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Harlem Renaissance Art and the Birth of Black Identity Essay Sample

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Introduction of TOPIC

            In the period between 1910 and 1920, there was massive movement of blacks from the American South where for a long time they had been subjected to slavery; to the industrial cities in the North in search of employment and better standards of living. World War I had created a need for supplies and factories in the north needed a lot of labor force to produce the war supplies which they found in the black immigrants. Harlem was by that time growing into a new and clean neighborhood and attracted the new immigrant workers. These blacks also had better access to education in the North and as a result a new class of middle class blacks began to take form; a class of blacks who were willing to share their ideas not only with their fellow blacks but with the white community and the world at large. This period was marked by a lot of creative activity and has gone down in history as a time when African Americans developed a new love for blackness that helped them to strongly reject white supremacy and embrace their African identity (Turner J & Turner W 17, 28, 126). The new class of middle class blacks became advanced in the fields of art, music and literature and the Harlem Renaissance was born.

Harlem became a haven for minds with new ideas and voices that were more than willing to show the world that blacks had an identity beyond the institution of slavery. But the flourishing African American artistry and culture that became part of daily life in Harlem did not come without some degree of monitoring from the whites; and racist attitudes continued to influence the development of the Harlem Renaissance. Negro writers and artists would not have made without the financial contributions and other support which they received from their white patrons and the intellectuals who surrounded them. The whites provided the money and also introduced the writers and artists to publishers who would produce their works for the public audience. Many Negro writers loathed these patrons because their influence often caused the black writers to compromise their ideals and values and subsequently their literary and artistic integrity. The whites were still unwilling to discard their white supremacist and anti-Africa attitudes and it would take another generation for these attitudes to give way (Rhodes ¶s 21-26).

            During the early 20th Century, New York City was already home to a successful visual art, theatre and music industry as well home to the wealthy patrons who had for some time been the driving force behind this industry. It is within such an environment that a black cultural movement popularly known as the Harlem Renaissance, Negro Renaissance or New Negro Movement was born and prospered in the U.S between the years 1918 and 1920. The blacks had developed a new sense of uniqueness as blacks as well as a sense of relationship with other blacks in Africa and the rest of the world.

Harlem’s 135th Street housed a very active branch of the New York Public Library that became a favorable environment for black artists, authors, actors and poets to meet and express themselves (Hutchinson 17-19). The growth of this cultural movement was fostered by a new level of interaction that African Americans enjoyed with blacks coming from other parts of the world. These blacks coming from outside the U.S played a very crucial role in helping African Americans to develop a new sense of self-respect. Through the Harlem Renaissance, a new wave of literary works was born and although this did not give the movement an exclusively literal nature; the period has gone down in U.S history as a time of dynamic Negro intellectual and artistic activity (Rhodes ¶s 1-2; Irvin 190).

            Towards the end of the 20th Century, the Harlem Renaissance artists still held very idealized and vague imaginations about their African ancestry which they expressed through such artistic objects as African masks and other artifacts which they felt would be helpful to express their African heritage. Although the Africans who came to the Americas during the 17th Century had been born in Africa, African Americans had lost contact with their African heritage by the 19th Century because most of those living in America at the time had been born to African American slaves. This trend however changed during the 20th Century because the Great Migration brought former African into the U.S from other areas such as the West Indies and Cuba (Rhodes ¶ 4). These foreign blacks were not only international in their background, but also ethnically diverse as well as multi-lingual. Blacks from the Caribbean and West Indies came from societies that were ethnically diverse but in which social status rather than color played a leading role in shaping an individual’s standing in society as well as the direction that a person’s life would take (Hutchinson 17).

Their experiences were quite different from those of the African Americans and the presence of this

foreign class of Negroes created some sort of prejudice within the course of the Harlem Renaissance.

West Indian and Caribbean blacks found it very difficult to accept the persecution and minority status that African Americans had been subjected to under the Jim Crow system. Lynching of fellow blacks made these foreigners especially very bitter; and some of those who were widely travelled like Marcus Garvey assumed leadership roles and introduced ideas of African liberation to the African Americans. Stemming from their enthusiasm to improve their social as well as economic status, these foreign blacks were very unwilling to accept any racial slurs without resistance. It is from this class consciousness, that many of the Harlem Renaissance’s famous orators were born; the most prominent of them being Hubert H. Harrison. This black from the British Virgin Islands enlightened African Americans by conducting formal lecturers on street corners where he zealously taught them African history and helped American Negroes on their journey towards developing new ideas about their African heritage (Wintz 36-37).

            Through the Great Migration, Harlem had also become home to a large clientele of professionals. Marcus Garvey and W.E.B Du Bois attracted many Negro intellectuals to Harlem by inviting them to attend the Universal Negro Improvement conventions at Madison Square Garden. The attractiveness of life at Harlem made some of these intellectuals to stay behind; helping to make New York’s Harlem Street a place where African Americans would not only be enlightened but also where they would be encouraged to cultivate an independent spirit (Irvin 129, 185). Renaissance literature and art owes its popularity to the brains of seven of such enlightened African Americans, who passed not only as creative thinkers but also as a team that was well-connected. Together with the whites who held their hands and supported them, W.E.B Du Bois, James Weldon Johnson, Walter White, Jessie Fauset, Alain Locke, Casper Holstein and Charles S. Johnson made the Harlem Renaissance a very popular forum for the advancement of African arts.

White allies such as the Harmon Foundation, Carl Van Vechten and others made it possible for the works of young Renaissance artists to be put into print (Irvin 193). These black intellectuals held a common view that Negroes would only be helped to attain a better position in society if efforts were made to expose the evils and injustices of racial discrimination which had oppressed them for a long time. Through newspapers and magazines such as the Crisis, Opportunity and The Messenger which the National Urban League helped to publish; they made a devoted attempt to expose the evils of racism. This was done with the hope that all blacks would be excited into unity and that such unity would gradually mount pressure on the American conscience. A new class of Negro writers came into being and through their individual achievements, they created an image of the “American Dream” that suggested to the whites that the time was ripe for Negroes to be absorbed into mainstream American society (Rhodes ¶s 5-10, 11-15).

            Through a new breed of artistic works, Renaissance black artists such as James Weldon, Aaron Douglas, Claude Countee and Malvin Gray Johnson, combined both narrative imagery and geometric concept to create a from of art that was unique to the Harlem Renaissance.  Artistic representations of African American history and life began to decorate publications such as The Crisis, Survey, Opportunity, Home to Harlem, Graphic and God’s Trombones (Wintz & Finkelman 50-57; Turner J & Turner W 126). One of the famous Renaissance artists, James Weldon Johnson, is said to have created more than 1,000 artistic works during the renaissance which greatly reflected his personal response to life as an African in two different continents.

The Harlem Renaissance also witnessed the coming up of female African American artists, the most famous of whom was Nancy Elizabeth Prophet. Prophet teemed up with Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, a famous museum inventor, and together they exhibited several of their artistic works as well as those produced by other black female artists and sculptors (Locke 651-670). Through sculptures, paintings and photography, African American art was also advanced by other artists like Jacob Lawrence, Mignel Covarrubias, and Roman Bearden among others; who all used arts to create a new awareness of the rich Negro culture.  Several of these artists used art to criticize racial injustice (Hutchinson 34-40).

            Renaissance arts were also expressed through music. The Johnson brothers James Weldon and J. Rosamond especially gained popularity through their 1900 theatre music which became some form of Negro National Anthem during the 1920s.  Other Black musical developments during this period included “You Can’t Keep a Good Man Down” and “This Thing Called Love”, both produced by Mamie Smith. The musical “Shuffle Along”, which co-stared artists like Paul Robeson, Flournor Miller, Aubrey Lytel and Josephine Baker and became a sensational Renaissance hit. Paul and Josephine pursued distinguished musical careers up to international level and through their contributions and those of other musicians; black Harlem Renaissance music became very popular among black and white audiences in major U.S cities like New York and Chicago as well as other parts of the U.S and Europe.

Black musicians like Ferdinand Morton, Sidney Bechet, Duke Ellington, and Marion Cook among others who had established themselves earlier without much success managed to build very successful music careers during the Harlem Renaissance and succeeding decades (Irvin 190-192; Turner J & Turner W 92, 125). The Harlem Renaissance became a platform for African American artists like Roland Hayes and Maria Anderson to create a global reputation for black music which many people welcomed as one of the natural gifts that was characteristic of the black race (Hutchinson 43-47). Some Harlem Renaissance writers used slave songs, Negro folktales and spirituals to dig deeper into Negro heritage. These resources gradually brought forth some unique richness and beauty of Negro heritage that both the writers and their audience began to appreciate.  Writers like Arthur Huff Fauset, Zora Neale Hurston and Joel Chandler Harris made a magnificent collection of Negro folktales (Rhodes ¶s 21-26).


            When in 1929 America entered into the Great Depression, Harlem became a centre of great violence and poverty and the intellectuals and affluent whites ran off to safer places. This brought to an end the financial and literary support they had offered the Negro artists and the Harlem Renaissance subsequently came to an end. The African American struggle against white supremacy had not born much fruit but at least, the Harlem Renaissance had given African Americans a voice in the U.S and abroad (Rhodes ¶s 21-26). City life had created a new awakening among the African Americans and the influence of other blacks had helped them to establish a new kind of cohesiveness that was based on fostering black racial pride. Although Negro culture was rarely mentioned in American history, the writers, artists, musicians and poets of the Harlem Renaissance had succeeded in portraying a Negro who was self-assured in ways that were previously unknown in their history (Rhodes 19-21). 

Works Cited

Irvin, Nell P. Creating Black Americans: African – American History and its Meanings, 1618     to the present. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Hutchinson, George. The Cambridge Companion to the Harlem Renaissance. Cambridge,         UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Locke, A. Harlem, Mecca of the New Negro. Baltimore, MD: Black Classic Press, 1980.

Rhodes, Henry. “The Social Contributions of the Harlem Renaissance.” Yale-New Haven          Teachers Institute. 2009. May 6, 2010.    http://www.yale.edu/ynhti/curriculum/units/1978/2/78.02.08.x.html

Turner, Joyce Moore and Turner Burghardt W. Caribbean Crusaders and the Harlem     Renaissance. Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2005.

Wintz, D. Cary and Finkelman Paul. Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance, Volume 1.          Philadelphia, PA: Taylor & Francis, 2004.

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