The Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s stands as one of the most prominent movements in African-American culture and American history. After many decades of suffering through imprisonment and oppression by the White man, African Americans began to unite together to demonstrate their strong beliefs of racial pride and self-identity.
Arriving in the hot bed of opportunity of New York City, African Americans took strides toward individual freedom, equality and self-expression through their contributions to the social, cultural, economic and political issues of the current day. Due to the critical events of slavery, the Civil War, World War I and the Great Migration that led up to the Harlem Renaissance era, African Americans were able to develop the “New Negro” and have an impact on American society through their intellectual and artistic talents.
For African Americans, the Harlem Renaissance signified an opportunity to escape the racism and bigotry of the White man and discover individual freedom and equality. The beginnings of such racial intolerance were established during the discoveries of the New World by explorers such as Christopher Columbus.
After the conquest of the West Indies, a high demand for labor was required to develop the triangle trade for goods such as sugar, cotton and tobacco. Africa became the target for manpower to satisfy this demand, and consequently, the practice of taking Black people into slavery was established.
Perceived as savages rather than human beings, Africans were thought to be an inferior race to the White man; these Africans were shipped to America to serve as slaves and personal objects for the English. Working in the cotton fields in the southern states of America, these Black slaves were brutally beaten and oppressed.
Langston Hughes expresses this harsh treatment of Blacks in his poem, “Negro”: “I’ve been a victim: / The Belgians cut off my hands in the Congo. / They lynch me still in Mississippi” (Huggins 154). Assimilating into the White culture, Blacks soon completely lost their African culture and heritage. The cruelty displayed for African Americans continued for many years, for it was not until the actions of Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War that had them being finally recognized as human beings.
Although the Civil War was a turning point in legally abolishing slavery across America, much of the tensions of racial intolerance and inequality between Blacks and Whites continued. Even with this newly granted freedom, the past thoughts of slavery still continued to run through the minds of Blacks after the war.
Lincoln had developed equal rights for both Whites and Blacks, but this right of equality had not stimulated a change in either Black or White beliefs: “The Emancipation Proclamation had been a grudging pronouncement by President Lincoln, subsequently denied in effect” (Huggins 4).
Blacks continued to live in the South after the Emancipation, where they continued to be subjected to racial violence and a system of white supremacy, which included the Jim Crow laws and the Klu Klux Klan.
Even with this ongoing discrimination, the plentiful farming of the southern states had concentrated Blacks in the cotton fields after the Civil War: “The traditional ‘place’ of blacks was in the South, where sharecropping and tenant-farming locked them into the peonage of the post-Reconstruction era” (Huggins 5).
However, in the early 1900s, the arrival of a new calamity brought hope and reason for Blacks to escape racial discrimination and oppression in the South. They soon began a new life in a more tolerant and peaceful setting.
The events of World War I in 1917 had a significant effect on the unification of African-Americans in New York City and the developments of the Harlem Renaissance era. The involvement of the United States in World War I required an abundance of manpower to overcome the German army.
Hence, many white Americans working in cities in the North were obligated to serve in the war. They left their jobs for the war overseas creating opportunities for employment for southern Blacks. The decision to migrate to the North brought multiple changes in Black life from the rural environment of the South to the chaotic, urban lifestyle of Harlem.
Aside from the plethora of employment in the North, Blacks were driven to search for new homes in northern cities by the discrimination and oppression that they continued to face in the South: “But hard times and violence had pushed them African Americans decided that they would no longer endure the punishment and unjust system of the South: “Southern blacks had disfranchised, but in the years before the America’s entry into World War I they voted with their feet against tyranny and for their future as self-reliant citizens. They stood as proof to those who chose to see, that blacks were not content and docile in what had been designated as their ‘place'” (Huggins 6).
Through their abandonment of the southern cotton fields, African Americans showed a willingness to stand up to the White man and reject his immoral treatment – these actions signify the beginning stages of the “New Negro.” With northern businesses and factories struggling to find employment, African Americans were attracted to the North for employment, racial tolerance and a new lifestyle, hoping that these opportunities would allow for a better life in the end.
In the end, the opportunities of the North had African Americans leaving their traditional homes in the South and embarking on the Great Migration into the industrial cities of the North.
Another opportunity that drew African Americans to the North was the lack of the voting restrictions. This ability to vote gave African Americans a new opportunity to influence political decisions and the establishment: “And in the North, where there were no voting restrictions, they would, in time, weigh in the political balance” (Huggins 6).
Even so, the improved wages in the North were the central reason for the Great Migration: “The dominant reason for the migration is more money. The alluring tales of the labor agent have made the Southern Negro long for the North” (The New York World, 29).
The demand for unskilled labor in the railroad and mining businesses was quickly filled as more and more African Americans occupied these jobs. Not only did these railroad companies present impressive wages to African Americans, but they were also able to recruit more Black workers through their offer for a “free ride” to the North. The railroad companies attracted African Americans through their profitable job opportunities, and they facilitated the Great Migration by creating an easy way to reach the industrial cities of the North.
The Harlem Renaissance slowly began to unfold as more and more African Americans arrived in the industrial cities of the North. Blacks from all over the world joined together in Harlem unhesitant to represent and display the pride they shared for their Black identity and culture.
With this new sense of freedom and pride, the Harlem Renaissance became a decade of transformation for the Black people. Specifically, the Harlem Renaissance represented the idea of the “New Negro”: the self-reliant, intellectual man eager to prove to society the new capabilities of the Black people. African Americans stood firmly for their rights as an American citizen, refusing to allow Whites to manipulate their actions and beliefs.
Alain Locke describes in his “The New Negro” that despite their social differences, the commonalities of Blacks have brought them together to form this universal “New Negro”: “Each group has come with its own separate motives and for its own special ends, but their greatest experience has been finding of one another. Proscription and prejudice have thrown these dissimilar elements into a common area of contact and interaction. Within this area, race sympathy and unity have determined a further fusing of sentiment and experience” (Huggins 49-50).
The forces of prejudice and racism that have haunted Blacks at one time now have united them globally to create this strong belief in the “New Negro.”
Marcus Garvey, speaking for The Universal Negro Improvement Association, also illustrates that the universal oppression felt by all Black people would create a cohesive group of New Negroes willing to strike back: “As a people we must unite everywhere; we must forget the narrowness of nationality and insularity. We must remember we are oppressed because of our economic and political undevelopment in race. We will never be respected and given our rights until we rise above the universal stagnation in race” (Garvey 55).
With the development of the “New Negro” and the creation of a stronger community for Blacks around the world, further opportunities were opened up for African Americans to display their intellectual and artistic abilities. Writers, poets, politicians, painters and musicians all expressed their beliefs concerning social, cultural, economic and political issues.
For example, Richard Wright’s Black Boy and Native Son became social commentaries for racial equality between Blacks and Whites. Political leaders and writers, such as W.E.B. Dubois and Marcus Garvey, expressed their beliefs for Black action and pride as well as addressed the ideas of Socialism and Communism during the Harlem Renaissance. Artists and musicians, including Aaron Douglas and Duke Ellington, inspired cultural recognition through their own artistic works.
Therefore, the strong-minded African Americans of the Harlem Renaissance began to play a larger role in everyday society. No longer was American society dominated by the White man as it once was, for Blacks now had equal rights. This racial equality left Whites in a new, unfamiliar position, for they now had to fear the possibility of the Blacks’ influence on the social, economic, political disposition of American society.
Alain Locke summarizes this Black influence upon American society and culture in his “The New Negro”:
It must be increasingly recognized that the Negro has already made very substantial contributions, not only in his folk-art, music especially, which has always found appreciation, but in larger though humbler and less acknowledged ways. For generations the Negro has been the peasant matrix of that section of America which has most undervalued him, and here he has contributed not only materially in labor and in social patience, but spiritually as well (Huggins 55).
The Harlem Renaissance represented a golden age – an exchange of African-American art and ideas displayed around the world. It was the culmination of many decades of African-American struggle through the events of slavery, the Civil War and Post-Reconstruction.
Marking their emergence from the South into the big cities of the North, African Americans joined together to form the “New Negro”: the new spirit and character of the Black people. Once a slave working the cotton fields down South, the African American in the North developed into a profound figure of influence and contribution to American society during the Harlem Renaissance.
Garvey, Marcus. “The Race Wants Strong-Minded Statesmen and Staunch Leaders.”
Huggins, Nathan Irvin. Voices from the Harlem Renaissance. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
“118,000 Negroes Move From The South.” The New York World. November 5, 1917.