Cultural Movement – the Harlem Renaissance

During the 1920s, The Harlem Renaissance was a cultural movement that provided a new way of life for African Americans. The Renaissance, also known as the New Negro Movement, was also a time of intellectual, social, and artistic awakening that was centered in, but not limited to, Harlem, New York. In addition to serving as the movements spiritual home, Harlem also provided the setting and material for literary works of the Renaissance.

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The literary creations such as poetry, short stories, and novels, that were filled with an abundance of scenes and characters flowed out of Harlem’s streets and cabarets. Writers such as Rudolph Fisher, Claude McKay, and Langston Hughes were ones of many that had the talent to portray New York’s ghetto life. Although it was an overcrowded ghetto, Harlem was fueled with music, art, culture, and laughter which veiled the misery and poverty that was a reality for many black urbans. Although African Americans during this period faced discrimination and poverty, the Harlem Renaissance in its essence inspired change in African American attitude and culture through the arts, through literature, and through music. (Wintz)

For many African Americans during the Harlem Renaissance, the arts were a form of expression during times of discrimination and racism. The movement invited African American artists to practice forms of art that would shatter stereotypes, increase visibility, and it was even able to uplift black Americans. Between the times of the 1920s-1930s an explosion of creativity flowed amid African Americans who contained talent in every form of art. The Harlem Renaissance consisted of a variety of African Americans from all parts of the world who started to embrace their culture, showcase their talents, and speak out about injustices. Therefore, when African Americans faced racism and discrimination, they were able to use art as a voice and as a way to celebrate their heritage. For example, Aaron Douglass was an African American painter and graphic artist who played a significant role during the Renaissance. The Renaissance was all about African Americans embracing black culture, and Aaron Douglass was one of many who used his creativity to showcase the harsh realities African Americans face. Aaron Douglass created breathtaking images of the harsh African American life and struggles. Powerful images such as Douglas’s art, created a powerful impact on how the African Americans were viewed and it also created an opportunity for them to voice their emotions.

The arts for many African Americans during the Harlem Renaissance were used as an outlet to tell a story, depict emotions, and showcase truth. The visual arts of the Renaissance were able to create powerful stories on the lives of African Americans. After World War I, many African Americans that were part of the Harlem Renaissance began developing artistic styles which represented black culture and the truths about African American injustice. In addition, the movement was an explosion of African American culture which changed the production of art in an extraordinary way. There were many new genres and styles of art that became very popular, and even new beliefs were being expressed through the arts. For example, Jacob Lawrence was one of the most influential artists of the 20th century that was influenced by the Renaissance and his culture. * Lawrence was best known for his modern depictions of everyday life of African Americans as well as epic narratives of black history and historical figures. The city of Harlem had experienced a period of creativity, The Harlem Renaissance, and still the neighborhood continued being the focus of African American culture. Lawrence developed a style of art that expressed the vibrancy of the neighborhoods and the everyday life of African Americans.

Lawrence became well known for his Migration Series that was shown in a New York Downtown gallery. Some of his art panels displayed the pressures of discrimination, and others displayed encouragement of African American press which was emphasized by images of newspapers. The Harlem Renaissance inspired him to use his art write about his life and what he went through. Lawrence stated, “””I was part of the migration, as was my family: my mother, my sister, and my brother … I grew up hearing tales about people ‘coming up,’ another family arriving”” (Trecker). His paintings included views of the South, cotton fields, African American migration, and agricultural conditions of the South. Many African Americans, like Lawrence, used their art to tell truth about what all African Americans faced, used it to tell real stories about what they went through, and they used art to demonstrate their beliefs and emotions.

As the city of Harlem transformed into a place for African Americans to express themselves, many African American writers began to flourish in the intellectually-influenced atmosphere. While some black writers continued to write in standard English literary forms, other black writers explored African American speech and lyrical form while they created works that identified with their culture. Even though there were many diverse literary themes that came about during this period, the themes were still mainly focused on promoting racial pride and embracing black culture. Many literary works during this period were also created to address the feeling of alienation that many African Americans faced in society, and its goal was to uplift those who felt they were a burden because of discrimination and racism. In addition, many writers during this period based their literary works on their own personal lives, which inspired other African Americans to fight against racism. Black women novelists during this time also became influenced by black culture and the harsh realities they faced.

For example, Zora Neal Hurston became one of the most influential women writers of the Harlem Renaissance. Hurston’s work during the 20th century focused primarily on the culture and relationships within the African American community. In the black neighborhood of Harlem, New York, the Harlem Renaissance was a movement that was brought on through the celebration of African Americans and their love for the arts, especially literature. In addition, Hurston’s peers didn’t always accept her work because she did not write about what they wanted. Instead, because she was so inspired by the movement, she wrote novels exposing the injustice of racism and discrimination that occurred in American Society. Some even said, “Hurston was interested in analyzing relationships and customs within African American communities, especially in language and rhetorical strategies. Some black intellectuals were dismayed by the crude tales she sometimes reported; they thought she was depicting African American as subservient and ignorant. She believed her tales celebrated the imaginative” (Shuman 750). In her novels she was able to vividly depict the dialect and oral nature of her characters, while still being able to keep her theme of spreading the truth about American Society.

Literature during the Harlem Renaissance lead African Americans writers to create new images of the black community that would replace the stereotypes placed on them by society. Participants of the Harlem Renaissance often new each other and worked together to exchange the idea that they all desired to express themselves and to change societies views on their culture. The movement showcased the pride of the African Americans and it motivated many of them to celebrate their backgrounds and express their harsh lives through literature. For many, literature was a form of expression. One of the most influential African American writers during this period was Langston Hughes. Hughes was one of many African writers who was inspired by what surrounded him, therefore his writing contained poems, plays, short stories, and more. He also typically wrote about racial injustice and the African American culture. One of his most famous works The Weary Blues established Hughes as dedicated to bringing light to the lives of ordinary working-class African Americans and their joys, their struggles, and their blues. Literature during the Harlem Renaissance was not only a way of expression for the African Americans, but it also served as a way to celebrate black culture. (Wallace 18) (Tarver and Paula)

During this period experimentation and expression of music in the African American community was popular. Jazz music and the blues became the main music style for African Americans. Using the “New Negro” concept, black musicians of the Harlem Renaissance sought to use music to empower black culture and change society. Jazz musicians focused on celebration of culture and life while the blues focused more on the emotions of the people. Music is the universal language that could impact anyone no matter race or gender. Therefore, jazz was one of the most important contributors to the Harlem Renaissance because it helped break social boundaries and it also highlighted that the piano was for everyone. In addition, the whites became more attracted to black music and culture which broke racial boundaries because of musical culture and composition. The music of the Harlem Renaissance was more than just music, jazz was a way of life. Singers of the Renaissance combined the blues with African rhythms and used a variety techniques to create jazz. Those who wanted to get away from reality would go into cabarets to enjoy music and listen to the music. Louis Armstrong was one of the most influential male jazz trumpeter, composer, and vocalist who had the ability to empower everyone who went to watch him.

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