The closing lines in Langston Hughes’s landmark poem The Negro and the Racial Mountain provide an important insight into why the ‘Harlem Renaissance’ was instrumental in reconceptualising what it meant to be Black in America.
Hughes’s focus on “dark-skinned” individuals defining and celebrating themselves was a rejection of the pejorative depictions placed on African Americans, and of Blackness itself, since America’s inception. This break away from the “Old Negro” symbolised most notably through slavery, servitude, oppression and other pervasive tropes, was a recurring motif amongst the intellectuals and artists who were part of the Harlem Renaissance, who opted to embrace and celebrate their blackness.
The Renaissance (c.1917-1937) was a cultural, artistic and socio-political movement fuelled by a variety of factors. The Great Migration, for example, where millions of African Americans escaped the brutalising conditions of the South and went to urban areas in the North and Midwest in search of new opportunities, better pay and standards of living. This migration provided space for African Americans to express themselves freely away from the confines of the rural South where Jim Crow laws and lynchings went unabated.
Harlem in New York City became the epicentre of the movement, drawing hundreds of thousands of people to a tiny three-square mile radius. This area attracted an array of individuals, ranging from unskilled labourers, to middle-class businessmen as well as musicians. The burgeoning cultural innovations that took place in Harlem attracted people from across the Afro-Caribbean diaspora, where they exchanged new ways of reimagining Blackness and reconnecting to their African heritage.
Black life through art
The Harlem Renaissance encompassed a multitude of visual, musical, literary and theatrical art forms that conveyed realistic portrayals of the Black experience in America. The focus on everyday depictions of African Americans was a revolutionary act in itself, as it captured the rich tapestry and nuances of Black culture at large.
Though much of the art and entertainment created during this time was celebratory, a number of individuals used their work as a social commentary to repudiate negative racist stereotypes. This is evident in films produced by the independent film director Oscar Micheaux, whose decision to cover taboo subjects such as rape and miscegenation was viewed as a rejection of the caricatures that perpetuated violence against Black people. Therefore, works produced during this time must be understood as vehicles that humanised Black people.
Harlem Renaissance and politics
The Harlem Renaissance was not merely a cultural movement where artistic expression thrived; the overt sense of racial pride in addition to rising numbers of community activism laid the foundations for the Civil Rights Movement.
Publications such as The Crisis magazine, Opportunity and The Messenger were central to dissipating racist tropes, as well as galvanising African Americans to take action against employers and institutions that upheld racial segregation and discrimination.
As such, the Harlem Renaissance should not be viewed as a singular movement where Black Americans (and Black people across the diaspora) sought to assert a new image, but rather as a continuum that granted them humanity in a nation that viewed them simply as commodities.