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Harlem Renaissance


Harlem Renaissance: The Harlem Renaissance was a flowering of African American culture embracing literary, musical, theatrical, and visual arts.

Definition and Summary of the Harlem Renaissance
Summary and definition:
The Harlem Renaissance was a period during the 1920s when African-American achievements in art, literature and music flourished. A period of great diversity and experimentation. The WW1 Great Migration saw the movement of thousands of African Americans from the farmlands in the south to the cities in  the north in order to find new opportunities and build better lives.

Many made their way to the New York city neighborhood of Harlem in Manhattan, New York City which became the home of the movement.

The 1920's Harlem Renaissance and the Jazz Age
The Harlem Renaissance coincided with the Jazz Age, a time of innovative ideas and modernism with rapid cultural and social changes. Harlem became a cultural center buzzing with new ideas and attracting African American scholars, writers, poets, artists, actors, musicians and singers. The Cotton Club was the most famous Harlem night spot where musicians such as Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington played Dixie, the blues and developed the improvisational style of music called Jazz.

Fast Facts: The 5 W's of the Harlem Renaissance
Fast, fun facts and Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ's) - The 5  Five W's of the Harlem Renaissance: What, Who, Where, Why and When...

What was the Harlem Renaissance? The Harlem Renaissance was a flowering of African American culture embracing literary, musical, theatrical, and visual arts

Who was involved in the Harlem Renaissance? African Americans were involved in the Harlem Renaissance. Significant figures were Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Claude McKay, Zora Neale Hurston, Bessie Smith, Paul Robeson and Langston Hughes

Where did the Harlem Renaissance take place? The Harlem Renaissance centered around the Harlem district in New York City

When was the Harlem Renaissance? The period known as the Harlem Renaissance was 1917 - 1932 (from WW1 and the Great Migration up to the Great Depression)

Why was the Harlem Renaissance important? The Harlem Renaissance was important because it inspired an explosion of cultural pride and was perceived as a new beginning for African Americans. Black Americans were inspired to create works rooted in their own culture instead of imitating the styles of white Americans. African Americans were encouraged to celebrate their heritage and to become "The New Negro" a term coined in 1925 by Alain LeRoy Locke (1885 - 1954), writer and patron of the arts. The following quote by Nathan Huggins (1927 - 1989), a prominent African American historian and author, reflects the change in attitudes that would help lay the foundation of the Civil Rights Movement.

"For the Afro-American in the 1920's being a 'New Negro' was being 'Modern'. And being an 'New Negro' meant, largely, not being an 'Old Negro', disassociating oneself from the symbols and legacy of slavery - being urbane, assertive militant." - Nathan Huggins

Facts about Harlem Renaissance
The following fact sheet contains interesting facts and information on Harlem Renaissance.

Harlem Renaissance Art: Surrealism, Impressionism and Art Deco were the new art movements and styles of the 1920's and these influenced African American art during the Harlem Renaissance. Art Deco used strong colors and geometric shapes to convey the "modern" look. Surrealism in art was highly imaginative style expressing dream-like images free of reason and convention. Impressionism used bold brush strokes and contrasts of color to capture the impression of the moment. Artists used these modern art styles in paintings, murals, photographs, sculptures and illustrations and covers of magazines and other publications to express the 'New Negro' philosophy.

Artists: The Harlem Renaissance Artists used modern art styles to reflect African American life and culture. The names of the artists who blossomed during the Harlem Renaissance era included Aaron Douglas, Lois Mailou Jones, Jacob Lawrence, Palmer C. Hayden, Laura Wheeler Waring, Meta Fuller, Archibald Motley, Augusta Savage, William Johnson, Charles Alston and photographer James Van Der Zee.

Authors: The authors of the period wrote fiction and non-fiction, novels, plays, children's books and published essays, articles and edited various publications. Famous Harlem Renaissance authors included Langston Hughes, ‎Alain LeRoy Locke, ‎Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, ‎Countee Cullen, Nella Larsen, Jessie Redmon Fauset, Jean Toomer, Jessie Redmon Fauset, George Schuyler, Arnaud "Arna" Wendell Bontemps, Rudolph Fisher, Gwendolyn B. Bennett, A. Philip Randolph, Wallace Thurman, Dorothy West, Rudolph Fisher, Chandler Owen and Georgia Douglas Johnson. Also refer to Literature, Books and Writers.

Actors: Famous actors of the period included Paul Robeson, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Ethel Waters, Nobel Sissel, Charles Gilpin, Nina Mae McKinney, Evelyn Preer and Adelaide Hall. The Lafayette Theatre was a famous New York theater. The Lafayette Players acted before almost exclusively African-American audiences in famous plays from the classics and presented modern Broadway hits such as Madame X, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Black Nationalism: The Universal Negro Improvement Association was established by Marcus Garvey advocating self reliance and separation from white society and the "back to Africa" movement. Marcus Garvey presided over a conference in the UNIA Liberty Hall in Harlem which was followed by a 50,000 strong march of supporters.  The ideas of Marcus Garvey clashed with those of many Harlem Renaissance intellectuals but he inspired many African Americans with a sense of pride in the heritage and optimism for the future.

Books: The literature of the Harlem Renaissance produced many famous books that included Cane by Jean Toomer, The Fire in the Flint by Walter White, Home to Harlem by Claude McKay, Quicksand by Nella Larsen, The Walls of Jericho by Rudolph Fisher, Not Without Laughter by Langston Hughes, Black No More by George Schuyler, The Chinaberry Tree by Jessie Redmon Fauset and Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. Also refer to Authors, Literature and Writers

Clothing: Harlem Renaissance clothing reflected many of the new, daring styles and fashions of the Roaring Twenties. All of the men wore fedora hats and suits complimented by colorful handkerchiefs, suspenders and bow ties. The most outstanding style of men's suit during the Harlem Renaissance was the flamboyant zoot suit. Clothing for the women included day dresses and skirts with cloche hats. Women's clothing for the evening reflected Jazz Age 'flapper' fashions decorated with rhinestones with glamorous accessories such as long strands of pearl beads, feather headbands and  boas and long gloves. Their woolen, silk, or rayon stockings were held up by garters. Refer to 1920's Fashion for Women

Dancers and Dances: The new style of jazz music inspired new, crazy and flamboyant dance moves. New dances evolved including the Charleston, the Black Bottom, the Shimmy, Turkey trot and the Cake walk. Famous Harlem Renaissance dancers included Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Josephine Baker, George Snowden, Herbert White, Earl "Snakehips" Tucker, Mildred Dixon and Florence Mills, The Nicholas Brothers, Stepin Fetchit, Butterbeans and Suzy and Evelyn Welch. Dancers at the Savoy Ballroom, the “Home of Happy Feet”, developed the Lindy Hop (named after Charles Lindbergh) in 1927.

Cotton Club: The Cotton Club was the most famous nightspot in Harlem which was located on 142nd St & Lenox Ave from 1923 to 1935. The Cotton Club was a “Whites-only” venue. The cabaret form of entertainment began in New York City and the growing number of speakeasies during the Prohibition era of the 1920's provided many aspiring Harlem Renaissance jazz musicians with new venues. All of the famous African American singers, musicians and dancers performed at the Cotton Club. It was the "in" meeting place and featured regular "Sunday Celebrity Nights" that featured celebrity guests and movie stars such as Al Jolson, Jimmy Durante, George Gershwin, Sophie Tucker, Paul Robeson, Al Jolson, Mae West, Eddie Cantor, Fanny Brice, Langston Hughes and Judy Garland.

Fashion: The major fashion statement for men was the loose fitting, baggy trousers of the "Zoot Suit". Women's fashion was influenced by the movie stars of the day and famous celebrities such as Josephine Baker, the "Black Pearl" and Bessie Smith, the 'Empress of the Blues' who wore the fashions of the Flappers.

Great Gatsby: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald was published in 1925 and told the story of the fictional character Jay Gatsby and exposed the excesses of Consumerism in 1920's America, affected all Americans, black and white.

Great Migration: The Great Migration started during WW1 which saw the mass movement of African Americans from the farmlands in the south to explore opportunities and star a new life in  the towns and cities in the northern states of America. New York became a popular destination and saw the emergence of Harlem as the favored district for African Americans.

Harlem Hellfighters: The Harlem Hellfighters were the men of the 369th Infantry who heroically fought on the front lines in WW1. The whole regiment of the "Harlem Hellfighters" received the French Croix de Guerre and 171 of the officers and troops received individual citations for bravery, more than any other American unit in WW1. Their bravery during WW1 changed the American public's opinion on African American soldiers and saw a burst in African American pride.

Jazz Age: The 1920's Jazz Age was associated with sophistication, modernism, exuberance, consumerism, decadence and the introduction of jazz music.

Jazz Musicians: The Famous Jazz Musicians of the Jazz Age included Louis Armstrong, Josephine Baker Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, "Jelly Roll" Morton, King Oliver and the Creole Jazz Band, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Ma Rainey, Fletcher Henderson, Earl "Fatha" Hines, Cab Calloway, Bessie Smith, Thelonious Monk, Count Basie, Art Tatum and Fats Waller.

Key Figures and Leaders: The key figures of the Harlem Renaissance were the authors, artists, poets, singers and musicians. The African American political leaders of the era and Civil Rights Activists included Marcus Garvey, Oscar DePriest, A. Philip Randolph, L.S. Alexander Gumby, Madam C.J. Walker, Alain LeRoy Locke "Father of the Harlem Renaissance", W.E.B. Du Bois, Walter White and James Weldon Johnson.

Langston Hughes: TLangston Hughes, known as the "Poet Laureate of Harlem" wrote the poems  'The negro speaks of rivers, 'The Weary Blues'  and 'I too'. The poems described the disenfranchisement felt by many African Americans in the 1920's and urged them to stand up and take pride in their heritage.

Literature: The authors and poets of the Harlem Renaissance challenged traditional ideas and reflected realistic characters and themes describing the African American lifestyle and reflected their history, culture and heritage. Also refer to Authors, Books and Writers

Music: The music of the Harlem Renaissance brought together the African music culture combined with Blues, Ragtime and Dixie to create the Jazz Music made so famous by the Harlem musicians. The early Jazz style was called 'Stride Piano. In 1917 Victor records released the first jazz record, by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band (ODJB). Louis Armstrong is credited with putting Jazz on the musical map.  Harlem Renaissance Musicians participated in 'Cutting Contests' during which players tried to surpass, or 'cut, each other to create the best improvisations - James P. Johnson was named "the father of stride piano". By 1929, 60% of radio air time was playing jazz music, which became mainstream entertainment..

NAACP: The NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) fought for civil rights, the elimination of racial discrimination and desegregation.

New York: The Harlem Renaissance, the "flowering of Negro literature, art and creativity" was centered in the Harlem district of New York City.  In 1914, there were only 50,000 African Americans in Harlem, by 1930 the number had increased to 200,000. Tin Pan Alley became the center of the music industry in New York City. The Cotton Club was the most famous of all the Harlem nightspots.

Poets / Poetry / Poems: The Harlem Renaissance saw the emergence of many Harlem Renaissance Poets including Claude McKay whose eloquent poetry about racism in the United States included poems such as 'If we must Die' and 'The Lynching'. Langston Hughes, wrote 'The negro speaks of rivers, 'The Weary Blues'  and 'I too' as a response to 'I hear America singing' by Walt Whitman. Georgia Douglas Johnson published full volumes of poetry, including The Heart of a Woman, and Other Poems and Bronze. Countee Cullen wrote The Black Christ and Other Poems and James Weldon Johnson wrote God's Trombones.

Singers: The famous Harlem Renaissance Singers included Louis Armstrong, Paul Robeson, Bill "Bo jangles" Robinson, Josephine Baker, Adelaide Hall, Bessie Smith, Lottie Gee, Cab Calloway, Ethel Waters, Avon Long, Aida Ward, Edith Wilson, the Dandridge Sisters, Fats Waller, Avis Andrews, the Berry Brothers, Nina Mae McKinney, Billie Holiday and Lena Horne

Songs: There were many famous Harlem Renaissance songs, and many of the following received Emmy Awards. "St. Louis Blues" was recorded in 1929 by Louis Armstrong with Bessie Smith. "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)" was recorded in 1932 by Duke Ellington. "Strange Fruit" was recorded in 1939 by Billie Holiday. "Sweet Georgia Brown" was written in 1925 and recorded by Ella Fitzgerald and Cab Calloway. "Everybody Loves My Baby" was recorded by Armstrong with the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra. "Squeeze Me" a jazz song composed and recorded by Fats Waller in 1925.

Sports: Spectator sports such as baseball, basketball and boxing reached new heights of popularity in the 1920s. In 1924 the Negro League held its first world series, its stars were Oscar Charleston and Satchel Paige. The New York Renaissance all-black professional basketball team, nicknamed the "Harlem Rens", was established in 1923, and became the first professional basketball team. The "New York Harlem Globe Trotters" were formed in 1927. Joe Lewis, nicknamed the Brown Bomber, was a heavyweight boxing champion of the world achieved the status of a nationwide hero. Henry McDonald  was the first black athlete to play professional football. Jesse Owens won accolades for black athletes by taking four gold medals in the 1936 Olympics.

Writers: The Harlem Renaissance Writers contributed to four important publications and magazines - The Crisis, The Messenger, The Negro World, and Opportunity. The Crisis was the official political and social magazine of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The Messenger was a politically radical magazine for African Americans. The Negro World was a weekly magazine published by the United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). Opportunity chronicled cultural advancements in Harlem. Also refer to Authors, Literature and Books.

Zoot Suit: The "Zoot Suit" was a men's suit that became popular among the African Americans of Harlem. The Zoot Suit featured trousers that were high-waisted, wide-legged with pegged bottoms The long jackets were tight-cuffed with wide lapels and wide padded shoulders.

US American History
1913-1928: WW1 & Prohibition

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