Harlem Renaissance Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Harlem Renaissance was a flowering of African American culture, a celebration of blackness that supported a sense of racial pride that continued to fuel vital works of art, music, and literature into the 1930’s and beyond.

Summary of Event

In the years after World War I, the population of the New York City neighborhood of Harlem was almost entirely black; the area constituted the largest center of urban African Americans anywhere. Blacks poured into Harlem from all over the United States and the Caribbean, a migration at once optimistic and confident. During the 1920’s and well into the 1930’s, Harlem produced a cultural richness that made it a mecca for New Yorkers of all colors and creeds. Harlem Renaissance Art;Harlem Renaissance Literature;Harlem Renaissance Music;Harlem Renaissance Poetry;Harlem Renaissance African Americans;Harlem Renaissance [kw]Harlem Renaissance (1920’s) [kw]Renaissance, Harlem (1920’s) Harlem Renaissance Art;Harlem Renaissance Literature;Harlem Renaissance Music;Harlem Renaissance Poetry;Harlem Renaissance African Americans;Harlem Renaissance [g]United States;1920’s: Harlem Renaissance[04900] [c]Literature;1920’s: Harlem Renaissance[04900] [c]Music;1920’s: Harlem Renaissance[04900] [c]Arts;1920’s: Harlem Renaissance[04900] McKay, Claude Hughes, Langston Cullen, Countée Henderson, Fletcher “Smack” Ellington, Duke Armstrong, Louis

Writers and musicians were the heart of the Harlem Renaissance, helping to make Harlem a social and cultural magnet. Poets such as Claude McKay, Langston Hughes, and Countée Cullen were some of Harlem’s brightest stars. They fostered an ethnic pride that strongly influenced later African American writers.

Jamaican-born but having moved to the United States in 1912, Claude McKay glorified blackness. His fame rests on poems such as those that appeared in the first American collection of his work, Harlem Shadows, Harlem Shadows (McKay) published in 1922. Although he published three novels, some short stories, and an autobiography, McKay’s best works remain his poems, which celebrate the Harlem proletariat and call for racial militancy. McKay’s poems savor blackness in the midst of white hostility. His most famous poem, “If We Must Die,” "If We Must Die" (McKay)[If We Must Die] is often cited for its militant spirit. In it, McKay calls on black Americans to resist oppression even to the death if necessary.

Perhaps the most popular writer of the Harlem Renaissance was Langston Hughes, whose poems and prose focus on the triumphs of the “little people” over adversity, the masses struggling to keep their American Dream alive. His characters suffer defeat and humiliation, but they are survivors. In works such as “The Weary Blues,” "Weary Blues, The" (Hughes, L.)[Weary Blues] “Let America Be America Again,” "Let America Be America Again" (Hughes, L.)[Let America Be America Again] and “Dreams,” "Dreams" (Hughes, L.)[Dreams (Hughes, L.)] Hughes proclaims the desire and the need to save democracy for all Americans. He evokes universal values, not only black ones.

Like McKay and Hughes, Countée Cullen published poems in his youth, and by the early 1920’s, his poetry was highly popular. In 1925, he published his first collection of verse, Color, Color (Cullen) which revealed a strong sense of racial pride. His anthologies Caroling Dusk, Caroling Dusk (Cullen) Copper Sun, Copper Sun (Cullen) and The Ballad of the Brown Girl: An Old Ballad Retold Ballad of the Brown Girl, The (Cullen) were published in 1927, but in these works Cullen generally reduced his references to race. Copper Sun, for example, included only seven “race” poems, a fact that disappointed many readers.

Unlike McKay and Hughes, Cullen saw color in mostly negative terms, as in “The Shroud of Color,” "Shroud of Color, The" (Cullen)[Shroud of Color] which focuses on the burden of being black. Cullen implies that the black is an alien in America, an exile from the African homeland. He portrays the price of being black and striving for full human rights as a crushing weight. With the publication of The Black Christ, and Other Poems Black Christ, and Other Poems, The (Cullen) in 1929, Cullen clearly moved away from race, presenting himself as a poet, not a black poet. It was his protest poems, however, that earned Cullen lasting fame.

African American music was also being accepted and promoted in the American culture at large by the 1920’s. Jazz Jazz came of age, helped in large measure by white bandleader Paul Whiteman’s Whiteman, Paul introduction of classical jazz to New York in 1924. Yet it was mainly black bandleaders such as Fletcher “Smack” Henderson, Duke Ellington, and Louis Armstrong who popularized jazz in and beyond Harlem.

Jazz dates from the post-Civil War era, when it was created out of a mixture of the blues, work songs, and spirituals. In the early 1900’s, New Orleans musicians were the first to employ jazz’s characteristic improvisation. Henderson, Ellington, and Armstrong brought the style—with modifications—to New York’s nightclubs, where both white and black patrons embraced it ardently. Ironically, the first major showplace for these bandleaders was the Cotton Club, Cotton Club which admitted only white audiences.

The growth of jazz was aided by the rise of the recording industry, which brought the music to parts of the United States where live performances were not possible or rare. Some critics, many of them black intellectuals, considered jazz unrefined, too raw, and even denigrating to the African American image. Jazz became a craze, however; it was unstoppable.

On March 12, 1926, Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom Savoy Ballroom (Harlem) opened, an architectural and musical phenomenon. Its sheer size and elegant furnishings awed patrons and made it a showplace for music and dancing. Henderson’s orchestra performed there regularly, luring patrons with performer-audience interaction. Henderson has often been called the “father of swing,” although he was strongly influenced by the young solo trumpeter Louis Armstrong.

The Savoy was open to people of all classes and colors. Music was a serious business there; in addition to the Henderson and Ellington ensembles, the bands of Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Count Basie, and Louis Armstrong were frequent performers. The Savoy gave opportunities to many musical talents, including such future singing greats as Bessie Smith and Ella Fitzgerald.

Duke Ellington expanded the boundaries of jazz as a composer and orchestrator. He was the master of form, a great synthesizer of jazz elements. His band developed a unique collaboration among leader, soloist, and group. Himself a fine pianist, Ellington refined jazz without taking away its spontaneity.

Louis Armstrong made his impact primarily as a solo artist. As early as 1923, he was noted for his stylish playing as a solo trumpeter in the King Oliver Creole Jazz Band, and he played with the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra in 1924. Armstrong had an intuitive genius that transformed the sound of jazz. He became a popular singer as well, with records selling in the millions.

These artists and many others contributed much to the enrichment of black self-awareness and self-confidence. The 1930’s, however, brought the Harlem Renaissance to a halt. The Great Depression hit Harlem hard. African American financial institutions failed, taking with them not only monetary savings but also many symbols of black aspiration. Yet the Harlem Renaissance continued until the riot of March 19, 1935. Responding to rumors of the death by beating of a black youth at the hands of police, thousands of Harlem citizens went on a rampage, destroying not only millions of dollars worth of property but also hopes and dreams.

Significance

The Harlem Renaissance gave rise to the “New Negro,” proud of black culture yet determined to participate fully in American life. With Harlem in vogue during the 1920’s, white people flocked to the neighborhood’s nightclubs and theaters, attracted by its exotic and lively culture. Many African Americans experienced a new self-consciousness and awareness. Black folktales and music were “discovered” and revitalized, serving as therapy for both white and black.

Harlem’s artists—who included sculptors, painters, and dancers as well as writers and musicians—were very image-conscious. They promoted and advanced black talent, searching for black identity and a place within American society. They projected a black image that was respectable and strong, with character triumphing over race. Yet blacks were proud of their distinctive characteristics, too, and did not want to reject their past, although cultural integrity and commercial success were sometimes in conflict.

White America courted and cultivated Harlem’s subculture. White patrons gave encouragement and funding to black talent, sometimes serving as guides and judges as well, and provided scholarships, grants, and outlets for black artists, particularly for writers. This dependency of black artists had the potential to subvert black sensibilities and interests, for some patrons had their own agendas.

Major publishing companies accepted and sought out black talent. None of the black writers’ works became best sellers, but they sold enough copies to warrant continued support by white publishers and critics. Although discrimination in the publishing industry was not entirely eliminated, post-1920’s black writers found more doors open to them than had earlier generations.

Whether later African American writers admired or rejected the works of the Harlem Renaissance, they could not ignore those works. Such writers as Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, and James Baldwin carved out careers that were different from and yet built on those of the giants of the 1920’s. Reacting to their predecessors, writers of the new generation were stimulated to examine life for African Americans as it was and as it could be.

The Harlem Renaissance reached beyond the borders of the United States. Peter Abrahams, Abrahams, Peter a black South African writer, first read American black literature in a library in Johannesburg. He was enthralled by the poems, stories, and essays he found, and they had a great influence on his life, as he later noted: “I became a nationalist, a colour nationalist, through the writings of men and women who lived a world away from me. To them I owe a great debt for crystallizing my vague yearnings to write and for showing me the long dream was attainable.” Abrahams spoke for many African and Caribbean blacks who were eager to know that white people did not have a monopoly on the writing of real literature.

Black music influenced American culture even more strongly than did black literature. Black music—spirituals, ragtime, and particularly jazz—intrigued white arrangers and composers. White pioneers in jazz such as Bix Beiderbecke, Jack Teagarden, Gene Krupa, and Benny Goodman studied jazz intently, often spending long hours in cabarets listening to black masters. At first merely imitative, these white musicians would go on to rival their teachers and then to dominate commercial jazz.

European musicians also became enamored of jazz. Among them, the composers Darius Milhaud and Kurt Weill helped pioneer continental classical jazz. (A wave of enthusiasm for Ellington and Armstrong’s “hot” jazz swept Europe later.) Referring to classical jazz, Leopold Stokowski said of the black musicians of the United States, “They are causing new blood to flow in the veins of music . . . they are path finders into new realms.” This tribute was seconded by such great composers as Maurice Ravel and Igor Stravinsky, who acknowledged the strong links between jazz and much other modern music.

Jazz helped to interpret the spirit of the times, bringing joy and vigor to the post-World War I world. Along with it came popular dances such as the turkey trot, the black bottom, and the Lindy. Talented black dancers and singers enabled this music to conquer a broad public and to be recognized as art.

Although older than jazz, blues music Blues music was mostly a fad among white composers and audiences. The blues became a craze in 1920’s Harlem, however, as an expression of black lives. Much of the popularity stemmed from the work of singers such as Bessie Smith and, earlier, Ma Rainey. Blues songs mingled hope and realism with a weary determination; they were songs of the black masses struggling to be accepted for who they were.

Langston Hughes saw the blues as distinctly black, helping to free blacks from American standardization. Many of his poems, such as “The Weary Blues,” reflect the influence of the blues and use the music’s structures, themes, and imagery. Later writers such as Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin used the blues both to express sadness and as a source of strength. As alternating expressions of despair and hope, blues songs were also sometimes used to protest societal conditions.

Although it produced important works of literature, music, and art, the Harlem Renaissance proved above all to be important for the race-consciousness it fostered, the new sense that black people had a rich culture. To a degree, however, the Harlem Renaissance left a paradoxical gift: the lesson of its failures. Writers such as Countée Cullen and Claude McKay were not as innovative or as fresh as they could have been; they were tied too closely to white norms of art and culture to be true innovators. Heavily dependent on white patrons for approval, many black artists lacked a truly personal vision.

The Harlem Renaissance died in the mid-1930’s, mortally wounded by both the Depression and the disillusionment of black artists who failed to find a common ideology to bind them together. Still, the Harlem Renaissance served as a symbol and a reference point. It was a stepping-stone for black writers and artists who followed, more sophisticated and cynical but proclaiming loudly and clearly that blacks must be free to be themselves. Harlem Renaissance Art;Harlem Renaissance Literature;Harlem Renaissance Music;Harlem Renaissance Poetry;Harlem Renaissance African Americans;Harlem Renaissance

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bontemps, Arna. The Harlem Renaissance Remembered. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1972. An excellent set of essays on leading figures of the Harlem Renaissance. Chapter 2 is particularly useful as an overview. Includes notes, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Butcher, Margaret J. The Negro in American Culture. 2d ed. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1972. A cultural history of blacks throughout American history. Traces folk and formal contributions of blacks to American culture as a whole in historical sequence. Includes index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Davis, Arthur P. From the Dark Tower: Afro-American Writers 1900 to 1960. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1974. Divided into two long sections: “The New Negro Renaissance” (1900-1940) and “In the Mainstream” (1940-1960). Quotes extensively from writers’ works and provides biographical details and selective bibliography for each author. Includes index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Floyd, Samuel A. Black Music in the Harlem Renaissance. New York: Greenwood Press, 1990. Excellent collection of essays covering varied types of music and major black musicians. One essay discusses activities in England associated with the Harlem Renaissance. Includes a list of major composers and their works, illustrations, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fullinwider, S. P. The Mind and Mood of Black America. Homewood, Ill.: Dorsey Press, 1969. Study covering the period of the 1880’s to the 1960’s examines black myths and the Harlem Renaissance revolt against these myths. Discusses several key figures of the Harlem Renaissance. Includes brief bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Huggins, Nathan Irvin. Harlem Renaissance. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971. An analysis of several black artists and their works within the context of American cultural history. Questions and challenges the quality of African American artistic expressions. Includes photographs, notes, chapter bibliographies, and extensive index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Krasner, David. A Beautiful Pageant: African American Theatre, Drama, and Performance in the Harlem Renaissance, 1910-1927. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002. Covers a period that begins somewhat earlier than that often delineated for the Harlem Renaissance and focuses on an art form—theater—that is sometimes neglected in discussions of this period. Includes illustrations and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lewis, David Levering. When Harlem Was in Vogue. 1981. Reprint. New York: Penguin Books, 1997. An intellectual and social history covering many aspects of 1920’s Harlem. Focuses primarily on written works and musical events. Lavishly illustrated. Includes chapter bibliographies and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shaw, Arnold. Black Popular Music in America. New York: Schirmer Books, 1986. A chronological study of black popular music from spirituals to funk. Notes the debt of American popular music to black artists and songwriters and includes a “White Synthesis” in each chapter. Includes illustrations, chapter bibliographies and discographies, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Watson, Steven. The Harlem Renaissance: Hub of African-American Culture, 1920-1930. New York: Pantheon Books, 1995. Highly illustrated volume features many examples of the art, poetry, and prose produced by the Harlem Renaissance and discusses the cultural, economic, and political forces that converged to produce this period in African American life. Includes chronology, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wintz, Cary D. Black Culture and the Harlem Renaissance. 1988. Reprint. College Station: Texas A&M Press, 1997. Examines the Harlem Renaissance as a social and intellectual movement within the framework of African American social and intellectual history. Relates the Harlem Renaissance to earlier black literature and its new urban setting and ties black writers to the larger literary community. Includes figures and tables, chapter bibliographies, and index.

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