The Harlem Renaissance is a term that is widely used to describe the period of a cultural and social reawakening for African Americans in the United States, who concentrated their artistic effort in New York. The period between the 1920s and the 1930s became a critically significant era in the history of African Americans because they became conscious of their race and culture, and they became ready to transform social norms.
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During this period of the Renaissance or revival of the African American cultural heritage, the concept of the “New Negro” appeared (Jordan 2-9). The “New Negro” is an African American who is self-assured and focused on his contribution to the community; he does not want to adhere to the Jim Crow laws because of deserving respect and appreciation (Locke 2-4). The important research question to ask in this context is the following: In what ways did the Harlem Renaissance influence African American society? The Harlem Renaissance contributed to African Americans’ accentuation of their identity and self-realization, and the purpose of this paper is to determine the major effects of this period on African American society.
Harlem in New York became the center of the cultural recovery for African Americans after the Great Migration of Blacks to the Northern states of the country, including New York. The realization of the Jim Crow laws in the South, World War I, and the need for jobs caused thousands of African Americans with their families to migrate to the Northern states. In New York and other Northern cities, Blacks were able to compete in the labor market and develop economically as city dwellers, whose level of income was higher in comparison to African Americans in the South.
Furthermore, African Americans in Harlem succeeded in forming their community based on following traditional African and Christian religious views and social practices to accentuate their cultural identity (Rasayon 22). The reason for the neighborhood development was the possibility of African Americans to cope with the consequences of racist practices, poverty, and inequality experienced in the South.
The poverty of African Americans in the Southern states, as well as oppressive Jim Crow laws, caused numerous Blacks to suffer from inequality. Furthermore, the practice of lynching was also typical of the period, causing anxiety among unprotected African Americans. As a result, many Blacks faced the necessity of uniting in New York or other Northern cities for the purpose of opposing the regime against African Americans and their rights. The concept of the “New Negro” was associated with the idea that African Americans could not be suppressed in their attempts to demonstrate their dignity and self-respect in cultural and social terms anymore (Fanon 34-48).
In spite of the fact that poverty and unemployment were also typical of Harlem, the enthusiasm of African Americans oriented toward their self-assurance and self-realization grew because they felt the support of each other. As a result of the Great Migration processes, the community of Blacks in Harlem grew annually, as well as their optimism, leading to the cultural explosion in this neighborhood in the 1920s-1930s.
The Harlem Renaissance became associated with the period of the “New Negro Movement” as African American intellectuals focused on expressing their voice as a unique racial community. African American poets, artists, musicians, and writers received an opportunity to openly declare their ideas and artistic views that became popular among the public. For example, Langston Hughes became the most famous poet of Harlem, who was interested in depicting the realities of an African American’s life in the United States. Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington became the symbolic figures of the progress of African American music with a focus on jazz rhythms. Thus, the key themes that were declared and developed by the activists of the Harlem Renaissance were anti-racism, Pan-Africanism, equality, and freedom (Irele 12-18).
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Artists and intellectuals who were associated with the Harlem Renaissance were interested in promoting the ideals typical of Blacks equally to those ones typical of Whites in order to cope with stereotypes and discrimination. From this perspective, the active development of art was a step in changing the perception of African Americans in American society.
In order to support the principles and ideals of the Harlem Renaissance, there were also proponents of the philosophy and ideology of this cultural and social revival. Alain L. Locke, a philosopher, and an educator, actively contributed to promoting the results of artists’, writers’, and musicians’ work in Harlem and outside of it. Locke stated regarding the new era, “With this renewed self-respect and self-dependence, the life of the Negro community is bound to enter a new dynamic phase” (4).
However, not all activists believed in the achievements of the Harlem Renaissance for the self-accentuation of Blacks in the United States, and their views also influenced the public, as it was in the case of Marcus Garvey (Blaisdell iii). Thus, African American society changed, and it needed new heroes and leaders to develop the idea of the “New Negro” and his or her ideals and goals in American society.
The literary works of philosophers of the Harlem Renaissance, as well as writers and poets, were intended to spread the atmosphere of the revival and the “New Negro’s” life and image to other cities. As a result, the works written by Jean Toomer, for example, had a significant impact on African Americans and White intellectuals interested in protecting the rights of Blacks in the country (Thompson-Cager 12).
The purpose of prominent authors of that period was to disclose the problems and challenges of racism and racial discrimination in American society in order to accentuate the real experiences of Blacks. According to Locke, “Negro life is not only establishing new contacts and finding new centers, but it is also finding a new soul” (xxvii). Thus, the possibility to use the written word and be supported by the African American community allowed many authors belonging to the Harlem Renaissance to express their views and inform the public about Blacks’ struggles.
Having analyzed the aspects of the Harlem Renaissance with reference to the associated Great Migration and the formation of the “New Negro” concept, it is possible to state that this period significantly influenced the African American community in the United States. The first way, in which this cultural and social explosion influenced African Americans, is the development of the Blacks’ art community where they could share and enhance their cultural heritage. Thus, many writers, artists, and musicians received an opportunity to become widely known talents. The second way is the protection of African Americans’ interests and rights. Harlem became not only a neighborhood populated by Blacks but also the center of their social movement for the protection of their cultural and art views. As a result, many Whites changed their views regarding segregation and racial inequality in the country.
Blaisdell, Bob, editor. Selected Writings and Speeches of Marcus Garvey. Courier Corporation, 2012.
Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. Translated by Richard Philcox, Grove Press, 2008.
Irele, Abiola F. The Negritude Moment: Explorations in Francophone African and Caribbean Literature and Thought. Africa World Press, 2010.
Jordan, Winthrop D. White Man’s Burden: Historical Origins of Racism in the United States. Oxford University Press, 1974.
Locke, Alain, editor. The New Negro: Voices of the Harlem Renaissance. Touchstone, 1999.
Rasayon, Niyana K. Reality Check: A Manual for the Hue-man Octahedron & The Mystery of Melanin. Eyes of Ma’at Press, 2013.
Thompson-Cager, Chezia. Teaching Jean Toomer’s 1923 CANE. Peter Lang Publishing, 2006.