Harlem Renaissance: Illuminating the Vibrant History of a Cultural Revival

Harlem Renaissance: Illuminating the Vibrant History of a Cultural Revival

The Harlem Renaissance struck like a lightning bolt, the coalescence of community, possibility, and togetherness providing a spark that would ignite the world.
Harlem Renaissance: Illuminating the Vibrant History of a Cultural Revival


Though my children are taught in the schools you have wrought, they are blind to the sheen of the sky,
For the brand of your hand, casts a pall o’er the land, that enshadows the gleam of the eye.
My sons, deftly sapped of the brawn-hood of man, self-rejected and impotent stand,
My daughters, unhaloed, unhonored, undone, feed the lust of a dominant land.
I would not remember, yet could not forget, how the hearts beating true to your own.
You’ve tortured, and wounded, and filtered their blood ‘till a budding Hegira has blown.
— Georgia Douglas Johnson, Hegira (1917)

Following failed attempts at Reconstruction in the South there descended a cloud of outright animosity towards African Americans that permeated every aspect of their daily lives. The implementation of Jim Crow laws in the South limited the freedoms of Black people through formal, codified systems of racial apartheid which spanned public parks, schools, libraries, drinking fountains, buses, trains, and all other facilities through which White and Black people might come together. The company line throughout these territories where apartheid was not only accepted but vociferously implemented was ‘separate but equal,’ meaning that whilst Black people were seen as equal under law they were in fact separate outside of such institutions – which, of course, makes a great deal of sense, to no one.

But even with this policy of ‘separate but equal’ being implemented throughout the segregated States there persisted the very real ‘separate but separate’ ethos that was adopted by those in positions of power as seen by the systematic denial of voting rights to Black communities in the South through selective literacy tests and other racially motivated criteria. This denial of voting rights along with many more systematic barriers to social mobility and sway crippled the Black Community, leaving some one rung above destitution and others open to racially motivated violence. The continuation and worsening of these conditions motivated hundreds of thousands of African Americans located in the South to look elsewhere for sanctuary, and the North was where this sanctuary lay.

Thus, the Great Migration begins. 

Arriving in Harlem and the Emergence of the New Negro

The Great Migration took place at a time when the United States was emerging as an industrial powerhouse. The First World War had taken many men from the Northern cities away from their jobs and to fill the growing vacancies African Americans travelling from the South were given gainful employment. Those who had travelled from the South and arrived in New York settled predominantly in Harlem, attracted to the area on account of the available housing and the cultural and community infrastructure that already catered to African Americans, fostering a sense of support and togetherness for newcomers that had been sorely missing prior – and upon the advent of these fresh beginnings came the call for fresh identities.

Enter Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois

Either the United States will destroy ignorance or ignorance will destroy the United States.
W.E.B Du Bois, Niagara Movement Speech (1905)

The hypothecation and theorization about what it meant to be Black in the United States, along with the necessary steps to cement equality and prosperity in the late nineteenth century, was popularized by two men, Booker T. Washington and W.E.B Du Bois. Booker T. Washington was a prominent African American leader and educator who believed in practical education and economic progress as the path to racial advancement. His philosophy the ‘Atlanta Compromise’ called for African Americans to focus on acquiring vocational skills and working within the existing social and economic structures. Washington advocated for self-help, economic self-sufficiency, and cooperation with white people, particularly in the South. This approach, whilst being adopted and appreciated within African American communities was opposed by W.E.B Du Bois, a highly influential African American intellectual, sociologist, and civil rights activist, who believed that political and civil rights were essential for African Americans to achieve true equality and social advancement. DuBois advocated for higher education, intellectual pursuits, and an active fight against racial injustice. These two ideologies, although in some respects in opposition to one another, brought about important dialogue of what it was to be Black in the United States and the necessary next steps to achieving equality and obtaining the respect which had been withheld for so long.

We all should rise, above the clouds of ignorance, narrowness, and selfishness.
— Booker T. Washington, The Story of My Life and Work (1900)

This dialogue would eventually have an impact on Alain Locke, who cast amongst the ever-limited but marginally more promising social landscape of 1920s United States, was allowed to guest edit the prestigious Graphic Supplement of Survey Magazine, a publication that covered social issues for international audiences. This chance, to reach many within a well-read magazine, stirred in Locke the motivation to establish an image of the New Negro, someone young, educated, sophisticated, and contemplative, at home in the industrious North and brimming with promise. Within the issue Locke touched on the Great Migration, the World at War, creating a space for thinkers and entertainers alike, championing what it meant to be Black in the modern age. When the magazine was received as a success, Locke forged forwards and expanded on his initial idea, bringing together Black artists from all disciplines to share their voice and contribute to the landmark anthology ‘The New Negro: an Interpretation.’

The publication of The New Negro threw down the gauntlet for Black identities and rang the bell for other artists and aspirational folk to join him on his mission - the centre of which would be found in Harlem. 

The Renaissance had begun.

The Harlem Renaissance

The Harlem Renaissance struck like a lightning bolt, the coalescence of community, possibility, and togetherness providing a spark that would ignite the world. The United States had recently come out of World War One, and the burgeoning industrialization, urban population, and appreciation for peacetime living inspired a celebration that engulfed not only Harlem but the entire United States.

More people were living in cities than ever before and with this explosion in populace and frivolity, there were increased calls for spaces and establishments that could house such rowdiness, and music that could speak to the song of the spirit. In Harlem, this music came in the form of Jazz, a robust sound that could encapsulate feelings of relief, repression, reprieve, and release. When enjoyed alongside Blues, one could find solace and peace, carousing and contemplating, both activities fulfilling in their unique cathartic way.

The sound of Jazz and the Blues as it became known to audiences of the 1920s found its roots in post-war United States, specifically in the South. In New Orleans, among an outdoor space known as Congo Square, and across the Mississippi Delta the recognizable sounds and syncopations of Jazz and Blues were formed. In the case of Congo Square and the origins of Jazz, the tone and timbre that is riffed on today started as a recreation for enslaved people, who free from their labours on Sundays, would gather and dance, combining the music of the Caribbean with beats from Africa, splicing the two with church melodies from the Southern United States to create something entirely new. This sound, ever-evolving, soon became ragtime and when ragtime came into contact with Blues music from the Mississippi Delta – its sound an amalgamation of work songs and spirituals, call and response patterns, and later trumpets and trombones – jazz was formed. Once these sounds, so inextricably tied to their histories, arrived in Harlem, it was only a matter of time before the proprietors of such soul made their mark, the jazz performers who orbited the Harlem circuit coming in only one size – Superstar.

The musical names associated with the Harlem Renaissance, even if one isn’t a committed melomaniac, should ring familiar. The likes of Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Alberta Hunter, all giants in their field, brought passion and personality into every room they entered. Bessie Smith, known as the ‘Empress of Blues’, was the most famous Blues singer of the 1920s, and so bright was her star that white-only clubs actually desegrated on the nights she performed. One such example of this is the Strand Theatre in Culpeper, Virginia. The managers, realizing the demand for tickets was so high, disregarded their segregation policies to fill more seats. This act, whilst being motivated by the desire for increased profits, demonstrated the power that Bessie Smith possessed, attracting both Black and White patrons despite the prevailing racial prejudices. The ability of blues performers to break boundaries was typical of the time and atmosphere in which they basked. Ethel Waters, Blues singer and legendary performer enjoyed a wildly successful career during the Harlem Renaissance and afterwards became the first African American performer to star on a television show, and then the first African American to be nominated for a Primetime Emmy. Josephine Baker, the iconic singer, dancer, civil rights activist, and later spy for the French Resistance during World War II - using her status as a performer to gather information to aid the resistance effort - took part in one the first all-Black Broadway productions, Shuffle Along – also the first stage play to present a romance of two Black players. The stage play, an energetic, fast-paced, comedy, depicting African American culture and life was the product of an all-Black team, the music written by Eubie Blake, the lyrics by Noble Sissle, and the book written by Aubrey Lyles and Flournoy Miller. Shuffle Along would go on to become a commercial success, finding an audience across the country and proving that an all-Black production could become a groundbreaking success. These men and women, juggernauts of creativity in the musical realm, also played a large role in inspiring the novelists, essayists, and poets of the time - one of the greatest examples of this being Langston Hughes.

Droning a drowsy syncopated tune,
Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon,
I heard a Negro play.
Down on Lenox Avenue the other night
By the pale dull pallor of an old gas light
He did a lazy sway...
He did a lazy sway...
To the tune o' those Weary Blues.
— Langston Hughes, The Weary Blues (1925)

The works of Langston Hughes, incorporating the rhythm, themes, and spirit of jazz, spoke of racial consciousness devoid of hate, advocating for the idea that two people, who may appear different to one another and come from unrelated cultures could in fact practice, promote, and appreciate their respective heritages, recognizing their dissimilarities, without the need to foster animosity and prejudice. This idea, that one could embrace their own racial identity and heritage, whilst acknowledging the beliefs and contributions of more marginalized communities, was meant to bring about much-needed empathy and cultural appreciation that would allow those in a more privileged position to start understanding the struggles faced by other racial communities. These themes of racial identity, heritage, and the quest for equality when focused through the lens of racial consciousness were intended to be a powerful tool for social change and progress, so long as they were rooted in love, compassion, and a commitment to justice. Hughes was a tremendous voice during the Harlem Renaissance, his contemporaries such as Alain Locke and Countee Cullen complimenting and affirming his work with previously mentioned publications like the ‘New Negro’ assembled by Locke and ‘Yet Do I Marvel’ by Cullen, a poem which explored the complexities of faith and the existence of God in the face of racial oppression and injustice.

I doubt not God is good, well-meaning, kind,
And did He stoop to quibble could tell why
The little buried mole continues blind, 
Why flesh that mirrors Him must someday die,
Make plain the reason tortured Tantalus
Is baited by the fickle fruit, declare 
If merely brute caprice dooms Sisyphus
To struggle up a never-ending stair. 
Inscrutable His ways are, and immune
To catechism by a mind too strewn
With petty cares to slightly understand
What awful brain compels His awful hand.
Yet do I marvel at this curious thing:
To make a poet black, and bid him sing!
— Countee Cullen, Yet Do I Marvel (1925)

The words of Hughes, Locke, and Cullen managed to capture the intricacies of racial oppression and the stifling predicament of being Black in the United States during the early twentieth century. Their use of register and verse managed to emote a sense of perdition and purgatory attributed to those supposedly free but forever in the debt of those who granted such freedoms. The use of narrative prose by Zora Neale Hurston in her book ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God’ further examines the issue of colourism in the United States at this time, touching on themes of authenticity and ‘Double Consciousness’, a phrase coined by W.E.B DuBois which concerns the psychological and social experience of African Americans who are made aware of and navigate their identities from two different perspectives – that of being an American citizen and a person of African descent. In the novel, the protagonist, Janie Crawford negotiates these challenges on a journey to self-fulfilment, the prose, vernacular, and astute nuances of the time painting a picture that could only be trumped by the very literal implementation of a visual medium. 

The visual arts in the early twentieth century were non-inclusive of African American artists. Support for such artists in the form of encouragement and monetary aid was relatively non-existent and it wasn’t until the advent of patrons, advocates, and mentors that the visual arts in African American communities truly began to flourish. Creators such as Aaron Douglas combined elements of European modernism, cubism, and African art forms to create a distinct visual language that celebrated African American culture and history. The works that Douglas produced during the early twentieth century went a long way to popularize the ‘New Negro’ aesthetic of the Harlem Renaissance, his bold and dynamic compositions and use of geometric forms embodying the energetic, ambitious, and kinetic spirit of the movement. These works, when complemented by the evocative photography of James Van Der Zee and the allegorical sculpts of Augusta Savage, created a visual representation of time in motion. The support of Alain Locke and his continued encouragement for African Americans to pursue the arts, whilst championing their work, provided an external source of belief when such a virtue was lacking. The financial backing of the National Urban League, founded by social worker and reformist George Edward Haynes and suffragist Ruth Standish Baldwin, along with Black-owned businesses and cultural institutions springboarded many artists into a position that would otherwise be unattainable given the climate. There still rages debate about the role of white patronage during the time of the Harlem Renaissance, with those such as Carl Van Vechten seen by many as a man wishing to capitalize on a Black movement for his own gain. One such book of his about the Harlem Renaissance was lambasted by DuBois who claimed the work presented "black intellectual life as a pathetic, almost futile endeavour, stifled by black snobbery on one side and white bigotry on the other. " Van Vechten when mentioned in conversation with another white patron of the Harlem Renaissance, Charlotte Osgood Mason, produces a throughline of controversial white involvement in the Renaissance, as through the lens of history it is argued whether the intention of Mason in aiding Black artists was entirely genuine, or if the true motivation behind her involvement in the Renaissance was that of exoticization and exploitation, wishing to control the direction and expression of Black artists, offering them financial support in exchange for increased social standing by aligning herself with the movement itself.

These stipulations and constraints restricted the liberties of Black artists, but across Harlem, there was a growing freedom, one which prospered in the face of exuberance and expressivity – this of course being the queer liberation of the Harlem Renaissance. 

LGBTQIA and the Harlem Renaissance

The Harlem Renaissance was “surely as gay as it was black, not that it was exclusively either of those things,” said African American literary critic and professor Henry Louis Gates whilst speaking on the subject.

The blossoming of an enlightened, expressive, and inclusive community at the time of the Harlem Renaissance paved the way for many queer artists to live and perform as their true selves, uninhibited by the unforgiving attitudes of the wider world. The New York City Police Department - as this was also the time of Prohibition – had been deploying vigilant vice squads across the city, attempting to snuff out illegal alcohol consumption, whilst also combatting what was then considered to be ‘immoral behaviour.” This immoral behavior of course meant being an openly queer person. But in Harlem, where the police on account of their racial biases did not enter the district, such vivacity could flourish, whilst in other districts such as Manhattan, this was not the case.  This purposeful oversight by the NYPD enabled a vibrant nightlife to flourish in Harlem, with well-connected club owners providing the necessary tipples for a good time and the vivacious jazz scene and establishments providing the setting and soundtrack for an already eventful evening. These elements, along with an ensemble of the most outstanding performers, personalities, and intellectuals of the time made for a scene which was lively and multifaceted, where the cream of the crop gathered and the bounds of artistry and acceptance were pushed outwards to include all.

There is a certain rationale to the notion that for one to best their most vocal critics they must first rise above. For some, this might mean turning the other cheek and not indulging in discourse that would bring them down into the mud, and for others this might mean becoming so colossal and utterly unimpeachable that the nagging condemnation of your most fierce opponents becomes but a benign buzz from a thousand feet below. In the case of the blues, jazz, and cabaret performers of the time this latter approach was certainly the most effective.

The personalities of the Harlem Renaissance each came with their own distinct, fully realized, and unassailable style. In the manner they entered a room, ordered a drink, sang their songs, and wore their clothes, one would be hard-pressed not to recognize the impressions their identities left on that which they came into contact with. For Gladys Bentley, this style and impression came in the form of a white tuxedo and towering white high hat that stood proudly atop her head. The posture and unmistakable appearance of Bentley as she sang the blues, ofttimes flirting with the women who came to her shows, projected the image of a person unafraid to be themselves to the sincerest degree. Her lyrics and more importantly her actions cemented Bentley as a queer icon of the Harlem Renaissance, marrying her then-girlfriend in a highly publicized civil ceremony, that although not the first openly queer relationship of the era, certainly sang the tune of a woman unafraid of public dissent.

I went out last night with a crowd of my friends, they must have been women ‘cause I don't like no men.’
— Ma Rainey, Prove It On Me Blues (1928)

The improvisational nature of jazz and the soulful recitals of those who sing the blues epitomizes people who follow their best instincts, listening to their inner voices and following a path that speaks to them and them alone. For those in the Harlem music scene of the early twentieth century, the support for these inner voices came in the form of their peers and contemporaries. Performers such as Ma Rainey, Alberta Hunter, Ethel Waters, and Bessie Smith all nurtured queer relationships at the time of the Renaissance, and whilst these women did not publicly comment on their sexuality in the same manner as Gladys Bentley, they were relatively open with their colleagues in the entertainment sphere. These relaxed attitudes to sexuality within the domain of music also expanded beyond jazz and blues and suitably found a home in cabaret, á la Jimmie Daniels.

Jimmie Daniels, like so many of the personalities of the Harlem Renaissance, is a fascinating study. Not only because he flaunted conservative norms, being an openly gay man at a time when sexuality was strictly policed, but because of the life and career he made for himself during the Harlem Renaissance. Daniels, who grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas, first visited New York to attend business classes, and after developing a kinship with the city, later returned to Harlem in the hopes of breaking into the entertainment industry. Daniels would become known for his sophisticated renditions of jazz standards and show tunes, performing to desegrated audiences and garnering a large queer following. His showmanship and panache, and ability to speak and perform in multiple languages set him aside from his contemporaries as a man of the world – which he would later become, performing in Europe and serving in the military during the outbreak of World War Two.

The largeness of character displayed by Daniels would under regular circumstances be an untrumpable feat. But upon the publication of the literary magazine ‘Fire!!’ there came staunch competition, as the single-issue publication of essays, articles, and poems, represented a symbol, much greater than any one person. Fire!! was founded and edited by Wallace Thurman and included contributions from Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Bruce Nugent, and Langston Hughes, among others. The content of the magazine championed African American culture, challenged racial stereotypes, and asserted the richness and complexity of the African American experience. Of the articles, essays, and poems published, one of the most talked about contributions came from Richard Bruce Nugent. Entitled, ‘Smoke, Lilies, and Jade,’ the stream-of-consciousness short story describing an interracial and homoerotic encounter. 

Beauty's cheek felt cool to his arm... his hair felt soft... Alex lay smoking... such a dream... red calla lilies... red calla lilies... and... what could it all mean... did dreams have meanings...
— Richard Bruce Nugent, Smoke, Lilies, and Jade (1925)

Such contributions, including the likes of ‘From the Dark Tower,’ a sonnet written by Countee Cullen, continued to redefine what it meant to be Black in the United States. Those who worked with the written word could cut deep, and while it is not a matter of uncontested fact, it is widely believed that many of the literati of the Harlem Renaissance were perhaps part of the queer community. Such authors including Alain Locke, Countee Cullen, and Wallace Thurman whilst engaging in same-sex relations and exploring such themes in their written work either publicly denounced their sexuality or refused to comment on it entirely. The attitudes, whilst more relaxed in Harlem, were not altogether forgiving in the wider United States – and it was for this reason that special establishments were erected for people to live freely and express themselves without needless judgement.

These safe spaces where people could gather, away from the watchful eyes of conservative authorities, were as renowned as they were discreet. One such establishment known as Gumby’s Book Studio, presided over by Alex Gumby, a charismatic, openly gay, Black history activist, was a premier location where gay men could mingle and indulge in bathtub gin, enjoying themselves in a relaxed setting that was in stark contrast to the more rambunctious gatherings that took place across Harlem. One such clamorous abode, the Dark Tower, a white mansion named for the sonnet of the same name by Countee Cullen and owned by the daughter of the first self-made female millionaire in the United States, A’Lelia Walker, provided a festive thrill for artists, aristocrats and people from all backgrounds. The parties thrown by A’Lelia Walker were said to be vast, with no expense spared in the pursuit of a grand celebration. Champagne, indulgence, and just the right amount of class set the Dark Tower apart from even the most exuberant venues of the roaring twenties. But it isn’t for vastness and expense that these settings are best remembered, and perhaps looking back, we see the most influence in the form of the Hamilton Lodge Ball - the birthplace of the modern ballroom scene. It was in this cavernous, austere, and camp setting that people would flock to take part in and witness the elaborate costumes, vibrant performances, and unsparing decorations that adorned the Hall. Those who attended would dress in extravagant attire, often in gender-nonconforming styles and participate in competitions and parades. Such categories as ‘Best Dressed’ and ‘Best Couple’ would give participants the chance to showcase their creativity, style, and individuality, making the Hamilton Lodge Ball a highly anticipated event within the Harlem community. This impact of this safe space of self-expression and the challenge it presented to societal norms are still felt today, in pop culture, in yearly parades, and in the unapologetic attitude of marginalized people, proud to be themselves and freer than ever to bask in the triumph of their individuality.

For a time and for a dream it would be grand to say this era of freedom and expansion, the boom of the Harlem Renaissance, and all it represented would last forever, only to become larger and more impactful in scale. But as is the way of life, all great things come to an end, and unfortunately, this too applied to the Renaissance. In August of 1929, so began the Great Depression, and all that was built slowly started to fade away. 

End of the Harlem Renaissance

As the 1920s rolled into the 1930s, the vibrant energy of the Harlem Renaissance began to wane. The onset of the Great Depression cast a shadow over the Harlem community, dampening the artistic and cultural fervour that had characterized the previous decade. The economic downturn brought widespread unemployment, poverty, and despair, affecting Harlem's residents, including its artists, writers, and musicians. In the face of economic hardship, many individuals who had once thrived during the Harlem Renaissance found themselves struggling to make ends meet. Renowned artists, such as Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, continued to produce their groundbreaking work, but the opportunities for recognition and financial stability were scarce. The patronage and institutions which had once supported the arts dwindled, leading to the closure of theatres, clubs, and galleries that had once been vibrant spaces for creativity and expression.

Despite these hardships, the 1930s and 1940s witnessed the emergence of new artistic movements and expressions in Harlem. One notable development was the rise of social realism, a genre of art that sought to depict the social realities and struggles of everyday people, including African Americans. Artists like Aaron Douglas, Jacob Lawrence, and Augusta Savage found ways to incorporate their artistic visions into public murals, sculptures, and community art projects that addressed social issues and celebrated African American identity. In addition to this, the musical scene in Harlem continued to thrive during and after the Great Depression. The jazz clubs and venues that had been integral to the Harlem Renaissance remained important spaces for artistic expression and entertainment. Notable jazz musicians such as Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Billie Holiday continued to perform and record their music, leaving a lasting impact on American music history.

But while the arts continued to grind forward and the spirit of the Renaissance remained intact if not injured, there were still further hardships to endure. The tumultuous decades in the lead-up to the Civil Rights Movement (and the decades following) proved there would be a heavy price to pay for every step in the direction of equality and the Lavender Scare of the McCarthy era witch hunts targeted the queer community, reaching so far as to effect Gladys Bentley, who under the scrutiny of intense public pressure and political duress renounced her support for the queer community, turning her back on that which she once embodied.

When one considers the impact of the Harlem Renaissance in the advancements of Black arts, queer liberation, and the redefinition of what it meant to be Black in the United States at the onset of the twentieth century, it is inarguable that the benefits of such a movement were enormous whilst still being felt today. But until further steps are taken and necessary changes made to make society and opportunities open to all, the Renaissance will be but a distant dream, where freedom was nothing more than an exception, rather than the beginning of the rule.