By Paul Howson

15 October 2014 - 13:02

'No aspect of the Harlem Renaissance shaped America as much as jazz, which flouted conventions with its syncopated rhythms and improvised instrumental solos'
'No aspect of the Harlem Renaissance shaped America as much as jazz.' Photo ©

Tom Marcello under CC BY-SA 2.0 and adapted from the original.

In the early 20th century, mass migration from the US’s southern states, and the experience of black soldiers fighting in the First World War, led to a social, cultural, and artistic movement that formed the intellectual centre of debate about the future of African Americans. This Black History Month in the UK, the British Council’s Paul Howson explains how the Harlem Renaissance turned disillusionment into pride.

African Americans in pre-war American society

During the early 20th century, disenfranchisement, discrimination and violence against the black population were rife in the Deep South of the US. The economy in the northern states was booming, with thousands of new jobs opening up in industries supplying goods to a Europe embroiled in what we now know as the First World War. As a result, black sharecroppers migrated en masse to the north in 1915 and 1916. By 1920, an estimated half a million African Americans had moved north.

While the legal systems in the northern states were less oppressive, many soon found that they had not escaped segregation and discrimination. They were confined mainly to overcrowded and dilapidated housing, and were largely restricted to poorly paid, menial jobs. Nevertheless, economic and educational opportunities for African Americans were incomparably greater in the northern cities than they had ever been in the rural south.

African American involvement in the First World War

Some 350,000 to 400,000 African Americans served in the American Expeditionary Forces, which fought on the Western Front between 1917 and 1918. They made up the largest minority group in the American military contingent involved in the First World War, hoping to gain recognition and respect for their service to their country.

When the first all-black regiment — known as ‘The Harlem Hellfighters’ — returned from the battlefields abroad and paraded up 5th Avenue into Harlem in February 1919, a quarter of a million people came out to greet them. The parade became a marker of African American service to the nation, a frequent point of reference for those campaigning for civil rights.

Many who came to New York from the Deep South had settled in Harlem. Black churches spurred its development as an African American community by buying space there; community groups financed home ownership and business development; and black New Yorkers moved there from other areas of the city.

With racial prejudice still prevalent — the post-war recession led to race riots and lynching, including of black veterans still in uniform — Harlem became a place where black people could express themselves freely.

The Harlem Renaissance: cultural and artistic creativity as a means of self-assertion

Harlem brought together writers, artists, musicians, photographers, poets, and scholars. Common experience in their past and their uncertain present circumstances gave rise to a strong sense of racial pride, and encouraged an assertive social activism as well as political movements championing civil rights, black nationalism and pan-Africanism.

It was also a place where women could play an active and influential role, at a time when black women held arguably the lowest position in American society. Jessie Fauset, literary editor of the influential Crisis magazine, the novelist Zora Neale Hurston, entertainers and performers such as Josephine Baker and Ma Rainey who made Harlem a musical and dance capital, and the sculptor May Howard Jackson were hugely influential figures.

'Perhaps the greatest impact of the vibrant spirit of the Harlem Renaissance was to foster racial pride among black people.'
'Perhaps the greatest impact of the Harlem Renaissance was to foster racial pride.' Photo ©

Tom Marcello under CC BY-SA 2.0 and adapted from the original.

Black culture becomes part of the American mainstream

No aspect of the Harlem Renaissance shaped America as much as jazz, which flouted conventions with its syncopated rhythms and improvised instrumental solos. Southern black musicians brought it north to the cities, and thousands, black and white, flocked to Harlem venues such as the Cotton Club to see Duke Ellington, Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald.

Writers in particular began to produce a wide variety of highly original works dealing with African-American life, which attracted many black readers. They also attracted commercial publishers and a large white readership, but acceptance by the white world was less important, as the poet Langston Hughes put it, than the expression of ‘our individual dark-skinned selves.’ Rather than looking to Europe and colonial America as the source of ideas, beauty and insight, much of the creative work of this period was based on themes and issues in Africa and southern life, formerly regarded as ‘primitive’.

A new black identity emerges

In 1925, the noted intellectual Alain LeRoy Locke published The New Negro, an anthology of writings by himself and by some of the most significant writers of the period: Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, as well as Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, Jean Toomer, W. E. B. Du Bois and others. It is considered the definitive text of the Harlem Renaissance, signalling a significant change in black identity. Previously seen as rural, ignorant, humbly servile, superstitious and able only to be plantation labourers, it understood black people as urbane, educated, literate, assertive — the proud, creative product of the American city. In short, it changed the perception of the African American from someone considered inferior and to be laughed at to someone to be admired and respected as an equal.

While its effect on wider American culture was strong, perhaps the greatest impact of the vibrant spirit of the Harlem Renaissance was to foster racial pride among black people.

The Harlem Renaissance faded with the onset of the Great Depression of the 1930s. Although it had lasted only a brief time, it had an enduring influence, particularly on writers. It helped to ease the way for Gwendolyn Brooks, whose book Annie Allen won the 1950 Pulitzer Prize and whose exquisite poems explored, for the first time, the interior lives of African American individuals; and of course for Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, the Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker (the eighth child of Georgia sharecroppers).

Black soldiers’ war achievements went undocumented

But one issue remains. A large number of African American soldiers took part in the First World War, often in service roles: building roads, digging trenches, and unloading cargo. Prominent African American intellectuals had pushed for African American inclusion in the military as an opportunity for social progress, and as a means of acquiring the respect so long denied them. Yet the war was memorialised in America as if fought exclusively by white people, and black writers and artists failed to document the way the war interwove with the ‘New Negro’ movement and, with it, the assertion of a new black identity in the US.

Read historical analysis and contemporary international research in the British Council’s report Remember the World as well as the War, which highlights the global extent of World War One.

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