Harlem Renaissance: Historical and Social Background

The Harlem Renaissance denotes a movement formed by the African Americans during the 1920s and 1930s. It was a period of social integration and the development of literary and artistic skills by the African Americans. African Americans migrated from the south because they were running away from racial discrimination, violence and oppression and settled in Harlem. In Harlem, they encouraged each other to be proud of their culture and fight for social, economic and political justice as well as recognition from the whites.

The African Americans employed literature, art, music, drama and politics to make their desires known to the white Americans and the world at large. Harlem therefore became the centre for development of the African Americans culture as well as the home for their activities. This paper examines the historical and social background of the Harlem Renaissance.

After the abolition of slave trade, the African Americans moved north to New York City and settled in Harlem. During their days in slavery, the African Americans were denied adequate education and thus illiteracy levels among them were very high. “At the close of the Civil War, Black illiteracy exceeded ninety percent. By 1880, thirty percent had learned to read; by 1890 half the population read, and by 1910, two thirds possessed literacy” (Hamalian, 10).

This was a break through for the African Americans because the knowledge they acquired improved not only their literary work, but also enhanced their economic life and involvement in political issues. During this time, great musicians, singers, writers, artists, and actors arose. These contributed positively to the Harlem Renaissance. According to Ornberg, “the name of the movement is a little misleading, since this renaissance was not unique to Harlem. It might be seen as the capital of the movement” (para. 1).

The great writers of the Harlem Renaissance include W.E.B Du Bois, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale, Jean Toomer, and others. The work of these writers advocated for the fair treatment of the African Americans by the whites. It also encouraged the integration and cohesion of the black community and encouraged them to be proud of their culture.

In W.E.B. Du Bois’ book The Souls of the Black Fork, he analyses the situation of the blacks and advocates for a change of the whites’ attitude towards the blacks. Hughes’ essay The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain also encourages the blacks to cultivate their culture and stop considering themselves inferior to the whites.

These writers also wrote poems, which gave the African Americans hope for a better future. ”Hughes’ poetry depicts a Harlem, where prejudice is not part of everyday life and where music and entertainment seem to be open to everyone, regardless of ethnic background” (Ornberg, para. 2). Some of these writers continued writing even after the end of the Renaissance and their work has had a great impact worldwide.

Singers, musicians and actors also played an important role in the Harlem Renaissance. These dominated the African Americans’ nightclubs and theatres. The Apollo theatre is one of the most common and a lasting mark of the Harlem Renaissance. In this theatre, many African American artists realized their talents and nurtured them into full career. Some African American artists also worked at the cotton club as entertainers even though the club was for whites only.

Before the Harlem Renaissance period, the whites socially discriminated against the African Americans and did not associate with them as people of equal status in the society. The whites looked down on the blacks and considered them to be of low class and poor. With the advent of the Harlem Renaissance, the whites started associating with the African Americans.

The messages, which were presented by the African Americans in writing and in theatres, had a great impact on the whites to the extent that they recognized the worth of the black race. The whites started associating with the African Americans in many aspects. They worked together not only in theatres, writing and entertainment but also in war during the Spanish American War (Hamalian, 15).

The Harlem Renaissance not only awakened the artistic talents of the black Americans but also played a sociological role by creating a new dimension of race in America. Du Bois’ work in The Souls of Black Folk brought about a correct awareness of the black’s identity.

The Renaissance also led to a change in how the whites and the whole world viewed the black American population. It also gave the African Americans the chance to participate actively in the development of the American nation through active involvement in economic, social and politics issues.

The Harlem Renaissance was a period of artistic explosion of the African Americans and an opportunity for them to express their ability to do what whites could do. It also served the purpose of social integration and cohesion within the black community, which in turn led to the social integration of the whites and the African Americans.

The Renaissance period gave the whites an opportunity to experience the worth of the African Americans and see the need to integrate them in nation building. It also helped in the fight for the social rights of the African Americans in the United States.

Works Cited

Hamalian, Leo. Lost Plays of the Harlem Renaissance, 1920-1940. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1996. Print.

Ornberg, Therese. “General Background – The Harlem Renaissance.” The Harlem Renaissance. May 23, 2001. Web. November 8, 2010. http://www.eng.umu.se/city/therese/main_essay/general_background/harlem_renaissance.htm