New York 1918. It was called the great migration, the degradation, discrimination, and agricultural servitude of their lives in the American south, spurred African Americans to search for better opportunities in the northern states, they went by the thousands. While some of these migrants landed in bustling cities like Chicago, and Detroit, a great many of them found a home in Harlem New York. And while most settled into a slightly improved life, they also brought something that changed the landscape and demographics of the previously white-dominated part of the metropolis, art.
Art fit would serve as a catalyst for a cultural explosion, from cool jazz that redefined American music to provocative sculptures, and paintings to soulful film literature, and poetry. Deeper than the Hudson River, and all of it speaking to African American life, and experiences originally, known as the New Negro movement. This profound moment in history would not only redefine the perception of American blacks, it would shape their own identity, for there was to be a renaissance in Harlem.
In order for any renaissance to come about, you need a specific set of ingredients, the first one is pretty self explanatory, you need artists, and thanks to the aforementioned migration, black artists came to Harlem in droves. Though, it should be noted that many from the Afro Caribbean community, also took their chances in making their way to this city, looking for better prospects and patrons. The second ingredient is a guiding force to channel, and direct all this creative energy, and that was especially crucial with this particular movement. Since it was seen by black intellectuals as a way to smash stereotypes, and do away with the image of the African American as only good for manual labor and manual work. The man who stepped in to fill that role was scholar, and civil rights activist W.E.B Du bois, who at that time served as the editor of the naacp monthly magazine the crisis.
Du Bois resolved to use the publication as a staging point for the movement, an idea he articulated by publishing a sort of manifesto on black theater, it was expected to be as he said “about us, by us for us, and near us.” he also founded the organization Krigwa, a loose acronym for crisis guild of writers and artists, and sponsored a playwriting contest for scripts about the black experience.
the hope was to broaden the types of stories told about African Americans on the stage, since that was one of the few types of mass entertainment where black people could control their own narratives, you do not have to confine your writings to the portrayal of beggars scoundrels, and prostitutes the contest rules instructed, you can write about ordinary decent colored people if you want. As a result of this prodding from civil rights leaders, and theater critics a host of plays produced at this time included a complex reflection of real African American life. In fact, as time went on not only did more all black theater companies form, but they even began overshadowing New York s mainstream white playwrights.
Seeing this success other literary organizations sponsored their own prizes for fiction and poetry. Zora Neale Hurston got her break winning the opportunity literary journal contest, and eventually became a staple of the movement, and poet Langston Hughes was first published, and promoted in Dubois the crisis both breathtakingly prolific writers who produced crucial works Hurston, and Hughes would be included in the new negro movement anthology, curated by the country s first black road scholar Elaine Locke. other influencers in the scene were quite different, such as William Elmer Harmon, a wealthy white real estate developer who created the Harmon foundation, in originally the foundation focused on building playgrounds, and creating nursing programs, to assist lesser served neighborhoods across the country, but it would soon be known for providing a platform for black painters and sculptors to showcase their unseen works.
While at the time, many whites fraternizing with blacks were suspected of trying to recruit African Americans to the socialist cause. Harmon was clearly a stone-cold capitalist, while not a champion for equality Harmon, knew that helping African Americans make economic gains was better for the country, as a whole. So his foundation set up local exhibits, and national tours, and established the Harmon award for distinguished achievement among Negros winners, in the eight categories which included both music, and fine arts received a medal and four hundred dollars.
While the Harmon foundation, threw its support behind raw talent, prominent individuals like du bois and Locke, believed that black Americans should create African influenced art as a way to uplift the race. Locke, noting that European superstars like Picasso and Matisse were themselves delving into African influenced imagery firmly believed that art from black people should look different than that of whites.
it was a concept that met with some controversy in the movement, painters like William Edward Scott, beautifully captured African American and Haitian subjects, but were considered too conservative, and traditionally European in form, and while Scott would go on to win a Harmon award, and etch out a career in Paris his work was often passed over by Locke, and other influential thinkers, and this debate over the aesthetic and long term goals of black artistry, would take on different forms within the arenas of cinema, and music.
Oscar Micheaux regarded as the most successful black director and independent movie producer, of the first half of the 20th century, told the exact stories that the black elites of the renaissance were looking for, with some of his movies set in the black Mecca of Harlem, his films met both critical and commercial success. His characters were not the hucksters, and mammies, found in white dominated films, and there were no white actors in blackface. They stood tall, spoke clearly, and had poise dignity, and agency in films like “within our gates” and “murder in Harlem”. Plus, he didn’t shy, away from social commentary, or tackling complex issues like passing for white, or lynching. With his work providing a rebuttal to the critically acclaimed, yet abhorrently racist film the birth of a nation which glorified the klu klux klan.
While black elites embraced Micheaux, there was still some trepidation in regards to jazz, and the blues much of which had been brought up from the south. in the long run however, the music proved too infectious to fight ,and jazz in the big band sound, permeated the consciousness of Harlem then the entire country. And with that came the much needed third ingredient for the Harlem renaissance, patrons as word of Harlem s nightlife spread, it enticed many whites to come out in droves, and see a show, or two. And not just in the well-heeled spots, like the legendary cotton club, that catered to white clientele. The smaller nightclubs, in cabarets also found themselves packed. Excited whites, would socialize, dance, and drink in the same establishments as black patrons, and performers, till all hours of the night which at this time was still illegal in other parts of the country.
But, by becoming the ultimate purveyors of cool, musicians like Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, and Louis Armstrong, and phenomenal singers like Bessie smith, and Lena Horne, Harlem managed to create an oasis, free from some of those restrictive social norms. Yet, despite the many positive things that came out of the renaissance, some historians remain critical of the movement, Accusing du bois, lock, and members of the black bourgeoisie of manufacturing the renaissance, in order to use African American art as a propaganda tool.
They also point out that while many of the Harman exhibits did bring in crowds, the sales that were supposed to provide a better life for many of their award winning painters, and sculptors never materialized. In fact, many of them were forced to move to Europe, or retreat back to their unfulfilling day jobs, like many artists they wouldn’t be celebrated until they were dead. But, though that may be accurate,
it s also true, that many perceptions, stereotypes, and false narratives about African Americans, were debunked during this extraordinary time period. And before the great depression put an end to this eruption of black culture, the people of Harlem knew that they hadn’t just migrated, and settled a city, to solely escape Jim Crow. Despite the struggles, hardships, and everything stacked against them by society. They found their artistic voice, and made their dreams come true, and had if only for a while become all they knew they could be. Now, we know that we’ve only scratched the surface of the Harlem renaissance, with this article but we do hope it serves as an inspiration for you to seek out, and learn more about these, and other amazing artists of the movement, because while much of their work influenced the American theater, literature, music, and film, we all enjoy today the stories of their lives during this extraordinary time can also serve as an inspiration for new generations of artists to share their own voices.