Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.
The Harlem Renaissance
The Harlem Renaissance was an African-American artistic and intellectual movement that flourished throughout the 1920s. The movement was based in Harlem, New York, but its influence extended throughout the nation and even the world. Following the Civil War, large numbers of African-Americans migrated to northern urban areas, like New York and Chicago. Harlem was one of the prime destinations for many black Americans, and there, a distinct way of life developed.
'The New Negro Movement,' as it was called during its time, the Harlem Renaissance was essentially the flowering of a unique African-American culture. African-American writers, poets, artists, musicians and intellectuals found new ways to express pride in their race and culture. Central to the Harlem Renaissance was the concept that the time had come for African-Americans to take their rightful place in society and contribute to culture in meaningful ways. Although the movement peaked throughout the late 1920s, its impact continued into the 1930s and beyond.
Art and Artists
Harlem Renaissance art often featured bold colors arranged in an expressionist fashion. Many of these pieces portray educated, well-to-do African-Americans dancing, making music, dining or engaging in other pleasurable activities. Palmer C. Hayden's Jeunesse is a prime example of this type of portrayal.
Archibald J. Motley was another popular Harlem Renaissance artist. His 1929 painting Blues shows African-Americans enjoying dance and music. These depictions of African-Americans enjoying culture was partly an attempt to break down stereotypes of African-Americans as less than refined.
William Henry Johnson was one of the most important artists of the Harlem Renaissance, although he continued to paint well into the 1940s-1950s. His works spanned a variety of genres, but he has come to be known for his expressionist, folk style and his use of texture. Johnson painted everything from landscapes to portraits to scenes of daily life.
Another common theme within Harlem Renaissance art was a renewed emphasis on continental Africa as the root of African-American culture. Jungle and tribal scenes were often presented in idealized imagery as a way of glorifying African-American heritage. Aaron Douglas employed this type of imagery with great success. Tribal African imagery was also synthesized with modern art, resulting in an innovative genre that connected African heritage with social progress.
Poets and Authors
Poetry and literature were important components of the Harlem Renaissance. Sterling A. Brown, a Harvard University graduate, taught at Howard University for much of his career. In 1932, he published Southern Railroad, a book of original poetry centering on rural, folk themes. Claude McKay, another popular poet, was among the earliest Harlem Renaissance poets. His 1922 'Harlem Shadows' was a major catalyst for a new wave of African-American poetry. Countee Cullen and James Weldon Johnson were other important poets.
One of the most influential figures of the Harlem Renaissance was Langston Hughes. Hughes was a prolific writer whose poems, articles and books had a tremendous impact on the movement. He also helped pioneer jazz poetry, a genre of poetry that emphasized syncopated rhythms that were in many ways reminiscent of jazz music. Written in 1920, 'The Negro Speaks of Rivers' is probably Hughes' most famous poem.
Another well-known poem, 'A Dream Deferred,' which some say foreshadows the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s, reads:
'What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore--
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over--
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?'
Intellectual and activist W. E. B. Du Bois also played a major role in the Harlem Renaissance. A brilliant civil rights advocate, Du Bois helped found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Two of Du Bois' most famous works are The Souls of Black Folk and his magnum opus Black Reconstruction in America. As the editor of the NAACP's extremely influential journal The Crisis, Du Bois had the opportunity to publish many important pieces of literature from Harlem Renaissance writers.
With its syncopated rhythms and improvisation, jazz music was central to the 'New Negro Movement.' During this time, the 'Harlem Stride' (a new, lively way of playing the piano) emerged, adding to the excitement of jazz music. Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong were two extremely popular musicians associated with the Harlem Renaissance. Armstrong was a talented trumpeter known for his highly improvised solo performances and his raspy voice. He continued to play music for many decades and is still enormously popular. Other well-known musicians include Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday and Jelly Roll Morton.
The Cotton Club, located in Harlem, was a popular venue for many black musicians. Sadly, while many black musicians, like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and others could play music there, its clientele was 'white only.' Nevertheless, this fact shows the growing interest many white people had in jazz music during this time.
The Harlem Renaissance was an African-American cultural movement that flourished throughout the 1920s and into the 1930s. Called the 'New Negro Movement' during its time, Harlem Renaissance artists, writers and musicians developed new ways to express African-American pride. Popular artists included Palmer C. Hayden, Archibald J. Motley and Aaron Douglas.
Themes of sophisticated blacks enjoying music and dance became common, as did idealized imagery of continental Africa. Langston Hughes and W. E. B. Du Bois were colossal figures of the Harlem Renaissance. Hughes was a gifted poet and author. His poems 'The Negro Speaks of Rivers' and 'A Dream Deferred' remain popular today. Du Bois was a brilliant author and intellectual who helped found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He also published an important journal The Crisis.
Jazz music was a critical component of the Harlem Renaissance. Two of the most popular musicians were Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. The Cotton Club in Harlem was a popular hot spot for whites seeking to enjoy live jazz. The Harlem Renaissance was a vibrant movement that impacted numerous areas of cultural life.
You will have the ability to do the following after watching this video lesson:
- Summarize the importance and impact of the Harlem Renaissance
- Identify popular Harlem Renaissance artists and explain the common style of this movement's art
- List influential authors of the Harlem Renaissance and provide examples of their work
- Describe W. E. B. Du Bois' lasting impact
- Explain the importance of music to the Harlem Renaissance and identify popular musicians
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