The Harlem Renaissance was a cultural movement in the United States that spanned the 1920s and 1930s. While the zenith of the movement occurred between 1924 and 1929, its ideas have lived on much longer. At the time, it was known as the "New Negro Movement," named after the 1925 anthology by Alain Locke. The cultural and political renaissance produced novels, plays, murals, poems, music, dance, and other artwork that represented the flowering of a distinctive African-American expression. Along with the artists, political leaders such as Marcus Garvey founded potent philosophies of self-determination and unity among black communities in the United States, the Caribbean, and Africa. At the same time, activists like Hubert Harrison challenged the notion of the renaissance, arguing that the term was largely a white invention that overlooked the continuous stream of creativity that had emerged from the African-American community since 1850.
The district of Harlem had originally developed in the 19th century as an exclusive suburb for the white middle and upper classes. During the enormous influx of European immigrants in the late 19th century, the once exclusive district was abandoned by whites, who moved further north. Harlem became an African-American neighborhood in the early 1900s, during the Great Migration in which many sought a better standard of living and relief from the institutionalized racism in the South. Others of African descent came from racially stratified communities in the Caribbean, seeking a better life in the U.S. By 1930, 90,000 new arrivals joined the African Americans already living there, creating a community of nearly 200,000.
Despite the increasing popularity of black culture, virulent white racism continued to affect African-American communities. Race riots and other civil uprisings occurred throughout the US during the Red Summer of 1919, reflecting economic competition over jobs, housing, and social territories.
Characteristics and Themes
Characterizing the Harlem Renaissance was an overt racial pride and the developing idea of a new black identity, who through intellect and production of literature, art, and music could challenge the pervading racism and promote progressive politics. There was no uniting form characterizing the art that emerged, however. It encompassed a wide variety of styles, including Pan-African perspectives; "high-culture" and "low-culture"; traditional music to blues and jazz; traditional and experimental forms in literature such as modernism; and the new form of jazz poetry.
Some common themes represented during the Harlem Renaissance were the influence of slavery, black identity, the effects of institutional racism, the dilemmas of performing and writing for elite white audiences, and how to convey the experience of modern black life in the urban North.
New authors attracted a great amount of national attention, and the Harlem Renaissance led to more opportunities for blacks to be published by mainstream houses. Some authors who became nationally known were Jean Toomer, Jessie Fauset, Claude McKay, Zora Neale Hurston, James Weldon Johnson, Alain Locke, Eric D. Walrond and Langston Hughes . A new way of playing the piano called the Harlem Stride Style was also created during the Renaissance, and jazz musicians like Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, Jelly Roll Morton, and Willie "The Lion" Smith are considered to have laid the foundation for future musicians of their genre.
Visual artists of the time included Charles Alston, Henry Bannarn, Leslie Bolling, Aaron Douglas, Jacob Lawrence, and Archibold Motley .
Archibald Motley painting "Black Belt" (original painting in color)
Motley is most famous for his colorful chronicling of the African-American experience during the 1920s and 1930s and is considered one of the major contributors to the Harlem Renaissance.
Langston Hughes was one of the most well-known writers to emerge from the Harlem Renaissance.
Aaron Douglas was a notable artist of the Harlem Renaissance. After completing his BFA at the University of Nebraska in 1922, Douglas moved to New York City, settling in Harlem. Just a few months after his arrival he began to produce illustrations for both The Crisis and Opportunity, the two most important magazines associated with the Harlem Renaissance. He also began studying with Winold Reiss, a German artist who had been hired by Alain Locke to illustrate The New Negro. Reiss' teaching helped Douglas develop the modernist style he would employ for the next decade. Douglas’ engagement with African and Egyptian design brought him to the attention of W. E. B. Du Bois and Dr. Locke, who were pressing for young African American artists to express their African heritage and African American folk culture in their art. In 1926 Douglas married Alta Sawyer. They lived together in Harlem and for the next several years, opened their home to an important, powerful circle of artists and writers we now call the Harlem Renaissance.
Charles Henry Alston
Charles Henry Alston (November 28, 1907 – April 27, 1977) was an African-American painter, sculptor, illustrator, muralist and teacher who lived and worked in Harlem. Alston was the first African-American supervisor for the Works Progress Administration's Federal Art Project. Alston designed and painted murals at the Harlem Hospital and the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Building. In 1990 Alston's bust of Martin Luther King, Jr. became the first image of an African American displayed at the White House.
In the beginning Charles Alston's mural work was inspired by the work of Aaron Douglas, Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco, the latter who he met when they did mural work in New York. In 1943 Alston was elected to the board of directors of the National Society of Mural Painters. He created murals for the Harlem Hospital, Golden State Mutual, American Museum of Natural History, Public School 154, the Bronx Family and Criminal Court and the Abraham Lincoln High School in Brooklyn, New York.
Charles Henry Alston, Modern Medicine, 1936
Alston's mural at the Harlem Hospital is a significant work of the Harlem Renaissance.
Jacob Lawrence (Atlantic City, NJ September 7, 1917; Seattle June 9, 2000) was an African-American painter known for his portrayal of African-American life. But not only was he a painter, storyteller, and interpreter, he also was an educator. Lawrence referred to his style as "dynamic cubism," though by his own account the primary influence was not so much French art as the shapes and colors of Harlem. He brought the African-American experience to life using blacks and browns juxtaposed with vivid colors. He also taught, and spent 15 years as a professor at the University of Washington.
Lawrence is among the best-known 20th-century African-American painters. He was 23 years old when he gained national recognition with his 60-panel Migration Series, painted on cardboard. The series depicted the Great Migration of African Americans from the rural South to the urban North. A part of this series was featured in a 1941 issue of Fortune Magazine. The collection is now held by two museums. Lawrence's works are in the permanent collections of numerous museums, including thePhiladelphia Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum, the Phillips Collection, Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum, and Reynolda House Museum of American Art. He is widely known for his modernist illustrations of everyday life as well as epic narratives of African American history and historical figures.
Jacob Lawrence, Self Portrait, 1977
This painting by Jacob Lawrence exemplifies the vivid use of color in his work.