A New African American Identity: The Harlem Renaissance

By the late 1870s, southern African Americans’ dream of fuller participation in American society had been squelched. Hundreds of thousands of African Americans relocated to northern cities like Chicago, Detroit, and New York.

The Harlem neighborhood in Manhattan became the largest concentration of black people in the world. From unskilled laborers to an educated middle-class, African American residents shared common experiences of slavery, emancipation, and racial oppression, as well as a determination to forge a new identity as free people.

Between the end of World War I and the mid-1930s, African American artists and scholars produced significant cultural works, known as the Harlem Renaissance. This cultural expression occurred in many cities with large African American populations.

The Harlem Renaissance produced many art forms: poetry, prose, painting, sculpture, jazz, swing, opera, and dance. These many art forms all presented a realistic expression of what it meant to be black in America. Writer Langston Hughes called it an “expression of our individual dark-skinned selves.”

Among the Renaissance’s most significant contributors were intellectuals like W.E.B. Du Bois; performers Josephine Baker and Paul Robeson; writers and poets like Zora Neale Hurston, Effie Lee Newsome, Countee Cullen; visual artists like Aaron Douglas and Augusta Savage; and legendary musicians, including Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Fats Waller, and Jelly Roll Morton.

Harlem was the center of American culture. The literature, music, and fashion created there defined “cool” for blacks and white alike, in America and around the world.

The Harlem Renaissance ended due to the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and resulting Great Depression. Businesses and publications suffered, and people could no longer pay to support the arts.

The Harlem Renaissance influenced future generations of African American artists and intellectuals. It radically redefined how people of other races viewed African Americans and understood the African American experience.

Most importantly, the Harlem Renaissance instilled in African Americans across the country a new spirit of self-determination and pride, and a new commitment to political activism. It would provide a foundation for the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

Source: A New African American Identity: The Harlem Renaissance
© Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

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