The Harlem Renaissance
The Harlem Renaissance was an intellectual, social, and artistic explosion centered in the predominantly African American section of Harlem in New York City during the 1920s. The period is considered to have been a rebirth of the African American arts, with music, literature, and art all seeing significant achievements. It began following the Great Migration, when millions of African Americans fled the Jim Crow South for cities in the North.
A new way of playing the piano called the Harlem Stride style helped to change traditional jazz bands into something more lively and exciting. Its popularity soon spread throughout the country. Jazz performers and composers at the time such as Jelly Roll Morton and bandleaders like Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Fletcher Henderson were extremely talented, skillful and inspirational. Duke Ellington in particular gained popularity during the Harlem Renaissance. He wrote more than 1,000 compositions and many of his pieces have become standards. Louis Armstrong became the first great jazz soloist when he moved from Chicago to New York in 1924.
Thousands of Black and White city dwellers flocked to famous clubs like the Cotton Club in Harlem that hosted incredible performers. The improvisational nature of jazz music meant that no two performances were ever the same. night after night to see the same performers. Singers such as Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith pioneered blues and jazz vocals and a new way of manipulating phrasing and tempo. Others like Cab Calloway popularized energetic scat singing in front of big bands.
African American literature also blossomed during the Harlem Renaissance through writers like Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Claude McKay, and Countee Cullen. Langston Hughes is usually identified as the key literary figure of the Harlem Renaissance. He is most famous for his jazz poetry. His first published collection of short stories was The Ways of White Folks, which revealed humorous and tragic interactions between Black and White Americans.
Zora Neale Hurston portrayed racial struggles in the South through her novels like Their Eyes Were Watching God. Claude McKay and Countee Cullen were both prolific poets of the period, with many works focused on theme of race in America.
Visual artists of the Harlem Renaissance included William H. Johnson and Jacob Lawrence. Their works portrayed scenes of everyday life for African Americans. Through often bright and intense colors, their works told stories and brought the African American experience to life on canvas.
Other famous figures of the period included intellectuals like W.E.B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey
These and other artists of the Harlem Renaissance transformed African American culture and made it the epicenter of all American culture. The fashion, music, and literature they created defined "cool" in America. The movement instilled pride in African Americans across the country, along with an awakened social consciousness and commitment to political activism that would influence the civil rights era.