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Roaring Twenties: 1916–1929

Harlem Renaissance

Cultural Contributions of the Harlem Renaissance

The Harlem Renaissance—the emergence of black culture that flourished and spread from the Harlem neighborhood of New York City—contributed heavily to every aspect of creative arts in the United States.
From about 1918 to 1937 the Harlem Renaissance—a period of cultural consciousness and growth—occurred in black creative arts communities, notably in the Harlem district of New York City. In Harlem and in other cities such as Chicago and Paris, France, this upsurge in creativity included artists, writers, actors, dancers, and other types of performers. The black urban arts scene was able to flourish in these locales because African Americans had migrated in such large numbers to Northern cities. They also went to Paris—where many sought to avoid the racism that still existed in every aspect of life in the United States. The rise of jazz can be attributed largely to black musicians and bandleaders, the most influential being Duke Ellington, whose career began in his hometown of Washington, D.C., but blossomed in Harlem. Singers and dancers such as Florence Mills, Josephine Baker, Ethel Waters, and Paul Robeson performed in Eubie Blake's popular musical show called Shuffle Along in 1921. Nightclubs sprang up in cities across America, bringing jazz and shows reflecting the African American experience to the entire nation. The Roaring Twenties are known as the Jazz Age for the widespread range of talent in this musical style, a genre that captivated the American public. Performers toured widely, spreading jazz to major cities all over the world. Classical singers also performed in Europe. Marian Anderson, an American contralto opera singer, was able to perform freely in Europe and rose to fame there first. She was barred from certain venues in the United States because she was black. Her later career broke barriers in the United States, as Eleanor Roosevelt and other influential figures cleared the way for her to perform for adoring audiences. Dancer Bill "Bojangles" Robinson performed in musical comedies on Broadway, later becoming a vaudeville and film star. His style of tap dancing became the standard for tap performers for the next several decades.
Musical icon Duke Ellington worked with luminaries Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, and Billie Holiday. Ellington and Holiday also performed in the film Symphony in Black: A Rhapsody of Negro Life.
Credit: Courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-USW3-023953-C

African American Writers and Artists of the Harlem Renaissance

During the Harlem Renaissance authors Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, and James Weldon Johnson, along with painter Aaron Douglas, changed how many viewed African Americans and the African American experience.

The Harlem Renaissance also produced a large number of talented writers, including Claude McKay and Langston Hughes. McKay wrote poems in forms such as the sonnet, while Hughes split off from formal poetry, writing free verse and often using jazz music to inspire it. Langston Hughes became a leader of the Harlem Renaissance and was a poet, novelist, playwright, and social activist. Hughes gained readers worldwide by centering his works around the African American experience and racial pride. His first poem to be published—"The Negro Speaks of Rivers"—appeared in The Crisis, a magazine published by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and edited by W.E.B. Du Bois. Before making his name as a writer, Hughes was working in a restaurant when he encountered American poet Vachel Lindsay, who was dining at the establishment. Hughes placed some of his poems on Lindsay's table. Initially annoyed at the intrusion, Lindsay became interested after reading the works and had them distributed to national newspapers. This exposure garnered Hughes instant success and a university scholarship. Hughes went on to write several volumes of poetry, novels, and plays based on his short stories. His manifesto "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain" relates his ideas about the unique perspective black writers and artists have to offer.

Visual artists of the Harlem Renaissance also included African motifs and folk art in their aesthetics. Aaron Douglas, a painter, used geometric motifs that blended the art deco style with specifically black spiritual themes. His illustrations for the book God's Trombones, by James Weldon Johnson, portrayed Christian themes using black characters.
Renowned Harlem Renaissance writer Langston Hughes was influenced by poets Carl Sandburg and Walt Whitman, among others. His social activism and links with jazz clearly resonate in his free verse.
Credit: Courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-43605

Contributions of African American Women in the Harlem Renaissance

Author Zora Neale Hurston and sculptor Augusta Savage contributed powerfully to the Harlem Renaissance as they crafted vibrant literary portrayals of African American culture and robust sculptural forms.

Female African American writers and visual artists were vibrant participants in the Harlem Renaissance. They contributed not only their works but also a willingness to fight for inclusion of black art in the national literary and visual art landscape. Zora Neale Hurston, an American writer and folklorist whose work focused on the lives of African Americans in the rural South, wrote novels about black characters in their own vernacular. In addition she studied and collected African American folklore, writing essays about black rural culture and incorporating her research into her fiction. Hurston, who was alternately a maid and a traveling actor in her teenage years, graduated from Barnard College and did graduate studies at Columbia University. She also became a staff member of the Library of Congress and taught drama at North Carolina Central University, which was called North Carolina College for Negroes at the time. Hurston wrote plays and novels that gave readers a new perspective on Southern rural life for African Americans. The novel for which she is most famous is Their Eyes Were Watching God. Many of her books were not published until after her death. The manuscript for Barracoon: The Story of the Last "Black Cargo," relates her numerous interviews with Cudjo Lewis. Lewis was a survivor of the last black slave ship to arrive in the United States. Hurston's manuscript was rejected for publication because of the vernacular language she insisted remain intact. The manuscript was stored at Howard University and was finally published in 2018.

American sculptor Augusta Savage's portrayals of prominent African Americans such as W.E.B. Du Bois gained her a following. In 1929 she received a three-year fellowship to study in Paris. By the early '30s, in the midst of the Great Depression, she and many other artists came back to the United States. Savage, an activist for inclusion of black artists in national projects, founded the Harlem Community Art Center. Harlem thus became the birthplace of a new crop of black artists supported by the previous generation.
Zora Neale Hurston's upbringing and field research led her not only to use the Southern black rural experience as her subject matter, but also to incorporate black vernacular dialogue.
Credit: Courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-108549