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History of the Harlem Renaissance

History of the Harlem Renaissance: What You Didn't Know

The period between 1920 and 1930 saw a significant contribution by the African-American community in literature. This period is known as the Harlem renaissance.
Historyplex Staff
Last Updated: Jun 3, 2018
The AfrIcan-American culture received a big impetus during the '20s. The Africans who migrated to the suburbs of New York, were prominent members of this renaissance. The implications and the effects of this movement were widespread as it also influenced black writers in France. It created a new identity for the black community in the US. It was the first time in history that the white community took notice of the culture of African-Americans. Harlem was essentially a Jewish neighborhood, until the black community settled here and in some parts of Chicago and Washington D.C, in the early decades of 1900. It went on to become the most influential African-American neighborhood in the 1920s.

Nature and Characteristics of the Harlem Renaissance

The community contributed to the four important genres - poetry, drama, fiction, and essay writing. It was quite similar to the European renaissance, with music, films, theater, dance and drama becoming a regular activity for Harlem residents. It was not exactly a revolt, or a way to repel the racism against African-Americans, but a movement to glorify and show the world their intellectual capabilities. Alain Locke, who was a professor at Harvard University and the first African-American Rhodes scholar, described this awakening as a 'spiritual emancipation' of the black community. It began as a series of literary discussions in the New York suburbs of Greenwich village and Harlem, gradually assuming an unprecedented character and reshaping the African-American heritage.

A wide range of cultural elements and art forms were showcased on a grand stage like the 'Apollo Theater', which became synonymous with black swing dancing and jazz. Harlem musicians and artists became a subject of great interest nationwide; even amongst the white community. New forms of blues and jazz music, the depiction of experiences of slavery and the folk dance of the blacks, institutionalized racism and its effects and the practice of catering to the likes and dislikes of the whites, were all highlighted in common themes. Jean Toomer, Claude McKay, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes and James Johnson were acclaimed authors who grew in importance nationally. Their works pertaining to production of fictional work, art, magazines and newspapers demanding equality and humanitarian rights became tremendously popular nationwide.

Sociological development took a new form, with a fresh wave of consciousness about the importance of racial integration among the blacks. Marcus Garvey initiated a new movement, 'Back to Africa', which encouraged the African descendants to return to their African homes. W.E.B Du Bois, a Pan-African civil rights activist and the author of an influential writing, 'The Souls of Black Folk', put forth the concept of 'twoness'. The concept made the black community rethink their twin status as Americans and Negroes, which were proving to be conflicting states of existence, according to him.

The Harlem Renaissance was successful in establishing the identity of the African-Americans as an integral part of American history. The symbolism and actual effects of the era served as a big inspiration for future struggles for their rights, like the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. It reinforced the stand of the community and demonstrated to the world what capabilities they had in store, waiting to be unleashed. This led to a united cultural identity which served as a conscious awakening for a united race among them.