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Villalba, Luciana

English III, 2


The Harlem Renaissance

During the decade of the 1920s, America was not only being a productive and prosperous

nation, it was a decade of achievement in various ways. One of these achievements was for the

African-American people what they called the “Harlem Renaissance”. The Harlem Renaissance

was a period in which African-Americans were being successful in such areas as literature, music

and in the arts. Some important aspects of the renaissance are the themes of the dreams and hopes

of African Americans, the influence of jazz music and the notable poetry of Langston Hughes

which reflect African American culture during this time period.

First of all, why is it called this period a renaissance? Well, “historians have liked to use

that word to characterize some moment when a culture once dormant, has been reawakened”.

(Huggins 3). This was a time in which World War I was over and a vast majority of African

Americans came back to the country with a feeling of patriotism and since they fought overseas,

they wanted some sort of freedom in their own land. “Harlem was the nerve center of Afro

American life and the capital of the international black man, its intellectuals who wanted to affect

political change had raised their voices to speak to broad, general and principled issues”.

(Huggins 26). One of the most representative intellectuals of the Renaissance is W.E.B. Du Bois,

an author who was a leader in the development of the movement, “who emerged as the guiding

spirit of the Renaissance, Du Bois was a fervent integrationist” (Lewis), who wanted to convince

blacks to serve their country in the war despite “the nation’s bitter history of racism and a

succession of insulting decisions by the U.S. military” saying that they had little confidence that

negroes would be intelligent or brave enough to serve the country. (Lewis). By the end of World

War I, a noticeable number of Negroes turned to spiritual songs, described as Du Bois in Souls of
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Black Folk as an essential element to the soul of black people that was meant to bound the race

emotionally. (Huggins 76). These emotions that African Americans wanted to express became

their assertion of “their search for ethnic identity and heritage in folk and African culture, and

their promotion of the arts as the agent which was to define and to fuse racial integrity”.(Huggins


The movement of Harlem began in the early to mid-1920s, and during this decade a

feeling of liberation of expression came to America, “Harlem for blacks, like New York for

whites, was synonymous with opportunity, the release of the individual’s spirit. For some it meant

the possibility to write or to be near those who did.” (Huggins 24). Some critics say that if

Harlem hadn’t been discovered by whites, “chances are not so much prose and poetry (good as

well as bad) would have been published. The sense of urgency to promote culture might have

been less.” (Huggins 85). Du Bois then, found a way to make the Renaissance a reality; he had a

formula which he named “The Talented Tenth”, which basically consisted of “the black

intelligentsia (novelists, poets, playwrights, painters, sculptors, composers, academics and the

like).” Du Bois believed that if whites were challenged to highly educated African Americans that

would be the end of racism and inequality not only for blacks but for all classes. (Lewis).

Harlem Negroes seemed to free their tensions through their art, dance and music. They

were “men who sensed that they were slaves to moral codes, that they were threatened to make

them emotional cripples found in Harlem a tonic and a release”. (Huggins 89). The common

thought for Harlem intellectuals saw themselves as promoters of their culture’s reawakening

through achievements in the arts, literature and music. (Huggins 9). “Its not surprising that black

men’s dreams would find in Harlem a capital for the race, a platform from which the new black

voice would be heard around the world, and an intellectual center of the New Negro”. (Huggins

14). Since slavery times, Negroes believed that their dreams were “to be deferred and then

denied”. The rebirth of the Negro culture in Harlem came in the right moment to show them the

way “to make it all seem possible”. (Huggins 15). Marcus Garvey, a prominent author of the
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movement could “induce people to share his dream because his fantasies were untroubled by the

kind of paradoxes that perplexed men”, what Garvey did was to “give his dream a tangible

reality”. (Huggins 45). Even though, most blacks wanted to go to Harlem to be surrounded by

intellectuals, it was an impotent effort to convince political leaders to listen to these intellectuals

when they probably don’t even know about the mass African American support behind it.

(Huggins 47).

The Renaissance wasn’t always a happy event for every Negro around New York. Some

“writers repeatedly visited the matter of black identity-particularly as impacted by the forced

miscegenation all too common to slavery and the resultant choice facing light-skinned African

Americans of whether to cross over and pass as white”. (Lewis). Black people felt even though

the slavery times were over, they knew that there was always segregation even between them.

One famous author of the Renaissance surely is Claude McKay, whom in “his most famous poem

‘If We Must Die’ is often cited for its militant spirit. In it, McKay calls upon black Americans to

resist oppression even to death if necessary. (“Harlem”). McKay and Jean Toomer were authors

who launched fiction during the movement and were often considered as “Harlem outsiders who

chose to live anywhere else”. (Lewis). Meanwhile, some authors like McKay and Hughes felt

proud about being black, Countee Cullen in ‘The Shroud of Color’ implies on oppressing of being

African descendant. (“Harlem”).

Equally important, Harlem wasn’t always recognized merely on the literature, but on the

society that surrounded its streets. Harlem opened its doors to a music called Jazz. Jazz began

since the post-civil war era, created as “a mixture of the blues, work songs and spirituals”. Some

artists that made great achievements in the genre were Henderson, Ellington and Armstrong, who

later introduced the style to New York’s nightclubs. Many black intellectuals “considered jazz

undefined and even denigrating to the African American image”. (“Harlem”). But that didn’t

seem the case for Louis Armstrong, the biggest exponent of jazz music of the 1920’s who made a

huge impact as a solo artists, he “was noted for his stylish playing as a solo trumpeter in the King
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Oliver Creole Jazz Band, and he played with the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra in 1924.

Armstrong had an intuitive genius that transformed the sound of jazz”. (“Harlem”). For this

reason, The Cotton Club, The Savoy Ballroom and Rent Parties were created in Harlem to show

everyone the musical potential that this town had. The Cotton Club was a club in which white

people started to come to Harlem to see Negroes perform. Ironically, no Negroes were allowed to

see the shoes due to the Jim Crow laws. (Hughes 933). Negroes were mad at the fact that whites

could come to their clubs and have the best seats and service meanwhile Negroes were not

allowed into white people’s clubs. Nevertheless, Negroes thought that these things but never said

them because there were never rude to white people. (Hughes 934). The Savoy Ballroom was a

nightclub open to all people regardless of their skin color. Some frequent performers were

Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. “The Savoy gave opportunity to many

musical talents, including such future singing greats as Bessie Smith and Ella Fitzgerald”.

(“Harlem”). Rent Parties were parties that “began anytime after midnight, howling and stomping

sometimes well into dawn in a miasma of smoke, booze, collard greens and hot music”. Even

though some writers recall not attending to them, some others followed the musicians after the

cabarets and clubs were closed, to one of these parties. (Lewis). Negroes would gain confidence

at upper class parties that were held in Harlem, “they were be introduced to various distinguished

white celebrities there as guests”. Any Negro who had some sort of social importance would refer

to those white people by their first name, as if they had known each other for years. (Hughes

935). This relationship of love and hate towards the white people clearly had some influence in

the writings of the time. Negro writers “ceased to write to amuse themselves and began to write

to amuse and entertain white people” in such a way that they would write things that wouldn’t

offend the white people. (Hughes 935).

However, Harlemites wanting their voices to be heard and people to know about the

movement that was going on there began developing magazines such as Opportunity and The

Crisis. The National Urban League hired Charles Johnson, a promoter of African American
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writers, as the editor of Opportunity, the League’s new magazine and soon to be monthly issue.

At a dinner sponsored by Opportunity magazine in 1924 were the Harlem Renaissance was first

recognized and given a name to the movement. (Lewis). The Crisis by the NAACP, played a

major role also as a publisher of artistic and literary works of intellectuals of the Renaissance.

(Lewis). Civil rights organizations as well as sponsorships and funding for artists of the

Renaissance came from several foundations and also from generous rich individuals. (Lewis).

When we first hear about the Harlem Renaissance, many people associate it with its most

influential writer, Langston Hughes. “Hughes nurtured his warm and deep interest in the Negro

common people and an art that would speak their spirit”.(Huggins 24). He worked on the

achievements of the working people and their struggles to reach the American dream.(“Harlem”).

He “conceived poetry as the music of the common people’s language, captured and tied to the

images of their minds. He could be the means for others to see their own beauty, see themselves

as artists”. (Huggins 78).

When analyzing some of Hughes work like in ‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers’, he says “the

black man has watched and known these rivers through centuries, learned their inevitability and

through them sensed serenity. The black man, therefore, will persist because his soul has become

one with the streams of life”. (Huggins 67). “In such works as ‘The Weary Blues’, ‘Let America

Be America Again’ and ‘Dreams’, Hughes proclaims the desire and the need to save democracy

for all Americans. He evokes universal values, not only black ones”. (“Harlem”).

The crash of 1929 was “the crash that sent Negroes and white folks all rolling down the

hill toward the Works Progress Administration.” (Hughes 933). “African American financial

institutions failed, taking with them not only financial savings but also many symbols of black

aspiration”. The end of the Renaissance came around the mid-1930’s by both the Great

Depression and the disappointment of blacks who failed to find “an ideology to bind them

together (“Harlem”).
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In conclusion, the intellectuals and artists who made their voices heard would never be

forgotten even though the Renaissance was over. They were a symbol of the promotion of their

culture, they played an influential part in the awakening of Negroes to look for their talent within

themselves, and most of all, and they are part today and tomorrow of America’s history. The

Renaissance was a marking point for artists and authors that followed, that showed that in order

to get freedom they need to proclaim it loudly and they must be free to themselves. (“Harlem”).
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Works Cited