Art and Culture of the Harlem Renaissance: Artists, Poets, Authors & Music

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Nate Sullivan

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, named for originating in Harlem, New York, was an African-American artistic and intellectual movement that contributed to the culture, fashion, music, and art of the 1920s and 30s. Learn more about the artists, musicians, and writers of the movement and how their work shaped the Harlem Renaissance. Updated: 09/20/2021

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.

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  • 0:05 The Harlem Renaissance
  • 1:10 Art and Artists
  • 2:48 Poets and Authors
  • 5:03 Musicians
  • 6:08 Lesson Summary
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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?'

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