The Harlem Renaissance was the African-American cultural revolution centered in Harlem, New York City, which began after World War I, climaxed in the mid to late 1920s, and diminished in the mid 1930s. The movement, while primarily literary, involved art, music, dance, and theater. During this pivotal period, the Harlem Renaissance fostered black pride and uplifting of the race through the use of intellect. Thinking African-Americans, using artistic talents, challenged racial stereotypes and helped promote racial integration. Significantly, the genesis of the Civil Rights movement was rooted in radical political ideologies of Harlem Renaissance intellectuals.
The Harlem Renaissance, first called the New Negro Movement or the New Negro Renaissance, was the culmination of multiple factors, including the Great Migration. After WWI, hundreds of thousands of African-Americans left the rural South for cities of the industrial North in search of better jobs and a more tolerant environment. By 1918, Harlem, New York had the highest concentration of black people in the world, making it the cultural heart of African-Americans.
Heightened social consciousness was a prerequisite for the Harlem Renaissance. The advocacy of racial equality was embodied in the 1909 founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), an interracial organization. Pioneering black culture sociologist, W.E.B. DuBois, helped start the group and served as editor of its magazine, The Crisis.
The National Urban League, an interracial organization founded in 1911, was committed to integration and used a social service approach to help uprooted African-Americans during the Harlem Renaissance. The League’s magazine, Opportunity, published black writers and promoted them through articles and reviews. A "godfather" of the Harlem Renaissance, black sociologist Charles S. Johnson, edited the magazine. He secured patrons to sponsor prizes in annual magazine contests for young African-American writers. In 1924, Opportunity and Johnson hosted the first of several dinners introducing promising black writers to the white publishing establishment. After the first dinner, Survey Graphic magazine produced a special Harlem issue.
Black philosopher Alain Locke edited the March 1925 Harlem feature. Often called the "father" of the Harlem Renaissance, Alain Locke’s 1926 book, The New Negro: An Interpretation, was an outstanding anthology containing works by leading writers. As a result of Locke’s book, white critics started taking African-American writing seriously and white publishers sought black literature.
Carl Van Vechten, white patron of Harlem Renaissance writers and performers, wrote a controversial 1926 novel, Nigger Heaven. A best seller portraying Harlem of the Roaring Twenties, Van Vechten’s book fueled white interest in all things black. Sophisticated New Yorkers began frequenting Harlem's nightlife. The vogue for African-American motifs in Art Deco Design, as well as African-American art, literature, 1920s' Jazz, and Charleston Dance spread nationwide.
Many prominent writers of the Harlem Renaissance expressed the conditions and feelings of the average man. Called the "Negro Poet Laureate," Langston Hughes (1902-1967) said his poetry concerned the commonfolk. Using colloquial language, Hughes based his poetry rhythms on blues and jazz, creating the new form of jazz poetry. Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960), dubbed the "Queen of the Renaissance," was a folklorist who also glorified the everyday black in her fiction.
The New Negro: An Interpretation, Alain Locke, Ayer Co. Pub., Reprint edition, 1968
Harlem Renaissance, Nathan Irving Huggins, Oxford University Press, 1972
From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans, John Hope Franklin, Author, Alfred A. Moss, Jr., Author, Knopf, 8 Sub edition, 2000