The Harlem Renaissance remains one of the most momentous artistic engagements in the history of African-Americans. Harlem, a neighborhood in upper Manhattan, became the international capital of African American culture. African – American painters, sculptors, musicians, poets, and novelists joined in a remarkable artistic outpouring. Some critics at the time attacked this work as isolationist and conventional (Sporre 549). It served
to create a realization of identity for African-Americans, while forcing white Americans to face up to the importance of an ethnic group too long measured substandard. The Harlem Renaissance saw an explosion of African-American literature, music dance, art and social commentary in the 1920’s. Although in reality it was a place for a deprived people to adopt a politically radical view and express it to an audience that hadn’t been available before the Renaissance. The Harlem Renaissance used artistic expression to make a considerable impact on all aspects of society, while also providing African-Americans with desirable qualities, abilities, and characteristics that wasn’t synonymous with slavery.
Two of the most important factors contributing to the creative phenomenon of the Harlem Renaissance era were World War I and the great migration of Blacks from the rural South to the industrial North during the war years and continuing throughout the 1920’s. Many African-Americans supported the war effort enthusiastically by serving in the armed forces or by filling vacant jobs vacated by white soldiers in cities like New York, Detroit, Chicago and Philadelphia. After the war they were hopeful that their patriotism would earn them a greater measure of equality, but their expectations were thwarted by the 1919 race riots in both the North and the South and by a record number of lynching’s that same year. A new racial pride and a sense of community among Blacks emerged during this period and its center was Harlem, the birthplace of the “New Negro”, who refused to accept either the plantation mentality of the South or the ghetto mentality of the North (Witalec Volume 1, 1).
One of the most influential people of the Harlem Renaissance era was Charles Surgeon Johnson. As founder of the journal Opportunity, Johnson offered recognition and support to many African-American writers by giving them the chance to publish their works, by holding literary contests with prize money, and hosting honorary annual banquets. For this and other efforts, Langston Hughes, a renowned poet and novelists, credited Johnson with having “singled handedly propelled “the Harlem Renaissance into being (Witalec Volume 3, 1).
The Harlem Renaissance movement wasn’t without conflict. One of America’s principal Black intellectuals, W.E.B. Du Bois emerged as the leading voice in the struggle for racial advancement during the first half of the 20th century. He firmly believed that educated blacks-the small percentage of black intellectuals should provide the strong leadership that nation’s Blacks so desperately needed. “The Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men,” he wrote. Du Bois’s philosophy was in direct opposition to that of another Black leader, Booker T. Washington, a former slave and founder of the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute for Blacks. Washington held that the way to raise Blacks up was to supply job training for them. Washington exhorted Blacks to put aside their aspirations for political and social equality and strive instead to improve their industrial skills before demanding a higher place in American society (Chambers 40, 41).
Critics question whether the Harlem Renaissance really achieved its aims of forging a new identity for Blacks separated from the history of slavery. One of the criticisms is that by trying to create distinct culture separated from the past abuses and even the contribution of Anglo-European traditions it succeeded only in alienation. Amore potent criticism is that the Harlem Renaissance reproduced only the specific identity of the middle class, intellectual elite of an ethnic group trying to impress it’s backgrounds and views on a population still dominated by lower-class and uneducated people. Still another criticism is that the very goal of forging an identity for an entire ethnic group and socially edifying them was grossly ill-conceived because overwhelming number of African-Americans are mostly unaware of it or know it only as history at best(Kramer and Russ 51).
Visual artists of the Harlem Renaissance, like the dramatists, attempted to win control over representation of their people from white caricature and denigration while developing a new repertoire of images. Prior to World War I, Black painters and sculptors had rarely concerned themselves with African-American subject matter. By the end of the 1920’s, however, Black artists had begun developing styles related to black aesthetic traditions of Africa.
The international appeal of jazz and its connection to common Black life, accompanied by sheer virtuosity of its musicians, encouraged Black intellectuals in other fields to turn increasingly to specifically “Negro” aesthetic forms as a basis for innovation and self-expression. The tendency appeared in concert music, choral programs and Broadway musicals as well as literature. Popular revues and vaudeville acts drew all-Black audiences throughout the United States in cities on the Theatre Owners Booking Association circuit. In the 1920’s Black-produced shows came to Broadway again and again, and many White-produced shows featured Black casts. The success of such shows helped fuel optimism of the Harlem Renaissance (Web).
The crash of the New York Stock Exchange on October 29, 1929 ravaged the entire nation, marking the beginning of an economic depression that lasted well into World War II. Millions of unskilled laborers lost their jobs, and skilled laborers who managed to keep working suffered a drastic drop in income. African-Americans suffered even more severely during this period: Black unemployment soared to about 50percent nationwide, and in some large cities it reached even higher rates, 65 percent in Atlanta, and 80 percent in Norfolk, Virginia. African-American workers were usually the first to be let go; nearly half of those who lost their jobs had been domestic servants and were replaced by white workers, many of whom had previously considered such work too menial. Poverty not only struck the ordinary Harlemite but ended the careers of many of the period’s artists as well. Most Black artists had always felt uncomfortable with the necessity of enlisting or accepting financial support from White’s. When once wealthy patrons who saw their funds reduced, gave up their Black artist and poet protégés, it became painfully clear how important such funding had been to Black artist success (Chambers 109, 113).
Although the Great Depression effectively ended the Harlem Renaissance, it could not destroy the era’s music, political, literary, and musical legacy. Not only are many of the renaissance works and artists still tremendously respected and influential today, but their example and their success opened doors for generations of future Black artists. In 1910, Black artists had little chance for recognition, but by 1930, publishing a novel by a talented Black writer or producing a record by a talented Black musician was simply seen as good business (Chambers 120).
Chambers, Veronica. The Harlem Renaissance. Chelsea House Publishers, 1998.
Kramer, Victor A., and Robert A. Russ, eds. Harlem Renaissance Re-examined. Whiston Publishing Co. 1997.
Witalec, Janet. Harlem Renaissance, a Gale Critical Companion, Volume 1, 3. The Gale Group, 2003.
Web. Galileo, Encyclopedia Britannica, 2002.
Spore, Dennis J. The Creative Impulse-An Introduction To The Arts, Eight Edition. Pearson Education, Inc, 2009.