The Harlem Renaissance is one of the most significant cultural revivals of the black community, which took place in New York, Harlem, from 1920 to 1930. The movement reshaped African American art from rural to urban, forming a new identity for the black artists in different spheres of culture: politics, theater, art, music, dance, and fashion. The impact was enormous; it gave birth to several genres of art, especially music. Despite that the Harlem Renaissance was set to challenge the racial stereotypes and create a new identity for an African American individual, it received criticism for adopting white American values because of how much the movement relied on the white patronage and appealed to the white population.
The main attribute of the Harlem Renaissance was the shift from the rural areas to the cosmopolitan centers. African American community found its new home in not so populated part of Manhattan, Harlem (thus the name for the movement). As Wall describes, the Harlem Renaissance was a time “when black people redefined themselves and announced their entrance into modernity” (3). The massive migration of black people from the South to the urbanistic area opened new opportunities for black-owned business and industrial work. Improvements in financial autonomy reflected in the culture, and the old identity of the African American person began to reshape. Locke (9) describes the image of the “Old Negro” that “has been more of a formula than a human being – a something to be argued about, condemned or defended.” The black community was rarely viewed independently from the white people; the white population of America saw them as incapable of autonomy. In other words, the old identity of the black people has been perceived in a relative sense, and the Harlem movement was struggling to change that.
During World War I, the black population dominated the labor force while white people served in the army. After the war ended, many black workers were forced to quit their jobs because returned soldiers demanded their jobs back. The employment rate among black people plummeted, and as a result, many clubs and juke joints emerged to which the black working class could escape from the harsh reality and financial struggles. Krasner (76) discusses how these clubs provided dancing nights that allowed the black community to express themselves. Dancing was also an act of rebellion against the industrial environment, where the monotony of the motions “denied outlets for individuality and inventiveness” (Krasner 76). African American artistic expression was set to fight against colonial ideology, which perceived black people as mere instruments of labor.
The Harlem Renaissance was the time for novelty in everything; the Renaissance tried its best to remove the shackles of the pervading racism. However, while the racial consciousness dominated the black art at that time, where blackness was celebrated and presented as something unique and independent, it was not easy to find the balance between building up the new standard for African American art and at the same time cherish the African and southern traditions. Krasner (4) explains the paradox that the black community had to experience every time they wanted to express themselves, especially the drama artists, including black playwrights and actors. They tried to extend the borders of the new strictly American culture (which was also mostly white) and simultaneously resist it in favor of the unique exploration of their own black culture. This constant internal fight in search for a new identity embarks the beginning of the 1920s in America.
The cultural and racial paradox of an African American man did not stop at an interpersonal level. Black art was still very dependent on the white patronage, and many black artists found themselves trying to appeal to both black and white audiences. Nash (153) gives an example of a famous club called “Cotton Club” with an exclusively white clientele. The black people served as a staff and entertainment for the white people there, and if one may argue that these performers had the opportunity to express their art, they were perceived in an exotic manner by the white folks. The complexity of the movement reflects how the black community struggled to find itself within the white society – resist it or bind with it.
Performing for both black and white communities, the art of black artists differed depending on who was the audience. Thus, the art that was not meant for the white folks could only seek validation from other members of the black community. Krasner (13) argues that this cultural and artistic codependency on each other proclaimed unity as one of the central topics of the Harlem Renaissance. It meant that the room for American individualism, which was rising at that time, decreased in its size, and certain sacrifices of individualistic expression had to be made in favor of unifying themes. Scholars argue that it gave birth to mediocre, predictable art; however, shared solidarity between black people was the only way to fight racism. Strive for unity coincided with the struggle to reshape the black identity into something new and sovereign, which created an additional layer of complexity to an already tricky paradox of African American artistic expression.
As for the black folks that made their artistic career performing for the white audiences, there were also specific rules that they needed to follow. Krasner (53) describes the term “primitivism” that defined black art at the beginning of the twentieth century. The central notions of primitivism were the authenticity and “raw” talent of black people, as opposed to “advanced” and refined white European art. Despite recognizing this phenomenon as a new form of racism, many black artists incorporated “the so-called “jungle rhythms” in their artwork in order to accommodate the demands of their white audiences” (Krasner 61). On the one hand, black art found its way into the mainstream, gaining more viewers from different social and economic backgrounds, popularizing the idea that the black community can deliver complex and enjoyable entertainment. However, on the other hand, the restrictions of the racist ideology that portrayed black people as “inferior,” “primitive,” and “child-like” made it impossible for black art to reach the point of total independence from its white appreciators.
Without a doubt, the Harlem Renaissance produced countless amounts of unique and memorable artwork in all spheres of black culture. American society was exposed to the novelty of black art because it was finally revealed to the public eye. However, the racist ideology of the US set various limitations to black self-expression. Struggling with societal prejudices, immoral laws, and perverted views on the black art from the oppressing side, the black community had to adjust their performances to please the white audiences. However, despite the horrors of racism, black culture still found its way to generate new genres of art, music, fashion, and dance. Thereby, the Harlem Renaissance remains one of the most influential eras in the history of America.
Krasner, David. A Beautiful Pageant: African American Theatre, Drama and Performance in the Harlem Renaissance. Springer, 2016.
Locke, Alain. The New Negro: Voices of the Harlem Renaissance. Open Road Media, 2021.
Nash, William R. “Harlem Renaissance.” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature, 2017, pp. 153-159.
Wall, Cheryl A. The Harlem Renaissance: A Very Short Introduction. Vol. 479. Oxford University Press, 2016.