Harlem Renaissance Essay

December 13, 2021 by Essay Writer


The Harlem Renaissance was also referred to as the New Negro Movement. It spanned for about two decades from the beginning of 1920s. Besides, the movement tagged its practices to cultural matters among the African-Americans. The Alain Locke anthology of 1925 was the main impetus that gave rise to the name of this movement (Bean 76).

It is also imperative to mention that the Harlem Renaissance had far reaching influence. In other words, it did not merely impact the New York neighborhoods where it was founded. There were several black writers who were sojourning in Paris and speaking French that were equally influenced by this renaissance.

There are informal records which indicate that this cultural movement must have begun from as early as 1919 until before the close of 1930s. However, it is evident that most of the ideas curved out of the Harlem Renaissance left permanent influence.

On the other hand, there are conflicting historical records that this renaissance may have started during the mid 1920s and spanned up to the time when the Great Depression started. This was the time when there was a crash in the stock market (1929).

Background to Harlem

There were myriads of African Americans who went through traumatic period of slave trade until when the Civil War ended. Most of them were residing in the south and were mainly being used as slaves to work in plantation farms.

The culmination of the era of slavery ushered in a new generation of African Americans who were eager to attain cultural self-determination, economic empowerment, political fairness, and active participation in civic duties (Ostrom 154). When the Civil War came to a halt, several African Americans found their voice and were able to address and articulate their views.

For instance, the African American Congressmen had fully supported the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871 that sought to balance political, economic and social equity among all races. It is understood that there were 16 blacks serving in the Congress by 1875 after being democratically elected. They equally gave resounding speeches in the Congress regarding the plight of African Americans.

Hence, it is worth to underscore the fact that the Harlem Renaissance was remarkably triggered by the desire to liberate African Americans who had undergone series of suffering as slaves. Besides, this was the same generation that had undergone the American Civil War and therefore needed to reconstruct itself (Perry 32).

Culture explosion during Harlem Renaissance

The Harlem Renaissance was first experienced towards the close of second decade of 1900s. For instance, the Three Plays for a Negro Theatre premiered in 1917. Although the plays were authored by Ridgely Torrence, a white writer, they depicted the yearnings and emotions of African Americans in a white dominated continent.

The plays attempted to rebut all kinds of minstrel show traditions and blackface stereotypes that had been leveled against African Americans. As a matter of fact, the three plays marked the most important entry of the African Americans into the theatre.

According to Wintz (61), the Harlem Renaissance managed to grow as a result of the multiple transformations that had taken place during the slave trade era coupled with the northern expansion of the African American communities from the south.

They needed to search for better living conditions in big cities that were already developed. Nevertheless, one of the most vital changes that laced the Harem Renaissance was the culture of music as explored in the remaining section of the paper.


The Harlem Renaissance led to the adoption of the Harlem Stride Style of playing piano. This new style came at a time when there growing disparity between the socially elite and poor Negros. Hence, it assisted in reducing the gap between the two social classes of the same race. The south was mainly associated with instruments made of brass that used to be played in all the traditional jazz bands.

However, the wealthy class was associated with the use of piano because the poor community could not afford it. However, after the existing genre of music was modified to fit all classes of the Negro in society, the jazz music became a common feature even among the wealthy blacks.

The popularity of jazz music grew quite fast among the poor and the rich across the country. It reached a point in time when jazz music was the best and most valued among all classes.

In order to boost the popularity of the jazz music, both liveliness during performance and innovation were considered to be critical. The two aforementioned values were vital especially at the early stages when jazz music was being introduced to the top class Negros.

Some of the talented musicians during this time included Willie “The Lion” Smith, Jelly Roll Morton, Duke Ellington and Fats Waller. They were extremely competitive among themselves. This led to increased innovative and performance skills.

The music that was played by the African Americans during the Harlem Renaissance continually became more appealing to the white population than before. This explains the reason why composers, dramatists, and novelists drawn from the white population braced their works with a lot of themes borrowed from this cultural movement.

The African American music tendencies and patterns soon became a common feature in both the black and white theatres. The poetic lines compiled by African Americans were frequently used by composers when writing their songs.

Besides, the African American melodies, harmonies and rhythms were heavily implemented in the new songs that were composed during and even after the Harlem Renaissance. For example, concert pieces were graced with jazz tones, spirituals and blues that had roots from the African American setting.

The field of musical composition was then transformed completely whereby both the whites and blacks began to collaborate when composing music. For instance, Roland Hayes gained a lot of popularity in music because he worked with both the black and white composers and singers. He grew into an international artist by defying all the racial odds and stereotypes that had existed since time immemorial.

The musician gained mammoth fame especially after he started producing together with musicians who were not from his race. He also underwent additional training at the Fisk University in Nashville. His singing career began when he was still a student. He could perform several shows in public. In addition, he managed to tour several destinations as an artist. In 1911, he performed alongside the Fisk Jubilee Singers (Hughes 62).

Themes and Characteristics of music during the Harlem Renaissance

The ideology of the New Negro and an overt racial pride were common characteristics of most African American compositions that were produced during this renaissance period. The stereotypes and racism were critically challenged by the music, art and literature that were eminent during the Harlem Renaissance.

In other words, the Negros used their musical and overall theater intellect to denounce all the negative aspects of racism that had been created previously. This broad step led to social and racial integration, and balanced socialist politics that were considered to be progressive among all races. Hence, the race was uplifted due to the development of art and literature (Hutchinson 106).

The general form of art and literature that took shape during the Harlem Renaissance could not be attributed to a single distinct factor. In any case, there were myriads of cultural styles and elements that adorned the African American music at this time.

Some of the dominant elements include the low culture or low life music, the high culture and as well as the African perspective. The blues and jazz later sprang out of the traditional forms of music that were valued among the African Americans (Patton and Honey 133).

The jazz poetry also took a new form during the Harlem Renaissance because there was innate desire to modernize the traditional jazz-like music in order to accommodate the white race.

While the latter was not an open attempt, it is definite that the white culture was capable of consuming the new form of jazz due to the modification that was injected in it. As a result, the conservatives conflicted with most of the African American artists who were quickly transforming in terms of culture in order to be compatible with the rest of the region.

Although the above mentioned themes were evident in the art and music produced during the Harlem Renaissance, it is prudent to mention that the emergence of the African American traditions coupled with the era of slave trade were the two major foundations of thematic art. The impacts of institutional racism were also instrumental in shaping the themes of musical art that were composed during this period.

The elite white audience had special taste for jazz music. Although they were not the main target, it is vital to note that they affected some of the thematic foundation and content of the black music. Needless to say, the modern African Americans who were residing in the white dominated north were also another experience to reckon with while composing the blues and jazz music.

The African American engagement was visualized in the Harlem renaissance since the period was marked with mutual support from publications, black-owned businesses, and black patrons. Nonetheless, the white Americans were also instrumental since they offered different types of assistance by creating an enabling environment where black writers could showcase and publish their art and literature (Lewis 142).

The Harlem Renaissance was also characterized with the desire among some whites to witness the so-called “primitive” culture among the African Americans. Hence, they embraced and displayed these works in order to demonstrate the southern culture that was largely perceived to be under-civilized. As a matter of fact, they showcased this black culture in their contents in order to gain wider publicity of their works.

Music and general art was used by African Americans to lobby for socio-economic and political equity and also in quest their humanity.

In any case, a lot of opportunities for the African Americans were created by the Harlem Renaissance bearing in mind that the era was instrumental in the development of the black theatre (Huggins 80). Moreover, the volume of newspapers, magazines and novels were published during this period courtesy of the renaissance impacts.

The entire country became ecstatic due to the large amount of fiction literature and art that were released by the African Americans. It is without doubt that the past slavery period that was characterized with social injustices was a key impediment towards the progress of the black race.

The Civil Rights Movement that emerged shortly after the Second World War was also attributed to the long lasting impacts of the Harlem Renaissance. The latter created a suitable environment where the black population could fight for their rights as equal citizens of the country.

This literary movement was the key source of inspiration among the African Americans who were already in the theaters performing soul and jazz music (Andrews, Foster and Harris 54).

To recap it all, the Harlem Renaissance marked an extremely significant period in the socio-cultural development of the African Americans. Although it was largely regarded as an artistic movement, this cultural movement affected all spheres of life especially among the blacks who had gone through trying times.

The slave trade era, the American Civil War and typical racial practices left the black community a more devastated segment of the population than any other race. Nevertheless, cultural integration that was brought about by the Harlem Renaissance worked against limiting the intrigues of racism and slave trade.

On the same note, the traditional jazz music that was mainly a preserve of the south was gradually accommodated by the white population since it was more appealing, entertaining and refreshing than the conventional and dormant culture of the white.

Works Cited

Andrews William, Frances Foster and Trudier Harris (eds). The Concise Oxford Companion To African American Literature. New York: Oxford Press, 2001. Print.

Bean, Annemarie. A Sourcebook on African-American Performance: Plays, People, Movements. London: Routledge, 1999. Print.

Huggins, Nathan. Harlem Renaissance. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973. Print. Hughes, Langston. The Big Sea. New York: Knopf, 1940. Print.

Hutchinson, George. The Harlem Renaissance in Black and White. New York: Belknap Press, 1997. Print.

Lewis, David Levering (ed). The Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader. New York: Viking Penguin, 1995. Print.

Ostrom, Hans. A Langston Hughes Encyclopedia. Westport: Greenwood Press, 2002. Print.

Patton, Venetria and Maureen Honey (eds). Double-Take: A Revisionist Harlem Renaissance Anthology. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2006. Print.

Perry, Jeffrey. Hubert Harrison: The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883–1918. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008. Print.

Wintz, Cary. Harlem Speaks: A Living History of the Harlem Renaissance. Naperville, Illinois: Sourcebooks, Inc., 2007. Print.

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