A Place of Inspiration: Harlem
Written by Angela Mack (c) 2004
The time period between 1918 and 1929 contained an explosion of African American immigration, literary and artistic expression in Harlem, NY.
The Harlem Renaissance, also known as “The Negro Movement” was the time period between 1918 and 1929 in which there was an explosion of African American immigration, literary and artistic expression in Harlem. As Langston Hughes wrote in his manifesto for the Harlem Renaissance, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain”, it was a time of “present vogue in things Negro”.
During this time, African Americans were excelling in blues, jazz, theatre, clubs, musicals, intellectual dialogue, literary works, visual arts and an overall sense of unity and community. Duke Ellington, Louise Armstrong, and Billie Holiday are famous names associated with the music of that era. A new pride swelled in the hearts of many African Americans and Aaron Douglas was an artist who portrayed the beauty of being black through his African-inspired themes. Zora Neale Hurston, a friend of Langston Hughes, was a famous female writer of the day who flaunted her unique fashions as well as her literary works such as the play, “Color Struck” and the novel, “Their Eyes Were Watching God”. There were many more African American artists of all types as well as intellectual thinkers who were caught in the momentum of the new black culture.
Why did the Harlem Renaissance occur? First, during World War I, many African Americans moved north with the hopes of finding jobs and escaping inequality in the south. Harlem was a newly developed city that desperately needed tenants in its new townhouses and apartments. Eager to occupy the new buildings, landlords rented to blacks. By 1914, Harlem was considered a “black city”. This move north is also known as being the “Great Migration”. With this great amount of blacks in one place including many from the West Indies and other countries, it was a prime location to hold discussions. Many of these discussions led toward greater artistic expression and literary works.
Magazines from era added fuel to the movement. The well known W.E.B. Dubois was the editor of the NAACP’s magazine, The Crisis. Charles Johnson was the editor of the Urban League’s magazine, Opportunity. There was also the socialist magazine called The Messenger. The NAACP, the Black YMCA, the Universal Negro Improvement Association, and the Urban League Office were all located in Harlem which helped unify the interests of the African Americans who longed for an ending of segregation and a redefining of what being black meant. This led to the popular thought of nationalism. Marcus Garvey, through the United Negro Improvement Association, preached a message of racial redemption. He also cast a vision for an independent black Africa and provided “The Black Star Line” to transport people.
The effects that the Harlem Renaissance had upon the African American culture were numerous. It taught future African American generations that there is power in black unity and pride. It lifted their self image as a race and showed America that blacks are beautiful and very capable of expressing themselves intellectually and emotionally through the arts and literature. Blacks had a newer prominence in American culture and a strong civil rights presence which aided in latter 50’s and 60’s civil rights movement. It was foundational in laying the groundwork for African American expression and thought in America. The Harlem Renaissance gave America as a whole many great artists of all types to learn from. In addition, the jazz erected from the era has become a vital part in American musical history and lifestyles. Many whites took interest in the art produced by their black “neighbors”.
The Harlem Renaissance has had a direct impact on me. My home of Grafton which is just north of Milwaukee, WI recorded at least 1/ 4 of the blues music in this time period of the Harlem Renaissance. Charles Patton began with recording over 28 of his songs just down the road from me in the Old Chair Factory building by the Milwaukee River. “Son House”, Ida Cox, Skip James, Louise Johnson, and many more rode the train north to record in the New York Recording Laboratories subsidiary, Paramount Records. These “race records” are extremely valuable and I have been in contact with various officials in Grafton and around the around the world over bringing this part of Grafton’s history alive. I am working on developing a web site toward its resurrection and hope to get a non-profit organization set up to raise funds for a permanent exhibit and yearly blues festival in Grafton in honor of its Delta Blues artists and Paramount Records.
The Harlem Renaissance embraced the talents of male and female artists alike who were primarily from the working class (although many were in Harlem to earn their education). It taught us what can cause inspiration in a community and among a people: unity, freedom of expression, openness to discussion, the merging of the arts with social issues of the day and intellectual thought. The Harlem Renaissance was a time of great momentum and hope. I hope that the spirit of the Harlem Renaissance comes to life in my home village, Grafton, WI.