Harlem Renaissance


Aumryannah Kean, Reporter

The birth of Black History Month began in 1915. In September, the Harvard-trained historian Carter G. Woodson and the prominent minister Jesse E. Moorland founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. Which is dedicated to researching and promoting achievements by Black Americans and others of African descent. The group sponsored a national Negro History Week in 1926. Black History month is a month of reflection, learning, rejoicing, and celebrating. Black history month is celebrated every February. For Black American’s this is a time of celebrating culture and rejoicing. For those who aren’t Black American’s, it’s a time for reflection and a perfect opportunity for them to learn and educate themselves on the history of Black American’s and African’s from around the world. The Harlem Renaissance was a period of time in American history that sparked many things and was also the creation of others.

From the 1910s to the mid-1930s the Harlem Renaissance was the golden age in Black American culture, which was manifested through literature, music, stage performance, and art. It was formed from the development of the Harlem neighborhood in New York City. That very neighborhood in Manhattan was meant to be an upper-class white neighborhood around the 1880s, yet due to rapid overdevelopment it led to empty buildings, and landlords were desperate to fill them. In the early 1900s, some middle-class families from another neighborhood that was known as Black Bohemia moved to Harlem. Prominent figures like W.E.B. Du Bois led something called the Great Migration. Due to outside factors there began a population boom from 1910-20. Black American’s migrated in large numbers from the South to the North. By 1920 about 300,00 Black American’s from the south had moved up north, Harlem being the most popular destination.

Literature is something that has manifested and grew with the period of the Harlem Renaissance. With this Black Pride movement, leaders like Du Bois worked hard to ensure black Americans got the credit they deserved. Claude McKay’s collection Harlem Shadows (1922) and Jean Toomer’s Cane (1923) were the earliest breakthroughs in poetry. Civil rights activist James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of An Ex-Colored Man (1912) and later God’s Trombones (1927) left their mark on the world of fiction. Novelist and Du Bois protege Jessi Redmond Fauset’s novel There Is Confusion (1924) explored the idea of Black Americans finding a cultural identity in a white-dominated Manhattan. Some other influential writers include Zora Neals Hurston- who is best known for her collection of Black American folklore Mules and Men (1935) and her novel Their Eyes Were Watching (1937). She was also revolutionary in helping to protect the rights of Black Americans. She’s known for her wit, irreverence, and folk writing style. Claude McKay is best known for his novels and poems. If We Must Die (1919) contributed to the Harlem Renaissance. He gave a voice for black immigrants and he was one of the first Black American poets of the Harlem Renaissance. He paved the way for black poets to discuss the conditions and racism that they faced in the poems. He influenced later poets, even Langston Hughes. 

Music was something that was majorly influenced by the Harlem Renaissance. Blues is a Black American-derived music form that recognized the pain of lost love, injustice, gave expression to the victory of outlasting a broken heart, and facing adversity. Blues evolved from hymns, work songs, and field hollers. Blues is the foundation of jazz as well as the prime source of rhythm and blues, rock ‘n’ roll, and even country music. “New Orleans had a great tradition of celebration. Opera, military marching bands, folk music, the blues, different types of church music, ragtime, echoes of traditional African drumming, and all of the dance styles that went with this music could be heard and seen throughout the city. When all of these kinds of music blended into one, jazz was born” (Wynton Marsalis). Here are examples of blues from the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. (Blues Music) Here are examples of Jazz from the 1920s and 1930s. (Jazz Music). An influential musician was Louis Armstrong. He was one of the most influential artists in the history of music. He developed the idea of musicians playing during breaks that expanded into musicians playing individual solos, which soon became the norm. He’s most famous for “Dream A Little Dream Of Me and “What A Wonderful World (and of course many more). After experimenting with jazz, he came up with the bebop sound. He also helped introduce Latin American rhythms to modern jazz through his collaborations with artists like Machito and Chano Pozo. His bold trumpet playing, unique style of improvisation, and inspired teachings had a major influence not only on other trumpet players, but on all jazz musicians in the years to come. He’s most famous for A Night In Tunisia. Another form of music that emerged from the Harlem Renaissance is swing. Swing is the basic rhythm of jazz. Swing as a jazz style first appeared during the Great Depression, the optimistic feeling of swing lifted the spirits of everyone in America. By the mid-1930s, a period known as the swing era was born. Swing dancing had become the national dance and big bands were playing this style of music. Duke Ellington who was a pianist, composer, and bandleader, was one of the creatures of the big band sound, which fueled the swing era. Benny Goodman, Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, and even Frank Sinatra are popular swing musicians. A good example of swing music and dance is Sing Sing Sing by Benny Goodman. 

Art is also associated with the Harlem Renaissance. Some influential artists include Aaron Douglas who is often called “The Father of Black American Art”. He adapted African techniques to realize paintings and murals, as well as book illustration. Augusta Savage is famous for her bust of Du Bois. She followed that up with small clay portraits of everyday Black Americans and she would later be pivotal to enlisting Black artists into the Federal Art Project. James VanDerZee is also an influential artist. His photography captured daily life in Harlem and commissioned portraits in his studio that he worked to fill with optimism and separate philosophically from the horrors of the past. 

The creative boom of the Harlem Renaissance ended with the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression. It wavered until prohibition ended in 1933. By 1935 pivotal Harlem residents had moved on and sought work. The continuous flow of refugees from the south replaced them. The Harlem Race Riot of 1935 broke out following the arrest of a young shoplifter, resulting in 3 dead, hundreds injured, and millions of dollars in property damage. The riot was a death knell for the Harlem Renaissance. The Harlem Renaissance gave African American artists, writers, and musicians pride and control over how the black experience was represented in American culture, and this set the stage for the Civil Rights Movement.