Harlem Renaissance: History, Definition and Accomplishments

Harlem Renaissance

Harlem Renaissance – Definition and Impact | Image from left to bottom right: Langston Hughes, Gladys Bentley, Fire!!! (magazine quarterly), Louis Armstrong, a Harlem graphic poster, and W.E.B. Du Bois

The Harlem Renaissance is defined as an era (1910s to 1930s), as well as a movement, that was characterized by explosive growth of distinctive ideas and artworks among African American communities, particularly communities in the North. The scope and impact of the movement, known back then as the New Negro Movement, was far-reaching, including disciplines like from literature, painting and visual arts, sculpting, music, film making, science, social and political activism, and philosophy.


It was an era that allowed African Americans to show to the world their unique gifts and intellectual prowess. The Harlem Renaissance buried the myth that blacks were incapable of producing creative ideas or playing crucial roles in the economy. The movement propelled skilled blacks, who otherwise would have languished in Jim Crow South, into heights never seen before. It simply made blacks a force to reckon with in terms of creative artworks and social ideas.


Looking back at the 1910s, the number one contributory factor of the Harlem Renaissance was the Great Migration, which saw close to two million African Americans migrate from the South to the North and Midwest.

Coming from a host of disciplines, African Americans such as Louis Armstrong (jazz musician), Zora Neale Hurston (writer), Marcus Garvey (businessman and social activist), Claude McKay (writer), Duke Ellington (jazz musician) and W.E.B. Du Bois (philosopher and civil rights activist) kept the flames of the Harlem Renaissance burning brightly.

Many of those young, energetic and skilled African Americans settled in places such as New York, Chicago, Boston, and Los Angeles. The prime spot of this spiritual and intellectual awakening was at Harlem, New York City. Hence the name, Harlem Renaissance.

However, after close to a decade, the Harlem Renaissance sort of lost steam due to a host of economic and political factors, including the biggest of them all – the Great Depression.

Significance and Impact of Harlem Renaissance

Harlem Renaissance Impact (image: Louis Armstrong – a renowned African-American trumpeter, composer, vocalist, and actor. Armstrong was one of the most influential figures in jazz music and the Harlem Renaissance in general

Basically, the biggest consequence of the Harlem Renaissance came in the form of forging a new black identity. African Americans such as Alain LeRoy Locke, Marcus Garvey, Gladys Bentley, James Weldon Johnson, Du Bois and Paul Robeson (actor and singer) constantly pushed for the creation of a unique black identity that reflected their aspirations. Experts in their respective fields, these distinguished men and women sought to do away with the horrendous identity that was forced on them for centuries. With this sort of spiritual awakening, blacks started to have a deep personal belief that their lives mattered. They started taking immense self-confidence in themselves and the artworks.

Another very significant consequence of the Harlem Renaissance came in the form of reduced racial bias. This social change was perhaps due to the fact that the blacks decided to take matters into their own hands and do something for themselves. Writers such as Langston Hughes were influenced by success stories of sociologist and school administrator Charles Spurgeon Johnson.

With this came a huge positive change in the way the world viewed the blacks and people of color in general. Mainstream journals and publishers, who were predominantly white-owned and controlled, started noticing how brilliant the works and arts of these African Americans were. This was a huge breakthrough for black artists and scholars, as their works started making waves all across the nation and even into overseas places.

Furthermore, blacks across the world got on board with the social and intellectual revival that sprung from Harlem, New York, making their own version wherever they found themselves. From the Caribbean to Apartheid South Africa and to Paris and London, blacks took enormous inspiration from the success stories in Harlem.

Harlem Renaissance

Famous Harlem Renaissance Writers – from left – Claude McKay, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Nella Larsen, and Robert Russa Moton

The artworks produced by African Americans at the time laid the foundation of what we see today in pop culture and hip pop music. The Harlem Renaissance also had a long-lasting impact on the entire nation and also far-reaching effects on the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

Even to this day, African Americans continue to take inspiration from the golden age of that period. The spirit that sustained the Harlem Renaissance continues to flow in all direction across the country; it is very much evident in black lives as they go about overcoming the day-to-day struggles in America.

When did the Harlem Renaissance End?

Curtains began closing in on the Harlem Renaissance shortly after the Great Depression. The flames of the Renaissance were finally extinguished after the Harlem Race Riot of 1935 – a riot that resulted in the death of three people and scores of injured people.

Another factor that caused the Harlem Renaissance to wane was perhaps the onset of World War II. Black historians have also stated that decades of intensified segregation and Jim Crow laws (including the atrocities committed by the Ku Klux Klan)  sadly took the winds out of the sails of the movement.

Other notable facts about the Harlem Renaissance

Harlem Renaissance Jazz artistes (from left) – Louis Armstrong, Gladys Bentley, Dizzy Gillespie, and Fletcher Henderson

  • Alain LeRoy Locke (1885 – 1954) was a distinguished African American philosopher and writer who is generally revered as the “Dean of the Harlem Renaissance” (i.e. “Father of the Harlem Renaissance”). The Philadelphia-born scholar is most famous for the publication of The New Negro (1925) – a critically acclaimed work that compiled and analyze a host of poems, plays, music and philosophical works produced by a wide array of African American artists, as well as white scholars.
  • Famous Harlem Renaissance poet Countee Cullen got married to Nina Yolande, the daughter of W.E.B. Du Bois. Cullen relocated to Harlem at the age of 15 and rose to become one the best poets in Harlem. Some of his critically acclaimed works include Copper Sun (1927), Color (c. 1925), The Black Christ and Other Poems (1929) and The Ballad of the Brown Girl (1927).
  • Black publishers and journals also played a vital role spreading black cultural works. For example the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1910 set up an official magazine called The Crisis, which focused on the everyday lives and works of African-American writers. Several articles feature profiles of writers such as Arna Bontemps, Langston Hughes, and Countee Cullen. And as at 1918, the magazine could boast of over 100,000 readers.
  • Harlem Renaissance gave rise to African-American magazines such as – Liberty League and The Voice (founded in 1918 by Hubert Harrison – the Father of Harlem radicalism), Opportunity, The Messenger and Negro World. The latter newspaper was very popular across the nation as it published the articles of Marcus Garvey, a leading Pan-Africanist and civil rights activist.
  • The Black Consciousness from Harlem was propelled forward to a worldwide audience using tools such as Jazz music and African American literature. In the U.S. for example, Cotton Club (an exclusive white-only nightclub) and The Savoy gave Jazz musicians – such as Duke Ellington, King Oliver and Jimmie Lunceford – the platform to show to the nation how talented they were.
  • Did you know that the migration of African Americans from the South to the North and Midwest continued right up to 1970, meaning that the South lost about 6.5 million African Americans to the Northern and Midwestern cities?
  • Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle combined brilliantly to produce the musical show Shuffle Along. Beginning in May, 1921, the musical went on to have over 500 performances.
  • New Jersey-born bass baritone artist and stage actor Paul Robeson was featured frequently in a very popular barbershop quartet.

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