The Harlem Renaissance

In the 1920s, "the Great Migration" of African Americans from the rural south to the urban north in search of a better standard of living and economic opportunity sparked an African American cultural renaissance. That movement took its name from the New York City neighborhood of Harlem, the most famous mecca of Black life and culture. While the Renaissance was not confined to Harlem, the area attracted a remarkable concentration of intellect and talent, which served as the symbolic capital of a cultural awakening.

Alain Locke, a Howard University philosopher/historian is heralded as the “Father of the Harlem Renaissance." In 1925, he published “The New Negro,” a collection of poetry, essays, plays and music by promising young artists. The new publication would certify the existence of a great cultural and artistic awakening in Black America.

The Harlem Renaissance marked the first time that mainstream publishers, critics and wealthy white philanthropists turned their attention to African American literature, music, art and politics. Famous blues singers like Bessie Smith, band leaders Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, dancer Josephine Baker and actor/orator Paul Robeson were among the leading entertainers of the Harlem Renaissance. While Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, Claude McKay and Zora Neale Hurston were some of its most eloquent writers.

The social foundation and themes of this movement represented the influences of slavery and inequality, emerging African American folk traditions, racial pride and identity, and the effects of systemic racism. The Harlem Renaissance was unusual among literary and artistic movements for its close connection to civil rights and reform organizations.

Crucial to the movement was the establishment of Black publications such as the Crisis, the magazine of the NAACP; Opportunity, published by the National Urban League; and The Messenger, a journal connected with “the Brotherhood of the Sleeping Car Porters,” a Black labor union.

The popularity of literature, art and music (particularly jazz), helped to spark a “Negro Vogue” in cities such as New York and Paris in the mid-to late 1920s.  Nowhere was the “Negro Vogue” more evident than at the “Cotton Club,” a cabaret nightclub popular with white audiences in the late 1920s.  African Americans were permitted to entertain at the Cotton Club but were not permitted to enter as patrons.

In the late 1920s, economic desperation started to grow among Harlem’s Black residents. Whites owned more than 80% of Harlem businesses. As a result of the Wall Street crash in October 1929, fewer white patrons came to Harlem in search of entertainment.  However, the Harlem Renaissance promoted a renewed sense of pride and cultural self-expression that laid the foundation for a new movement of talented artists and writers to come such as James Baldwin.

To learn more about the Harlem Renaissance, click the link below to the National Museum of African American History and Culture: