The History of Harlem Renaissance
The Harlem Renaissance, also called the New Negro Movement, was an art and social movement that began after World War I. At the height of the movement, in the 1920s and 1930s, African Americans expressed themselves through literature, art, music, drama, movies and protests. The Harlem Renaissance centered on Harlem, New York, but quickly influenced African-American artists and other artists of the African diaspora, including Afro-Caribbeans and blacks living in Paris at the time.
Hubert Harrison, the father of the Harlem Renaissance, was born in St. Croix in the Virgin Islands and moved to New York at age 17. He went to night school while working as a bellhop during the day, studying sociology, science, psychology, literature and drama. Harrison joined the Socialist Party and worked with other African-American radicals. He lectured to the black community about socialism and civil rights. Harrison encouraged African Americans to band together to improve their lives through education and Afro-centric community programs. He influenced other leaders of the Harlem Renaissance, such as Marcus Garvey.
The Apollo Theater, which opened in 1914, sits in the heart of Harlem and was the hub for African-American musicians during the Harlem Renaissance. This theater launched the careers of musicians such as Benny Carter and Billie Holiday in the 1930s. Live performances were not limited to singers; dancers, instrumental musicians and comedians entertained live audiences at the theater. In 1934, the popular radio show "Amateur Night Hour" went live at the Apollo, with Ella Fitzgerald one of its first winners.
In 1915, D.W. Griffith directed "The Birth of a Nation," a film that depicted African Americans in stereotypical roles and the Ku Klux Klan as the film's heroes. African-American directors, such as Oscar Micheaux, countered negative stereotypes promoted in most mainstream movies and released films during the Harlem Renaissance that showcased the struggle of African Americans in the United States. Micheaux entertained his audiences while providing social commentary. He wrote, produced and directed more than 40 movies and helped the careers of actress and blues singer Evelyn Preer and singer/actor Paul Robeson. Many of his movies were banned because of their depiction of race relations.
Harlem Renaissance writers used poetry, essays, short stories and novels to present the African-American experience, garnering the attention of both black and white readers around the world. Poets such as Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen used their works as voices of the black community, speaking of love, loss and frustration with their place in society. Zora Neale Hurston wrote stories about the struggle of African Americans in the South, primarily those living in Florida. Her stories, though not overtly political, presented African Americans who defied stereotypes about marriage and family. Writers of the Harlem Renaissance often gathered for intellectual dialogue.
Civil Rights Movement
Artists and activists of the Harlem Renaissance created opportunities for African Americans. Many of these individuals gained recognition among white Americans. The success of African Americans during this movement served as a foundation for the civil rights movement that developed after World War II. Activists such as Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X followed some of the principles of people like Marcus Garvey and Hubert Harrison. Harlem Renaissance artists were often active participants in the civil rights movement.