the key artistic and intellectual figures of the Harlem Renaissance. Explore the literature and art representative of the cultural Renaissance in 1920s Harlem and the historical context that brought about a rebirth of African-American culture.

Let's Travel Back in Time

So often with history, the contemporary moment will have used certain words and lingo to characterize a movement, but it will be remembered and memorialized under a different name, and the Harlem Renaissance is a great example of this. Harlem, an area of New York City located on the island of Manhattan, is a historically black neighborhood. In the 1920s, it was a vibrant center of African-American arts and culture.

Just like with the Renaissance of the Middle Ages, artists, intellectuals, political activists, and cultural iconoclasts associated with the Harlem Renaissance may not have recognized the gravity of the changes taking place during their lifetime, nor did they have the perspective to understand the influence that their work would have on the culture of the 20th century. Studying history is like time travel. Studying art history, just step into a museum and you're transported back. Open your eyes and see Harlem the way it was in the Roaring '20s.

A Cultural Movement

As a result of the Great Migration of the early 1900s, in which millions of African Americans from the rural American South moved to urban centers in the North and Midwest, areas such as Harlem, Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit, Cincinnati, and St. Louis saw an influx in the African-American population. The diaspora, or dispersed population of African Americans in the South, relocated and reorganized during this period, transforming the face of their culture.

The signs of the times were most visible in Harlem. New Yorkers rallied around what they called the 'New Negro,' an iconic figure of racial pride, standing for everything black culture excelled toward. Time travelers like us can appreciate knowing the outcome of the 'New Negro' movement, which we recognize as the Harlem Renaissance, associated with such African American cultural leaders as W.E.B. Du Bois, Duke Ellington, and Langston Hughes.

The Harlem Renaissance movement was fueled by the production of a new art, literature, and music that represented the intellectual and creative spirit of the 'New Negro' identity. It was a cultural unification rather than a stylistic or aesthetic one, exemplified by innovation and experimentation in the arts, such as:

  • Jazz and blues
  • Experimental literature and jazz poetry
  • Mural painting

W.E.B. Du Bois was a leading activist and intellectual. He founded and edited The Crisis, the journal of the NAACP, which published current events, poetry, and essays of culture and history. It was a key journal in the mission for racial equality and social reform, and a mouthpiece for the Harlem Renaissance.

Experiments in Music and Literature

W.E.B. Dubois encouraged African Americans emigrating from the South to express their creativity and voice their talent by both participating in the burgeoning culture of Harlem and on the pages of The Crisis. Among them was poet Langston Hughes. Also known as 'The Bard of Harlem,' Hughes crafted words that expressed the hardship of the Great Migration and the unique identity of the 'New Negro' during the Harlem Renaissance. He wrote:

'I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.

They send me to eat in the kitchen

When company comes,

But I laugh,

And eat well,

And grow strong.'

Hughes' poetry was also informed by the popular music and culture of Harlem. Jazz poetry was a precursor to the beat poetry of the 1960s, incorporating the rhythms and repetition of jazz music into the phrasing and rhyming schemes of a new kind of wordsmith. Hughes's 'The Weary Blues' in 1925 exemplifies the power that jazz poetry had:

'Droning a drowsy syncopated tune,

Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon,

I heard a Negro play.

Down on Lenox Avenue the other night

By the pale dull pallor of an old gas light

He did a lazy sway. . .

He did a lazy sway. . .

To the tune o' those Weary Blues.'

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