Trends come and go as cultures evolve and art continues to capture the heart of every shift in society. Very few of the cultural movements in America were categorized by the shifting and emerging of an entire people group similar to the Israelites coming out of Egypt and establishing themselves in the Promised Land like the Harlem Renaissance. African American culture would gain its ability to breath and express itself in this little neighborhood in Manhattan. The biggest movers and shakers in Black society would come along and make contributions in music, art, song, dance, writing, poetry, big business, and much more. For the scope of this paper I will tell the story about the rise and the fall of the Harlem Renaissance answering the questions of how it started, what it was able to accomplish, and how it began to come to close.
It was the 1920’s and the African American story in America was still tied to the end of slavery as many children of former slaves were still living in the south as share croppers. The south was still filled with deep segregation, Jim Crow laws kept cross cultural dialogue from happening, and opportunities in the south were minimal for upward mobility. These were the factors that led for mass migrations of African Americans from out of rural into urban areas for the prospect of better opportunities. Many were attracted to big northern industrialized cities that were racially neutral and had many work opportunities for people of color (Mary Corey, The Harlem Renaissance, 3/8/2016). A large congregation of southern migrants established themselves in this neighborhood in New York City and a vibrant cultural movement began to immerge. The Harlem Renaissance was a period that helped establish the self-esteem of Blacks in America and to make claims for themselves who they were and what they represented (taking back their image from predominant society which portrayed them poorly). From this movement many timeless cultural contributions would be made in all areas of the arts.
Trumpets roared as famous musicians pounded away notes on their piano and sang jazzy tunes that an entire generation swung to in fine evening wear. Imagine a scene from the film “Wonder Bar” except with an all African-American cast (and completely leave out the “Going to Heaven on a Mule” number which was a farce in comparison to the Harlem Renaissance depictions of black culture). Well to do Whites would come into town and patronize well known and successful nightclub establishments in the Harlem neighborhood and Lenox Avenue was the roar of the town. Writers like Zora Neal Hurston began their body of work that would contribute to African American culture forever like her 1937 novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God”. There was an increase in recognizable numbers in the art world. In “A Sonnet to a Negro” poet Helene Johnson describes the black man or woman, “Your perfect body and your pompous gait” with confidence and self-love (Kuehner, 2001). The African-American voice was successfully captured in this period and the black voice in America had established itself and said what it wanted to say about themselves. Now you had a middle class black culture of college graduates who were able to leave behind the shackles of the painful past. Images of the minstrel which portrayed black culture in a goofy way were thrown away and a stylish and intellectual dialogue emerged from the African American’s of this movement. Throwing away all the negative stereotypes that Hollywood would like to typecast them in and even creating their own films produced, written, financed, and performed by Blacks. It was a time when there was a “taking back of our voice” and having a good time while doing it. The Harlem Renaissance was a big party and celebration of “we have overcome” and let’s be happy and shine now. This contribution to the legacy of African American culture would prove as a strong foundation for an empowered black culture that would strengthen the African American community and give them the presence and power they needed to be able to face the injustice to be fought against in the Civil Rights movement. Finally, in the hearts of the artist of this movement and the Vaudevillian acts before them there was a desire to help the white race sympathize and educate them about black lives through their artistic mediums (Sotiropoulos, 2006, pg.52).
Good parties always end on time and just because the party is over that day doesn’t mean another one will not start later. The end of the Harlem Renaissance was subtle. Many of the artistic talent of the period had moved away to places like France. The Depression was taking its toll on America and Harlem rents were unfairly increased and black professionals simply left. Many remaining blacks went into emerging neighborhoods in Queens and Brooklyn although a small middle-class presence lingered in Harlem but decay would eventually take over and turn it into a slum.
The Harlem Renaissance was an organic movement. People naturally left cities where they were mistreated to find refuge and opportunities somewhere else. They went up north for jobs and became independent business people, created an artistic movement, and enjoyed themselves. When things started to be less productive they moved on to places that were better for them. This is still the American story as many immigrants leave their lack of opportunity within their countries and seek refuge and the American dream. Others find themselves living in small towns unable to find jobs in their field and leave their hometowns. What happened in Harlem was special because this movement will forever be captured in literature, music, movies, and the hearts of America.
- Sotiropoulos, Karen. Staging Race: Black Performers in Turn of the Century America.
Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2006. Print.
- Corey, Mary. “The Harlem Renaissance.” University of California at Los Angeles. Los Angeles,
CA. 8 March 2016. Lecture.
- Kuehner, Karen. The Harlem Renaissance. Evanston, IL: Nextext, 2001. Print.