The Harlem Renaissance was the name given to the development of the Harlem neighborhood in New York City as a Black cultural mecca in the early 20th century, between the end of World War I and the middle of the 1930s. This period is considered a golden age in African American culture, manifesting in literature, music, stage performance and visual arts. In Harlem, Black writers, artists, musicians, and scholars found a place where they could freely express their talents.
One of the factors contributing to the rise of the Harlem Renaissance was the Great Migration of African Americans to northern cities between 1919 and 1926: With the end of the Civil War in 1865, hundreds of thousands of African Americans newly freed from the yoke of slavery in the South began to dream of fuller participation in American society. Unfortunately, by the late 1870s, that dream was largely dead, as white supremacy was quickly restored to the Reconstruction South. The “Jim Crow” segregation laws made African Americans second-class citizens. In 1915 and 1916, natural disasters in the south put Black workers and sharecroppers out of work. This, and the start of World War I – which put a hold on labor migration from Europe – fueled the Great Migration. By 1920, some 300,000 African Americans had moved north, and Harlem was one of the most popular destinations for these families.
The northern Manhattan neighborhood of Harlem was meant to be an upper-class white neighborhood in the 1880s, but rapid overdevelopment led to empty buildings and desperate landlords seeking to fill them. In the early 1900s, a few middle-class Black families from another neighborhood known as Black Bohemia (a Black ghetto in mid-town Manhattan) moved to Harlem, and other Black families followed. Some white residents initially fought to keep African Americans out of the area, but failing that many whites eventually fled.
The Great Migration drew to Harlem some of the greatest minds and brightest talents of the day, an astonishing array of African American artists and scholars. Between the end of World War I and the mid-1930s, they produced one of the most significant eras of cultural expression in the nation’s history: the Harlem Renaissance. During the time, it was known as the “New Negro Movement” named after the 1925 anthology by Alain Locke (1885-1954). Locke, a Harvard-educated writer, critic, and teacher who became known as the “dean” of the Harlem Renaissance, described it as a “spiritual coming of age” in which African Americans transformed “social disillusionment to race pride.” Most of the participants in the movement held Locke’s The New Negro in high regard. The essence of the movement was summed up by Locke when he declared that through art, “Negro life is seizing its first chances for group expression and self-determination.”
The Harlem Renaissance was a literary, artistic, and intellectual movement that kindled a new Black cultural identity. It encompassed poetry and prose, painting and sculpture, jazz and dance. What united these diverse art forms was their realistic presentation of what it meant to be Black in America, what writer Langston Hughes called an “expression of our individual dark-skinned selves,” as well as a new militancy in asserting their civil and political rights.
Langston Hughes (1902-1967), was easily the most prolific and most influential writer of the Harlem Renaissance. In the forty-odd years between his first book in 1926 and his death in 1967, he devoted his life to writing and lecturing. He was a poet, social activist, novelist, playwright, and columnist. He wrote, among others, sixteen books of poems, two novels, three collections of short stories and twenty plays. Hughes was one of the prominent Black writers to champion racial consciousness as a source of inspiration for Black artists and he was one of the earliest innovators of the literary art form called jazz poetry.
Among the Harlem Renaissance’s most significant contributors was intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963). Scholar and activist Du Bois became the first African American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1895. He wrote extensively and was the best-known spokesperson for African American rights during the first half of the 20th century. In 1903, Du Bois published a seminal work, The Souls of Black Folk, a collection of essays. Du Bois co-founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909, and served as editor of its monthly magazine, The Crisis.
Another leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance was photographer James Van Der Zee (1886-1983). He was born in Lenox, Massachusetts and moved to Harlem with his father and brother in 1906. Growing up, he worked as a waiter and elevator operator before getting a job as a darkroom assistant and then as a portraitist. He is best known for his carefully posed portraits of family units and of Black New Yorkers. His work was in high demand partly due to his experimentation and skill in double exposures, retouching negatives, and the ability to achieve an aura of glamour in his photographs. Van Der Zee photographed many of the prominent figures in Harlem in those days, including the leading figures of the movement. He produced the most comprehensive documentation of the Harlem Renaissance period.
At the height of the movement, Harlem was the epicenter of American culture. The literature, music and fashion these artists created, defined culture for Blacks and whites alike, in America and around the world. The end of the creative boom began with the stock market crash of 1929 and resulting Great Depression. However, the Harlem Renaissance’s impact on America was indelible. It was a golden age for African American art and literature. It gave these artists pride in, and control over, how the Black experience was represented in American culture. It instilled in African Americans across the country a new spirit of self-determination, a new social consciousness, and a new commitment to political activism and therefore set the stage for the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
• History.com. “Harlem Renaissance.” Accessed April 13, 2023. https://www.history.com/topics/roaring-twenties/harlem-renaissance#harlem-renaissance-ends.
• Johnston, Jessica. “An Archive for Virtual Harlem.” Accessed April 13, 2023. https://scalar.usc.edu/works/harlem-renaissance/harlem-renaissance-summary.
• Locke, Alain. The New Negro: An Interpretation. New York: Albert and Charles Boni, 1925.
• National Museum of African American History & Culture, Smithsonian Institute. “A New African American Identity: The Harlem Renaissance.” Accessed April 12, 2023. https://nmaahc.si.edu/explore/stories/new-african-american-identity-harlem-renaissance.
• Rampersad, Arnold. “The Book That Launched the Harlem Renaissance.” The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, No. 38 (Winter 2002-2003): 87-91.