This is the original American Library site. It has been preserved for archival purposes only.
The current site can be found here:

Site Map
What's New?
Library Guide
Web links



Setting the Stage

The Harlem Renaissance is generally regarded as beginning in 1919 following the end of World War I but the confluence of forces that created the atmosphere in which it developed began with the outbreak of war in Europe. The United States was called upon to manufacture munitions and other supplies for the war effort. Many immigrant laborers had returned to fight in their native lands and the war halted the flow of new immigrants. The shortage of workers was filled by the reservoir of black laborers in the South and travel subsidies from industries in dire need of manpower made possible a wholesale migration of over a million and a half black people from the rural south to the industrial north. Many, including 50 thousand blacks from the West Indies, settled in Harlem.

At the turn of the century, Harlem had been overbuilt with new apartment houses. Philip A. Payton, a black man in the real estate business, engineered the movement of black people into Harlem by proposing to the landlords to fill those empty apartments with black tenants. It was the first time in the history of New York that black people were offered new housing, and with wages from the newly created industry jobs there was money available for renting and buying. When white neighbors tried to halt the flow of black tenants, Payton created a stronghold by forming the Afro-American Realty Company for the purpose of buying and leasing houses to be let to black tenants. White flight further reduced the housing costs and in this two square-mile neighborhood lived more than two hundred thousand blacks, the highest concentration of black people anywhere on earth.

The War Years

With the entrance of America into the war, Black American soldiers marched off to defend "Democracy for All" in their segregated regiments. While on tour the soldiers came in contact with other black soldiers from various imperial systems throughout the world; they became conscious of one another and found in each other the promise and the dream of world-wide black unity. Out of those dreams they built organizations through which Pan Africanism might be a countervailing force against the apparently crumbling colonial empires. Already, back in New York, a dynamic Jamaican, Marcus Garvey, was drawing huge crowds denouncing the imperialist white man and calling on the black man to return to Africa and build an African empire. And while many paid little heed to "Garveyism" there was an undeniable movement afoot as witnessed in the writing of W. E. B. Du Bois in black magazines like Crisis and The Messenger. These articles called for and end to lynchings and mob violence, and demanded that a country that purports to be fighting a war for democracy should begin by insuring that right to its black populace at home. Most importantly, these articles ushered the era of the "New Negro".

New Negro

The emergence of the New Negro symbolized black liberation and the final shaking off of the residuals of slavery in mind, spirit and character. This new man shed the costume of the shuffling darky, the subservient and docile retainer, the clown; he was a man and a citizen in his own right: intelligent, articulate, self-assured and urban. Alain Locke, a professor of philosophy at Howard University, wrote in an essay entitled The New Negro, "in the very process of being transplanted, the Negro has been transformed." And although black political radicalism subsided with the Armistice, the "New Negro" lived on. The Harlem Renaissance was a channeling of energy from political and social criticism into poetry, fiction, music and art.

The Nature of the Movement

In 1925, painter Aaron Douglas, known as the "father" of African Art, wrote to the poet Langston Hughes:

"Let’s bare our arms and plunge them deep through laughter, through pain, through sorrow, through hope, through disappointment, into the very depths of the souls of our people and drag forth material crude, rough, neglected. Then let’s sing it, dance it, write it, paint it. Let’s do the impossible. Let’s create something transcendentally material, mystically objective, earthy. Spiritually earthy. Dynamic."

These worthy objectives of a new breed of artists trying to reflect their racial experiences and celebrate their cultural identity by creating new forms of art, true to themselves and all African Americans.

The desire of black artists to produce works particular to their racial idiom led many, including Hughes and Douglas, to examine their African ancestors. African art had, by this time, influenced many European artists including Matisse, Picasso and Modigliani. The characteristic African art expressions are rigid, controlled, abstract and highly conventionalized; those of the African American were free, exuberant, emotional, sentimental and human. Critics claimed that there was little connection for the modern black American with the peoples of "the dark continent".

The sophisticated, stylish, urban Harlemites felt betrayed by writers like Zora Neale Hurston who scoured the South to record and preserve black folk traditions, writing in the dialect of the "old Negro". And when Carl Van Vechten dared to write a novel entitled "Nigger Heaven", black people held meetings across America to denounce the book, their objection based on the title alone.

These artists struggled to define the "New Negro" by examining the past. Identity was central. What did Africa mean? What did the slave and the peasant past mean? What could folk tradition mean to the "New Negro"? What was color itself? Blackness, clearly, was not only a color, it was a state of mind. So what of the mulatto, and what of "passing"? Most of the artistic work of the Harlem Renaissance resonates these themes and questions.

Harlem Nights

This self-conscious examination by Harlem artists and literati did not plague the musicians and performing artists of the time. The music and dances of black artists had long been at the forefront of American entertainment. Black music and theater had an openness, an exuberance, freshness and joie de vivre which no other American expression of the time had; it was infectious, especially in the post war days. The Blues, Ragtime, and its offshoot Jazz, could be heard in Harlem clubs at all hours of the night, with Bessie Smith, Eubie Blake, and Duke Ellington presiding. The musical revue, "Shuffle Along" written by Blake was the toast of the town and included in the chorus an as yet unknown Josephine Baker, soon to be a star of international fame. Paul Robeson was the favorite star of theater and film. The black man was in vogue.

White people came to Harlem in droves. White celebrities worked hard to get invited to gatherings where they could rub elbows with black poets and painters. Prohibition helped to boost the popularity of Harlem speakeasies and even the threat of a police raid did not deter white customers bent on an evening of "slumming". Even the churches were not safe from the invasion and the black congregations of revival meetings were spotted with the white faces of people from uptown sitting stock still while all around them folks filled with the spirit sang and danced in the aisles. Some of the owners of Harlem clubs, delighted at the flood of white patrons, made the grievous error of barring their own race, after the manner of the famous Cotton Club. But most quickly lost business and folded up, because they failed to realize that a large part of the attraction of Harlem night spots lay in simply watching the black clientele. Some black folks found refuge from the onslaught of white tourists in smaller gatherings like rent parties or, as they were also known, whist parties where bootleg whiskey and fried fish were sold at very low prices to help cover the cost of the occupants' rent.

The Harlem Renaissance was not confined to New York alone, or for that matter, to the U.S. and a great many African American artists traveled to Europe, where they could thrive in an atmosphere that, while perhaps not free of racial prejudice, was at least free from the dreaded Jim Crow laws of the States.

The Crash

The stock market crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression brought an end to the Harlem Renaissance. The black man, at the height of his popularity, became the first to be sacrificed to unemployment and starvation. The Depression made the Harlem Renaissance, with its spirit of play and optimism, seem strange and naive. But the 1920s did bring into focus, with sharper intensity than ever before, the consciousness and reality of the African American struggle for self-realization, the spirit of which can be seen in this poem by Langston Hughes:


I, too, sing America

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

I'll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody'll dare
Say to me,
"Eat in the kitchen"

They'll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed-

I too, am America. 


Much of this material has been drawn from the book, "Voices from the Harlem Renaissance" edited by Nathan Irvin Huggins and from Langston Hughes' autobiography, "The Big Sea".


This is the original American Library site. It has been preserved for archival purposes only.
The current site can be found here: 

  Home ] Site Map ] What's New? ] Services ] Library Guide ] Catalogue ] Bookstore ] Feedback ] Guestbook ] Forum ] Photos ] Web links ]

The American Library of Montpellier
60, rue des Etats Généraux

Map / carte

Send mail to _________with questions or comments about this web site.
Copyright © 1996  The American Library of Montpellier

Last modified: 25 Jan 2002