On a quest for self-definition, African Americans in post-WWI America sought a new collective identity for themselves through political mobilisation, social commentary, and a mastery of the arts.
The Harlem Renaissance was 1920s Harlem’s artistic and intellectual contribution to this quest, known at the time as the ‘New Negro Movement’. This movement was, in many ways, the consequence of the ‘Great Migration’, during which a staggering number of African Americans fled the segregation and persecution of the Jim Crow south for the ‘Promised Land’ of the industrialised, urban north.
Tightknit African American communities flourished in northern economic centres like New York, Chicago and Detroit. These communities fostered a mingling of minds, and precipitated ambitious works of art and pioneering political observations.
African Americans of the Harlem Renaissance constructed a new collective identity for themselves through various mediums and schools: artists, like the much-celebrated Jacob Lawrence, illustrated both the peculiarities and trivialities of quotidian African American life; writers, particularly Jean Toomer – who penned the pioneering work Cane (1923) – forced the recognition, and celebration, of African American works of prose; and musicians, like Duke Ellington and Fats Waller, demonstrated through jazz the proficiency and marvel of African American culture. These great figures, along with countless others, forced the contemplation of the plight of African Americans, whilst simultaneously compelling the recognition of African Americans as a civilised and culturally sophisticated people.
Inevitably, though, the Harlem Renaissance was not a faultless success. African Americans were frequently exhibited not as civilised, but as ‘primitive’. The Cotton Club presented to its strictly white audience a roster of black performers against a backdrop of plantation-themed décor. In this respect, it can be argued that African Americans did not develop a new identity for themselves as refined and urbanised, but were merely ogled by the white bohemians of New York wanting to dip their toes in the ‘Jazz Age’.
Nonetheless, it is difficult to ignore the positive legacy of the Harlem Renaissance. The socio-political organisations that blossomed in that era, serving as outlets for African American art and theory, went on to institutionalise and mobilise African American voices during the Civil Rights Movement. Moreover, many works of the Harlem Renaissance received high praise from the white public and press, such as Langston Hughes’ poem The Weary Blues (1926).
The Harlem Renaissance not only paraded African Americans’ artistic and intellectual capabilities, it successfully narrated the realities of the African American experience to a wider audience. Black art was brought from the sidelines of wider American consciousness to the very forefront of cultural discourse.
(Pictured: Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000), Negroes were leaving by the hundreds to go north and enter northern industry, 1936.
Source: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Harmen Foundation Collection, NAID: 559092)