The Harlem Renaissance was an artistic, literary, musical and theatrical movement that began in the late 1920s and lasted for about 10 years. A blossoming of the African American culture is also called the Negro Renaissance, the New Negro Movement, or the Jazz Age. (1) This creative activity occupied almost all spheres of art and demonstrated the unique culture of African Americans. The movement influenced the later African American literature and had a significant impact on consciousness worldwide. The Harlem Renaissance was a cultural awakening, the reborn and rise of the intellectuals and great artists.
The Harlem Renaissance was a part of a larger movement that had begun in the early 20th century. It was caused by several factors: the Great Migration of African Americans from the rural places to urban spaces, the rise of literacy, creation of socioeconomic opportunities and various organizations aimed at defending the civil rights. (2) The movement is unusual among other artistic and literary activities for its close relationship to the reform groups and civil rights. The migration, combined with the trends in American society and the activity of the radical intellectuals (including Locke, Marcus Garvey, W.E.B. Du Bois) contributed to the success of black artists. Writers, artists, actors, musicians praised African American traditions and created the new ones at the same time.
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Situating the Harlem Renaissance in space can be quite difficult. Surely, Harlem is central to the movement, but it doesn’t serve as its only location. The New Negro Movement spread across the USA, the Caribbean, and the world. Harlem was the artistic capital of black America, it contained the infrastructure to develop and support the arts. However, despite its size, infrastructure and physical presence, the relation of Harlem to Renaissance is really complex. It was a rapidly growing black metropolis, but its residents lived on the edge of poverty experiencing crimes, drug addiction and debts. The problem was that talented young people migrated to the north to find a better life, but Harlem failed to resolve their problems and fulfill their dreams. In spite of this, the city continued to be a center of nightlife, a fertile place for cultural experiments.
The most popular writer of the movement was Langston Hughes. He wrote with the rhythmic meter of blues and jazz. Claude Mckey asked African Americans to stand up for their rights. Lean Toomer wrote plays and poems that demonstrated the spirit of his time. No aspect of the Renaissance shaped America as jazz. The citizens visited concerts every night to see the same performers. Harlem’s Cotton Club was a popular place for improvisation performances that were so beloved by the city dwellers. Such talented singers as Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith popularized the blues and jazz vocals. (3)
The Harlem Renaissance was primarily a literary movement that later influenced all African American creative arts. The artists aimed to show the African American experience and believed in racial equality, however, they had no common artistic style, political or social beliefs. This movement was free of any general manifesto. The Harlem Renaissance was the first time when critics and publishers took the African American literature seriously and it was the first time when it attracted so much attention of the public. The end of the movement varies from one artistic field to another. In musical theatre, black performers and musicians continued to work till the World War II era. In art, the artist continued to work after the 1930th, but their work was not associated with the Harlem Renaissance. In literature, a number of figures went silent, left Harlem, or died. Surely, some continued to write and publish their works, but there was no feeling that they belonged to the movement. In any case, few people were talking about the Harlem Renaissance by the mid-1930s. (4)
Harlem Renaissance is considered as the “golden age” of the black art. The level of cultural production and artistic rise cannot be overestimated. The movement influenced the future generations of writers, musicians and artists, and laid the groundwork for future art.
Research Paper on The Harlem Renaissance
The Harlem Renaissance, also known as the New Negro Movement started at the end of World War I, but only began to get recognized around 1924. The Harlem Renaissance was made up of chiefly writers and was considered a phenomenon. This movement started at a time when racism was still at large.
African Americans had to deal with the KKK and other racial prejudices in society. The Harlem Renaissance was significant because it was the first time African Americans expressed their views on racism and their self-love for one another, using lyrical styles that was never seen before in African American writing. Two of the most prominent poets of the time were Arna Bontemps and Langston Hughes.
The Harlem Renaissance happened fifty seven years after the Emancipation Proclamation. Previously, African Americans didn’t have much education or a chance to make their mark in the literary world. They didn’t have much of a chance because they were still looked upon as inferior. They were also thought not to have a distinct cultural heritage.
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The United States got involved in World War I in the year 1917. At that time, race riots were happening and lynchings were frequent. After World War I ended in 1918, African Americans started coming to the North hoping to escape the racist treatment in the South. Unfortunately, life in the North wasn’t that much greater. In the South, more and more race riots occurred and many black people were beaten and killed-- this was known as “Red Summer” (Anderson, pg. 196). Also, the number of lynchings were increasing. This is what spurred the outbreak
of African American artists. They grew tired of keeping quiet and focused their emotions into their writing. “The emergence of the New Negro symbolized black liberation and the final shaking off of the residuals of slavery in mind, spirit and character. This new man shed the costume of the shuffling darky, the subservient and docile retainer, the clown; he was a man and a citizen in his own right: intelligent, articulate, self-assured and urban.” (Lightner, 1996) The Harlem Renaissance started to fade between the stock market crash and the Great Depression.
Arna Bontemps was born in Alexandria, Louisiana. He and his family moved to Los Angeles when he was three, because of racist incidents in Alexandria. Bontemps dropped out of a white boarding school, because his father told him not to “go up there acting colored”. He didn’t like the idea of hiding his racial heritage and transferred to Pacific Union College. A year after he graduated, he started to publish his poetry. Bontemps was influenced by fellow poets, Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen. In many of his poems, Bontemps draws from folklore-- spirituals, blues, and jazz (Bengtson, 2000). In his poem, “A Black Man Talks of Reaping” Bontemps bitterly presents the black man’s experience. He implies that the black race forever plants, but never reaps what they sow-- labor without reward. In Bontemps eyes he always felt black people were working overtime to be equal with whites, but their hard work was for nothing. He felt their social capacity didn’t change significantly. An example of this was during World War I, when blacks were called to serve in the war, but were still treated as second class citizens. They were still segregated and didn’t get the same treatment as white soldiers. A verse from “A Black Man Talks of Reaping” is: “Yet what I sowed and what the orchard yields/ my brother’s sons are gathering stalk and root/ small wonder then my children glean in fields/ they have not sown and feed on bitter fruit.” (Bengtsson, 2000). In another poem, Bontemps writes about a different issue, he describes the dark despair during slavery. This poem was called “Southern Mansion”. Lines like “chains of bondmen dragging on the ground” gives the poem an eerie tone.
Arna Bontemps did not just write poetry, he wrote novels and essays also.
Black Thunder: Gabriel’s revolt: Virginia 1800 was set during the slave uprising in year 1800. It was said to be “the only novel dealing forthrightly with the historical and revolutionary traditions of the Negro people” (Bloom, pg. 3). The way Bontemps wrote the protagonist, Gabriel was inspiring. Even when he was caught for the uprising, he still possessed hope and courage. Gabriel fought when his fellow slaves ran for their lives. The novel establishes the concept of freedom, and is found in later works of Bontemps. Black Thunder surpassed the boundaries and ideology of “the Negro novel”.
One of the most well known poets during the Harlem Renaissance was Langston Hughes. He was born in Joplin, Missouri. He has written many poems and stories. His style was of a jazz and blues flavor. Hughes was one of the major poets to break the tradition of African American literature. Instead of just writing about racial prejudices, he also celebrated the Black lifestyle. “There is so much richness in Negro humor, so much beauty in black dreams, so much dignity in our struggle and so much universality in our problems, in us--in each living human being of color-- that I do not understand the tendency today that of running away from us, of being afraid to sing our songs, paint our own pictures, write about ourselves.” says Hughes. (Bloom, pg. 70) It was clear that Hughes stood by this statement, because it showed in his work. In “My People”, Hughes calls African Americans beautiful-- using the endearing term “my people”. He compared their eyes to the stars and their souls to the bright sun. It was well known that Langston Hughes was very proud of who he was.
Hughes also wrote about the hardships of being Black. In some of his writings, racist issues and the lack of equality in America were discussed. Hughes believed in the American Dream, and was proud to be an American.
Unfortunately, the American Dream didn’t pertain to African-Americans-- they weren’t treated equally, despite what the laws implied. In his poem, “Democracy” he says “I tire so of hearing people say/ Let things take their course/ Tomorrow is another day/ I do not need my freedom when I’m dead/ I cannot live on tomorrow’s bread.” (Knopf, pg. 285) In 1931, Hughes visited the South for a tour and saw the treatment of blacks there. He also recognized the differences between blacks in the South and blacks in the North. The Southern blacks didn’t agree with Hughes’s American ideals. Hughes’s book Magnolia Flowers is a collection of poems that explores the black man’s lack of freedom with references to lynchings in the South. One of the poems in the collection was “The South”. “Its masculine aspect the South is bestial, sub-human, a predator and scavenger, and in its feminine aspect a degenerate femme fatale, a syphilitic whore.” (Gates, pg. 144)
The poem’s metaphors relate to history because the usual excuse for lynching a black man was because he was accused of raping a white woman. Most of the times, the accusations were false. At the end of the poem, the narrator says he will go to the North because it’s nicer there. A verse from “The South” is: “And I, who am black, would love her/ But she spits in my face/ And I, who am black/ Would give her many rare gifts/ But she turns her back upon me.” (Knopf, pg. 173)
The Harlem Renaissance was an extraordinary time for African Americans. Writers of that time shocked the world. The vernacular and jazzy language that was used in the writings were extremely revolutionary. The selection of these two poets/novelists wrote about the issues that were present at that time. In their writing you can feel what they feel-- that is why the Harlem Renaissance is so important. The writing brought so much life to the topics they wrote about.
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