The Harlem Renaissance: ‘The African American Enlightenment’

Published 11:57 am Friday, July 17, 2020

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We have heard of the Roaring Twenties. The Harlem Renaissance was a part of that period in American history. It was a time in which African Americans were freely expressing themselves in the arts, literature and fashion occurring in Harlem, New York from 1918 to the mid-1930s. The movement not only included Harlem but spanned African and Caribbean colonies whose writers lived in Paris, France. During this artistic explosion the Great Depression occurred.

This artistic movement emerged due to the Great Migration, which involved African Americans who moved from the post Civil War South to the Northeast and Midwest United States. During Reconstruction in the South, African Americans sought to have equality in politics and economic self-sufficiency. By 1875 they had achieved that goal when 16 of them had  been elected as Congressmen.

Subsequently, the Civil Rights Act of 1875 was passed by black Congressmen denouncing the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871. The legislation was sponsored by Republicans, however, Democrats regained power by the late 1870s overturning it.

From 1890 to 1908 Democrats passed laws that denied African Americans and poor whites congressional representation and as a result Jim Crow legislation was established which prohibited blacks from voting, terrorizing them with lynch mobs as well as exacting a system that forced thousands of African Americans back into working for no pay in mines, on plantations or on public works such as roads. In addition, a small number of African Americans were able to own land but many earned a living as sharecroppers. As life became more difficult, many blacks moved North in great numbers.

Consequently, the inspiration for the Harlem Renaissance was the experiences and stumbling blocks experienced by people whose ancestors had been slaves while some had the benefit of an above-average education so therefore the Great Migration led many to settle in Harlem. In the beginning, Harlem was the destination for migrants from around the U.S. and a designation suburb for white middle and upper class but with the great influx of European immigrants in the late 19th century the middle class moved north. In 1910 a large block along 135th Street and Fifth Avenue was purchased by various African American realtors and a church group. During World War I many blacks moved to Harlem because of the need for unskilled industrial labor. The Great Migration cities included Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit and New York. Make no mistake, racism reared its ugly head often perpetuated by European immigrants.

Artists and writers involved in the Harlem Renaissance were James Weldon Johnson, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Florence Mills, Ethel Waters, Duke Ellington and Josephine Baker among others. Magazines such as “Crisis,” the monthly journal of the NAACP, and “Opportunity,” an official publication of the National Urban League, employed those writers on their editorial staff. They published poetry and short stories and promoted African American literature through articles, reviews and annual literary prizes.

In 1921 Langston Hughes’ poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” was published in “Crisis.” In it, he asks readers to think about humanity as a whole not just black or white. Consequently, in 1926 “The Weary Blues” his first book of poems was published. These writing focused on working class people and social injustice portraying black life in America. Mr. Hughes’ work was infused with jazz and blues influences. White publishers and magazines were important avenues to get exposure to white audiences.

Moreover, the first African American to gain wide recognition as a concert artist internationally was Roland Hayes who toured with the Fisk Jubilee Singers in 1911. One popular venue at the height of the Harlem Renaissance for black musicians was the Cotton Club in Harlem which was exclusively for white audiences. Duke Ellington played there frequently. African Americans were more successful performing in arenas like this and became part of the mainstream music scene.

In addition, fashion was amped up a notch by the Harlem Renaissance with the introduction of the zoot suit which was a wide-legged, high-waisted, peg-top trousers and a long coat with padded shoulders and wide lapels worn by men. Women like Josephine Baker wore art-deco style dresses and Ethel Moses sparked the bob hairstyle in the 1920s and 1930s.

So let’s celebrate and remember the era that was the Harlem Renaissance, a time in which African Americans finally came into their own in expressing those struggles, determination and quest for equality that solidified and portrayed their essence revealing who they are which is everchanging.

It truly was “the African American Enlightenment”.

Judy Moore is a tour guide with The Central High Museum living in Wylliesburg and can be reached at