The roots of the Harlem Renaissance began when the author and activist W.E.B Du Bois and activist Marcus Garvey both began a cultural movement that asked African Americans to embrace their culture and fight for equal rights. Although equal rights movements had occurred in the past, Du Bois and Garvey emphasized African Americans themselves organizing and had a clear focus on embracing African American culture. Both Du Bois and Garvey believed that art and culture was a key aspect of bringing about equality. The idea of the "New Negro," popularized by the writer and philosopher Alain Locke, emphasized the need for a black cultural identity in which black Americans expressed art in all genres that spoke to their history and culture.
The "Divided Self"
Many works of art--from literature to music--featured the element of the "divided self," a term derived from W.E.B. Du Bois' seminal work of philosophy and personal reflection, "The Soul of Black Folks." The concept of divided self speaks to the psychological position of individuals considered "the other" by society--they see themselves not only through their own perspective, but also through the eyes of the society that sees them as lesser or "other." This split creates a divided sense of self. Poets such as Langston Hughes and Claude McKay expressed this concept, while the novel "The Invisible Man" most famously spoke to this divided sense of black identity.
Blues and Jazz
Blues and Jazz, both considered primarily black forms of music, grew to mass popularity in the 1920's. The decade itself came to be known as "The Jazz Age," which speaks to both the popularity of the music and the overall aesthetic of experimentation and spontaneous creativity that Jazz encouraged. While Blues spoke to an older African American tradition, going back to mournful slavery spirituals, Jazz came from the influence of modern music and art on the Blues. This focus on both honoring history and creating new, innovative works of art is a major characteristic of the Harlem Renaissance.
Traditional Folk Stories
The Harlem Renaissance brought a new-found respect for folk stories and traditions of African American culture. Zora Neale Huston is the most famous collector and re-teller of African American folk stories, and artists such as Langston Hughes and various black painters and blues musicians used elements of slave spirituals and African tribal art in their pieces.