During the 1920s and 1930s, gifted and talented African Americans congregated in the Harlem area of upper Manhattan to express themselves and celebrate their heritage. Known as the Harlem Renaissance, this powerful movement brought together writers, poets, artists, musicians, philosophers and political activists who inspired one another to greatness. Many distinguished African Americans, such as Langston Hughes, Alain Locke, Billie Holiday and Duke Ellington earned critical acclaim for their work and boosted African American pride and visibility.
Political activists collaborated with white social reformers during the Harlem Renaissance with the goal of achieving social justice and an integrated society. Democratic and socialist activists pushed for progressive laws and policies that laid the groundwork for the Civil Rights Movement. Several political leaders, organizations and publications of the day had a far-reaching influence. For example, William Edward Burghardt DuBois helped organize the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in the early 20th Century. DuBois also edited "The Crisis," a human rights NAACP magazine, that still exists today along with the influential NAACP organization.
The cultural scene in Harlem encouraged artists, writers, actors, dancers and sculptors to explore new styles and art forms. Harlem offered a vibrant nightlife where performers like Bessie Smith sang the blues. Other cabarets and nightclubs offered electrifying jazz and ragtime. Many songs, poems, novels and art pieces focused on African American history. A common theme expressed in art was the African American struggle for equality. For instance, Meta Fuller’s sculptures incorporated themes of racism and colonialism. Fuller was influenced by her friend, social W.E.B. DuBois, which illustrates the cross-disciplinary collaboration common during that period.
An important goal of many artists and writers during the Harlem Renaissance was to enhance the self-esteem of African Americans. This goal was accomplished by creating extraordinary works of art and literature that showed the strength, resilience and intelligence of the African American people. Creating positive images of African Americans helped dispel racially biased myths and stereotypes prevalent in the media. This strategy was reinforced by political reformers who highlighted African American leaders in various publications with the intent of instilling a sense of cultural pride and self-respect. It was assumed that accurate portrayal of African American culture would lead to a more enlightened society.
Around 1890, thousands of African Americans migrated to urban centers, such as Harlem, seeking jobs and refuge from Southern oppression. When Northern prejudice also presented a barrier to employment, African Americans in Harlem set a goal of becoming economically self-sufficient. African American-owned businesses provided Harlem residents with jobs, services and popular entertainment venues that attracted affluent white patrons to Harlem, further stimulating the local economy. African American doctors, lawyers and other well-educated professionals formed a growing middle class that sustained the economic vitality of Harlem during the renaissance years.
- Biography.com: Famous Harlem Renaissance People
- National Archives: Teaching with Documents: Photographs of the 369th Infantry and African Americans During World War I
- PBS.org: News Hour: Harlem Renaissance
- National Association for the Advancement of Colored People: NAACP 100 Years of History
- Yale-New Haven Teacher's Institute: African American Art and the Political Dissent During the Harlem Renaissance
- Black History Now: Meta W. Fuller
- Yale-New Haven Teacher's Institute: The Social Contributions of the Harlem Renaissance
- U.S. History.org: The Harlem Renaissance
- University of North Carolina Pembroke: Teaching African American Literature
- PBS.org: The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow: The Harlem Renaissance
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