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Harlem Renaissance: Review

Harlem Renaissance is known to be one of the essential intellectual and cultural phenomena in the American history of the XX century and played a crucial role in the further liberation of African Americans. The movement touched multiple aspects of the artistic life of 1920 – 1930’s: literature, theater, music, and visual arts – to say nothing about its social and political development influence. Its representatives were determined to build a truthful image of the African American experience. They were also sincere believers in racial equality and pride. However, neither did they share typical artistic style and self-expression techniques, nor did they have similar political views or social beliefs.

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To begin with, historians tend to speak of Alain Leroy Locke when asked about the creator of the movement. Locke was once invited to a party that was supposed to celebrate Jessie Fauset’s original publication There Is Confusion. However, after he insisted, the event turned into honoring African American writers. Later, the Dean of the Harlem Renaissance became the one to explain its aesthetic and concepts in his anthology The New Negro: An Interpretation. However, there is another opinion of what initiated the movement: a musical play Shuffle Along written by Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles that was performed on Broadway almost 500 times. That piece brought jazz music and dance to the musical theater, which transformed the latter and established the role of the African American population in that space. In a word, Harlem Renaissance was not created by a single person but was instead an element of a collective, creative tendency among the African American intellectuals and artists.

As for the historical context, in which that tendency occurred, it combined several aspects. First, it was the Civil War that, on the one hand, removed many barriers in education and social life, which inspired and liberated African Americans, including professors and intellectual leaders, to take increasingly public roles. On the other hand, due to the institutionalized mistreatment and discrimination that this part of the population faced in the South, it had to move to northern industrial cities like New York. One may pose the question of why the Black Culture Renaissance took place in Harlem. The answer lies in the fact that this was the area, initially designed to be inhabited the wealthy white New Yorkers. However, the housing scheme did not work out, and by the 1920s, the area became the heart of African American culture.

Moving on to the cultural context of the phenomena, the first part of the XX century was full of artistic events. On the one hand, one can talk about the general yet gradual popularization of black culture. For instance, blues and jazz became extremely popular after World War I among both the black and the white audiences. On the other hand, the artistic world was seeing great revolutions with the spread of expressionism and surrealism. Another contextual artistic movement to mention was art deco, prevalent in the United States. In other words, the Harlem Renaissance occurred at the point of cultural history when the old conventions were reevaluated, and the nature of art, as such, was reconsidered. In that context, the African American cultural renaissance is both quite relevant yet revolutionary.

The first participant of the movement to be discussed is a female author Zora Naele Hurston. She is probably best known for her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God published in 1937. The book focuses on the place of African American women in the social structure. The main motive of the work is related to dreams: “now women forget all those things they don’t want to remember, and remember everything they don’t want to forget. The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly” (Naele, 1937, p. 1). The dreams of the main character – Janie – as well as the horizon often mentioned in the text symbolically communicate the idea of aspiration for the future.

Secondly, one’s ears may be attracted by the music of Duke Ellington who gained his popularity playing in the orchestra at the Cotton Club in Harlem. His jazz unit was one of the most well-known in the 1920 – 1930s. Some of the classic songs belong to him: Take the “A” Train, Mood Indigo, or Sophisticated Lady, for instance. The words of his song Freedom still seem relevant to the contemporary life of American society. They reveal the sincere seek for liberation as the central theme of the movement as Ellington saw it (Garcia, 2017). Hence, Ellington managed to effectively represent his identity and the primary goal of the African American cultural movement.

To conclude, the Harlem Renaissance was both: a revolutionary act of artistic expression that changed the African American culture and its perception as such as well as a continuation of the artistic tradition of the early XX century. The movement started off in two different places, established by the different groups of people working in different genres, which allows one to conclude that the Harlem Renaissance was a tendency. It existed in the rich cultural context but managed to find its prompt place in the history of American culture.

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Garcia, D. F. (2017). Listening for Africa: Freedom, modernity, and the logic of black music’s African origins. Duke University Press Books.

Naele, Z. (1937).Their Eyes Were Watching God. Amistad.

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