Learn about this cultural boom in African American history
The Harlem Renaissance was a golden age of African American culture that took place during the early 20th century. It had a lasting impact both at home and overseas and set the stage for the Civil Rights Movement of the 50s and 60s in the United States.
This cultural boom was fuelled by Black pride; Black artists’ determination to have authority over how the Black American experience was portrayed; and the belief that Black literature, Black art, Black theater, and Black music were forms of activism that promoted progressive politics and integration. Names often linked to this movement include Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, W. E. B. Du Bois, Josephine Baker, and Louis Armstrong.
Following the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1875 in the USA, white supremacists organized to regain political power throughout the south. Jim Crow laws – local and state laws enforcing racial segregation – were enacted during the late 19th and earlier 20th century. Lynch mobs terrorized Black people, and racist politicians conspired to deny Black people their rights.
As life in the south became increasingly difficult, many African Americans migrated north to cities offering better employment opportunities, such as Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, and New York–this was known as the Great Migration. Harlem was among their destinations, attracting more than 175,000 African Americans.
Harlem was originally developed as an exclusively white middle and upper-middle-class neighborhood in the 19th century. However, rapid overdevelopment resulted in a high number of empty buildings. Landlords became desperate to fill them, and in the early 1900s, Black families began moving into the area despite pushback from white members of the community. Many of the latter would eventually move out of Harlem, and it would become a majority Black neighborhood.
Who were some of the figures of the Harlem Renaissance?
Black theater flourished during the Harlem Renaissance, with writers and performers rejecting minstrelsy and the degrading portrayal of African Americans by white actors in blackface. Black playwrights put the Black experience and Black performers center stage. They employed realism, explored complex human emotions, and dismantled harmful stereotypes.
Noted Black playwrights of the Harlem Renaissance include Dunbar Nelson, Grimké, Hurston, Thurman, Hughes, Mary P. Burrill, Marita Bonner, Georgia Douglas Johnson, Willis Richardson, Eulalie Spence, Frank Wilson, and Randolph Edmonds. Willis Richardson was the most prolific: his play The Chip Woman’s Fortune, which was produced in 1923, was the first Black-authored play that wasn’t a musical to be performed on Broadway. Langston Hughes’s Mulatto, which was first performed in 1935, is considered one of the most successful plays of the Harlem Renaissance.
Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle’s Shuffle Along was one of the first Broadway musicals to be written and directed by African Americans. It launched the career of Missouri-born dancer and singer Josephine Baker, who eventually moved to France and became one of Europe's most popular and highest-paid performers in the 1920s. She was a prominent Black rights activist.
The Harlem “Literati”
Poet Claude McKay was a central figure in the Harlem Renaissance. In 1919, McKay published his poem If We Must Die, considered one of the most famous poems of all time. While it doesn’t explicitly refer to race, it is seen as a message of resistance and a response to lynchings that were happening across the country at the time. James Weldon Johnson and Langston Hughes weaved the threads of African American culture – ragtime, jazz, and blues - into their poems: The Weary Blues was a notable jazz poem written by Hughes.
In his landmark essay, The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain, Hughs summed up the spirit of the Harlem Renaissance: “We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame.”
James Weldon Johnson’s anthology The Book of American Negro Poetry, Jean Toomer’s Cane, and Alain Locke's anthology The New Negro are also considered seminal works. The latter featured several African-American writers and poets, from the well-known, such as Zora Neale Hurston, Hughes, Toomer, and McKay, to the lesser-known, like the poet Anne Spencer.
The most celebrated Harlem Renaissance artist is Aaron Douglas, often called “the Father of Black American Art.” Douglas contributed illustrations depicting Black life to Locke's anthology. Douglas created large murals, which were allegories of African American history and contemporary life.
One of his best-known works is a series of four murals for the New York Public Library’s 135th Street branch in Harlem called Aspects of Negro Life.
Jacob Lawrence achieved mainstream success aged 23 for his 60-panel Migration Series, portraying stories of African migration from the southern to the northern United States.
Other prominent visual artists of the Harlem Renaissance include Lois Mailou Jones, Augusta Savage, photographer James Van Der Zee, Richmond Barthé, and Charles Alston.
Blue and jazz made up the soundtrack to the Harlem Renaissance, with the likes of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Bessie Smith, Fats Waller, and Cab Calloway performing elaborate shows in the neighborhood.
Dances most often associated with jazz, such as the Charleston and tap dance, became international fads as a result of hugely popular all-Black musical revues.
The stock market crash in 1929 marked the beginning of the Great Depression. Harlem’s golden age dwindled, and neglect and unemployment transformed the neighborhood once again. However, the names, publications, and works of art associated with the Harlem Renaissance had a lasting impact and inspired future generations of Black artists, including Black Francophone intellectuals living in Paris.