The Harlem Renaissance



Painting by black artist Archibald Motley entitled “Getting Religion.” This piece is used to represent the lively nightlife on the streets of Harlem in the 1920s.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons


The Harlem Renaissance was an explosion of artistic intellectualism that took place in Harlem, New York around the 1920’s. It was also known as the “New Negro Movement” based off of the 1925 anthology by Alain Locke. The movement was not secular to the East Coast, as it also spread around America and has been a major influence on African American art culture even today. “Many artists inspired the other great artists of today,” said Ms. Gray, African American history teacher. The start of the Renaissance began at the end of the Civil War, when African American slaves were finally granted freedom, and became members of society seeking equality. Towards the end of the 1870s, white Democratic power took control of the South. From 1890 to 1910, white supremacists established harsh Jim Crow laws denying African Americans basic civil rights, and terrorizing black communities with violence and lynch mobs. Black men were forced back into harsh labor and many families were put into a lifestyle similar to what slavery had entailed. That’s when the Great Migration started, where African Americans moved North in large numbers; many of them converged in the once white neighborhoods of Harlem.  

The Renaissance truly began with memorable pieces like Three Plays For A Negro Theatre. Those plays were written by a white director who rejected the stereotypes of blackface. Another piece called “If We Must Die,” a sonnet written by Claude McKay, was meant to defy and protest the violence against blacks at the time. In 1917, Hubert Harrison formed the first political black newspaper called “The Voice.” The paper actually denied the notion of the Renaissance, calling it a white invention. Throughout time, artists, writers, poets, playwrights, painters and more, continued to bloom and develop in the hub that became the streets of Harlem. “It represented a new sense of pride African Americans had never felt before,” said Gray.

Langston Hughes:

Langston Hughes was born February 1st, 1902, in Joplin, Missouri. Hughes was known for being an American poet, activist, and writer. Hughes was significant to the Harlem Renaissance by bringing a new literary art style called “jazzy poetry.” Hughes and had different goals and aspirations than the black middle class, and criticized the prejudices within the black community based on skin color. He wrote what would be considered the Harlem manifesto, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” published in The Nation in 1926. The following is an excerpt from this manifesto: “The younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly, too. The tom-tom cries, and the tom-tom laughs. If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn’t matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain free within ourselves.” His poetry and fiction portrayed the lives of the working-class blacks in America, lives he portrayed as full of struggle, joy, laughter, and music.

Augusta Savage:

Born in Florida in 1892, Augusta Savage began creating art as a child by using the natural clay found in her hometown. After attending Cooper Union in New York City, she made a name for herself as a sculptor during the Harlem Renaissance by sculpting prominent African Americans, and was awarded fellowships to study abroad. Savage was the first Black artist to join the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors. She later served as a director for the Harlem Community Center and created the monumental work The Harp for the 1939 New York World’s Fair. She spent most of her later years in Saugerties, New York, before her death from cancer in 1962.

Jacob Lawrence:

Born in New Jersey but raised in New York City’s Harlem, Jacob Lawrence was the most widely acclaimed African-American artist of the 20th century. Known for writing stories like the Migration Series and War Series, he brought the African-American experience to life using blacks and browns paralleled with vivid colors. He also taught, and spent 15 years as a professor at the University of Washington.

Duke Ellington:

Duke Ellington was born April 29, 1899, in Washington, D.C.. Ellington became a major figure in the history of jazz music, with his career spanning more than half a century. Duke was known as an American composer, pianist, and leader of jazz orchestra. Ellington was based in New York City from the mid-1920s onward and gained a national attention  through his orchestra’s appearances at the Cotton Club in Harlem. In the 1930s, his orchestra toured in Europe. Although considered to have been a pivotal figure in the history of jazz, Ellington embraced the phrase “beyond category” as a liberating principle and referred to his music as part of the more general category of American music rather than to a musical genre such as jazz.

Florence Mills:

Florence Mills was born on January 25, 1896, in or near Washington, D.C., and made her stage debut at age five as “Baby Florence.” Her major breakthrough happened in 1921, when she appeared in the Off-Broadway musical Shuffle Along. The following year, she appeared on Broadway in Plantation Revue, and later the song “I’m a Little Blackbird Looking for a Bluebird” from Blackbirds became her trademark. She worked in vaudeville and joined a touring company at eight years old before authorities found out she was underage. Her family eventually moved to Harlem, New York, and in 1910 Mills would form another Vaudeville act (The Mills Sisters) with her siblings, Olivia and Maude. Mills earned a reputation for her high-pitched voice, unique dance movements, and comedic timing that allowed her to become a strong force during the Harlem Renaissance. With Mills well aware of the racial divide of the day and wishing to make a difference, she also served as an icon for African-American performers and audiences of all backgrounds.

Overall, the Harlem Renaissance was a very important time period that influenced many African American art styles and cultures from the 1920s to today. They were a way for many to rebel in smaller ways that meant something bigger. They have inspired many Black families to rise up in the face of hate and racism, and use this as fuel to create something great. “The Renaissance celebrated and demonstrated the true abilities of black people at the time,” said Gray.

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