The Harlem Renaissance
The Harlem Renaissance refers to a prolific period of unique works of African-American expression from about the end of World War I to the beginning of the Great Depression. Although it is most commonly associated with the literary works produced during those years, the Harlem Renaissance was much more than a literary movement; similarly, it was not simply a reaction against and criticism of racism. The Harlem Renaissance inspired, cultivated, and, most importantly, legitimated the very idea of an African-American cultural consciousness. Concerned with a wide range of issues and possessing different interpretations and solutions of these issues affecting the Black population, the writers, artists, performers and musicians of the Harlem Renaissance had one important commonality: "they dealt with Black life from a Black perspective." This included the use of Black folklore in fiction, the use of African-inspired iconography in visual arts, and the introduction of jazz to the North.[i] In order to fully understand the lasting legacies of the Harlem Renaissance, it is important to examine the key events that led to its beginnings as well as the diversity of influences that flourished during its time.
Beginning in the 1919 and lasting through about 1926 thousands of Blacks began to migrate from the southern United States to the North; an estimated 1 million people participated in what has come to be called the Great Migration. The reasons for this mass movement are complicated and numerous, but they include search for better work, which was fueled by a new demand for labor in the North (particularly from the railroad industry) and the destruction of many cotton harvests by the infectious boll weevil and widespread flooding in the South, as well as the pursuit of an overall better life, specifically escape from "the rise of Jim Crow, the disfranchisement of black voters, and the spread of lynchings and other mob violence" in the South. These migrations created the first urban Black communities in the North, which flourished in Chicago, New York, Detroit, and Cleveland.[ii]
In New York, in particular, a “sizeable chunk of real estate in the heart of Manhattan” had been available, and, as it came to be occupied by Blacks, had become the site of “a series of literary discussions in the lower Manhattan (Greenwich Village) and upper Manhattan (Harlem) sections.” These discussions were largely influenced by an increased availability of African-American literature, one of the most important being the publication of The New Negro, an anthology of works compiled by Alain Leroy Locke. Locke compared the northern migration of Blacks to “something like a spiritual emancipation,” and the anthology exposed people to the works of Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Zora Neale Hurston, among many others. These discussions became known as the New Negro Movement, and as they fueled other social activity, specifically in a spirit of...