What was the Harlem Renaissance? What effect did it have on American Culture?

Scientific Essay 2007 9 Pages

American Studies - Culture and Applied Geography


What was the Harlem Renaissance? What effect did it have on American Culture?

During the 1920s and early 1930s the New York City district of Harlem became the centre of a cultural movement that was unique in African American history. Encouraged by a new confidence, Black artists produced a great body of literary work, paintings and sculptures and moreover found expression in music and performing arts. In this essay I want to outline the socioeconomic forces that led to the Harlem Renaissance and describe the period as such along with its development throughout time. Pointing out the common ground of the period’s artists, the motivation for that sudden outburst of black American creativity and the ideas behind the works will then justify the claim that the Harlem Renaissance, although rather short as a cultural epoch, did have a lasting impact on American culture as a whole.

When dealing with the Harlem Renaissance, one may wonder why such a time of cultural blossom developed in Harlem instead of in any part of the United States. But considering the demographic structure of the district, it becomes evident that all conditions were favourable of such a movement. In course of the Great Migration, the black population of the North had increased enormously, especially in industrial cities like Chicago, Detroit or New York. Over one Million former slaves were coming to escape the racial suppression in the South and seek better living conditions in the North. They were hoping to find better jobs, more opportunities for education and, most importantly, a better climate of interracial relationship. The high demand for labour due to the immigration stop in World War I was another factor that encouraged African Americans to set off to urban areas in the North. Not only Blacks from the southern States, but also from the West Indies were attracted by the labour shortage and the opportunities it seemed to promise. So in time, the population of Harlem became more and more diverse. Although the inhabitants have always been largely black, they still varied a great deal in terms of their origin, their level of education and their social class. As more and more educated and socially conscious blacks settled in Harlem, it developed into the political and cultural centre of black America as a whole. With the establishment of the NAACP in 1909 by the black historian W.E.B. Du Bois and other committed personalities, the political awareness within the African American population had increased significantly. The residents of Harlem as well as Blacks all over the state came to realize that it was necessary to become active in order to advance the rights of blacks in America; racial equality would not occur on its own. The diversity of African American society within the American city and the increasing political awareness of Black Americans were certainly a precondition for the development of a movement as strong and diverse as the Harlem Renaissance, but the motivation for a cultural blossom came from elsewhere.

World War I had left African Americans disillusioned concerning racial solidarity in America. While they had supported the United States during wartime, showing solidarity towards a country that has exploited them for centuries, they then had to face the fact that in times of peace the lines between black and white became sharper again. The great number of Blacks in the industrial cities increased racial conflicts, and in 1915 the Ku Klux Klan had emerged again and reached a peak in membership during the 1920s. The immense numbers of immigrants entering the United States, in particular subsequent to World War I, had given the anti – foreign movement a new upturn. Apart from that, the labour conflict still complicated the situation between black and white Americans, as minority groups were always the first ones to blame for social problems of any kind. African Americans expressed their disappointment about the continuing discrimination in mainly two different ways.

The first thing to emerge as a consequence of the political awakening of Black Americans was an increase of black militancy. The Back-to-Africa movement of Marcus Garvey was the most popular way to express the increasing resignation concerning multiracial society, although this approach was chosen primarily by the uneducated part of the African American population. The more sophisticated respond was the development of a new racial pride. Black Americans began, for the first time in their history, to overtly express a pride in their heritage and traditions, and they turned to various ways to exhibit this attitude.

The writing of literature, the composing and performing of music and the production of visual arts was no longer seen simply as an act of creativity; it was a means of “rehabilitating the race in world esteem from that loss of prestige for which the fate and conditions of slavery have been so largely responsible”[1]. This citation, uttered by one of the most prominent figures and forerunner of the Harlem Renaissance, Alain Locke, states the central motivation for the development of such a powerful cultural movement. Black Americans had entered a new state of racial confidence and felt they had to find alternative ways to refute the ancient prejudices that prevailed in America. The educated part of the African American community was convinced that they could oppose the stereotype by proving their intellectual competence; they hoped that an increased cultural output would work against the American notion of white supremacy and show that Blacks were no longer willing to accept their alleged status of an uncivilized people without culture. Many held the opinion that white Americans would not treat them as equals unless and until the former slaves proved themselves to be equal, so the importance of culture experienced a huge increase during the early 1920s. The topics that prevailed during the Harlem Renaissance reflected that feeling of marginality and alienation that African Americans were facing; these themes occurred in literature of that period as well as in arts and music. Still, the Harlem Renaissance was as diverse as a movement as the people that created it.


[1] Nadell 2004: p. 38


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What Harlem Renaissance American Culture



Title: What was the Harlem Renaissance? What effect did it have on American Culture?