Harlem Renaissance

An African American cultural movement of the 1920s and early 1930s that was centered in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City. Variously known as the New Negro movement, the New Negro Renaissance, and the Negro Renaissance, the movement emerged toward the end of World War I in 1918, blossomed in the mid- to late 1920s, and then faded in the mid-1930s. The Harlem Renaissance marked the first time that mainstream publishers and critics took African American literature seriously and that African American literature and arts attracted significant attention from the nation at large.

The Harlem Renaissance emerged amid social and intellectual upheaval in the African American community in the early 20th century. Several factors laid the groundwork for the movement. A small black middle class had developed by the turn of the century, fostered by increased education and employment opportunities following the American Civil War (1861-1865). During a phenomenon known as the Great Migration, hundreds of thousands of black Americans moved from an economically depressed rural South to industrial cities of the North to take advantage of the employment opportunities created by World War I. As more and more educated and socially conscious blacks settled in New York's neighborhood of Harlem, it developed into the political and cultural center of black America. In his influential book The New Negro (1925), Alian Leroy Locke describe the northward migration of blacks as "something like a spiritual emancipation."

No common literary style or political ideology defined the Harlem Renaissance. What united participants was their sense of taking part in a common endeavor and their commitment to giving artistic expression to the African American experience. Some common themes existed, such as an interest in the roots of the 20th-century African American experience in Africa and the American South, and a strong sense of racial pride and desire for social and political equality. But the most characteristic aspect of the Harlem Renaissance was the diversity of its expression. From the mid-1920s through the mid-1930s, some 16 black writers published more than 50 volumes of poetry and fiction. The diverse literary expression of the Harlem Renaissance ranged from Langston Hughes’s weaving of the rhythms of African American music into his poems of ghetto life, as in The Weary Blues (1926), to Claude McKay’s use of the sonnet form as the vehicle for his impassioned poems attacking racial violence, as in "If We Must Die" (1919).

A number of factors contributed to the decline of the Harlem Renaissance by the mid-1930s. The Great Depression of the 1930s increased the economic pressure on all sectors of life. Organizations such as the NAACP and the Urban League, which had actively promoted the Renaissance in the 1920s, shifted their interests to economic and social issues in the 1930s. Many influential black writers and literary promoters, including Hughes, James Weldon Johnson, Charles S. Johnson, and Du Bois, left New York City in the early 1930s. Finally, the Harlem Riot of 1935--set off in part by the growing economic hardship of the Depression and mounting tension between the black community and the white shop-owners in Harlem who profited from that community-shattered the notion of Harlem as the "Mecca" of the New Negro. In spite of these problems the Renaissance did not disappear overnight. Almost one-third of the books published during the Renaissance appeared after 1929. In the last analysis, the Harlem Renaissance ended when most of those associated with it left Harlem or stopped writing. The Harlem Renaissance changed forever the dynamics of African American arts and literature in the United States. For thousands of blacks around the world, the Harlem Renaissance was proof that the white race did not hold a monopoly on literature and culture.

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