Harlem Renaissance – Pathway Towards a Social Change


A renowned U.S. example of collective attempts aimed to change social construction in context with race, class, gender and culture is none other than ‘Harlem Renaissance’ (HR) which actually took place in 1920s and 1930s. Today HR is remembered for the visions it opened up not only for African Americans but for the new generations to come. That period of HR is considered today a complex era because Africans fought a fight by choosing ‘pen’ and ‘arts’ as their weapons. Their artistic attempts not only changed the social construction and vision of class and race but also provided with the African Americans a new hope to survive with their own cultural identity and dignity.

Known by the name ‘New Negro Renaissance’ and ‘Black Literary Renaissance’ the movement initiated in Harlem with the aim to abolish African American slavery with the involvement of ‘black’ arts and artists. In other words, Harlem Renaissance was a literary period which involved many hidden aspects of cultural and literary history. The participants of Harlem were all writers and artists somehow associated with the cultural aspect of black America. These included actors, performers, dancers, drama artists, musicians, singers, photographers, writers, poets and all those scholars who were directly or indirectly associated with the cultural aspect of black America.

According to Knadler (2004) ‘In an era when African women were identified with stories like ‘monstrous’ and ‘women with knives’ Harlem Renaissance provided the women to seek their own cultural identity and even that in a peaceful manner’. (Knadler, 2004, p. 99).

The Initiators of Harlem Renaissance

Harlem Renaissance was initiated by many artists among whom Claude McCay, Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, and Zora Neal Hurston are well known for their contributions.

Langston Hughes: A writer who is best known for favoring ‘social equality’ is still remembered by the love his written work reveals about him. His poetry, fiction and visual artistic work mostly highlights the working class lives of black Americans. Langston Hughes contributed in many ways among which the most prominent one is convincing other black artists in The Nation magazine to write from their experience and to stop imitating white writers.

Many writers of Harlem era believed that black Americans should insist upon a need of a Black Aesthetic for, if their African ancestry has not always bound them together, they have nevertheless found identity as a group in their exclusion from certain prerogatives of American citizenship. The concept of a Black Aesthetic in literature was articulated distinctly by those whites who preferred with the conservative literary practices of traditional blacks and with the efforts of Negroes to become assimilated by separating themselves from the folk culture. Langston Hughes was the one who even years before the New Negro movement, insisted upon the right of new artists to express their individual talent without caring whether they pleased white or black audiences. (Russ, 1997, p. 46).

Hughes, in fact, asserted his artistic independence by promising to steer clear as much of the white readers’ stereotypes as those of the black middle-class readers’ taboos. Late in the thirties, Hughes also summed up the Negro writer’s difficulties with white publishers. First of all, he complained, Negro books are considered by editors and publishers as exotic and placed in a special category like Chinese or East Indian material. His more serious charge was that books by black writers cannot sell unless they ‘make our black ghetto in the big cities seem very happy places’. (Russ, 1997, p. 71).

Carl Van Vechten: Another important influential writing to the Harlem Renaissance was that of Carl Van Vechten. According to Langston Hughes, Carl was the one responsible for conducting a ‘know the Negro’ campaign. He brought writers of both races together, striving to overcome prejudice and misunderstanding. He also helped a number of black writers find publishers for their work. His novel Nigger Heaven (1926) explored the seamy and primitive side of Harlem life, much to the shock of some Harlem writers, but it was perfectly packaged for that insatiable white appetite in the 1920s for anything black and primitive.

Louis Thompson: Louise Thompson brought to the movement an awareness of racism in its various disguises that strongly influenced her later life as well as the lives of many of the young black artists and writers with whom she came in contact. She is considered a true anti racist who gave racism the very first exposure with an awareness of isolation.

Jean Toomer: Toomer’s major contribution to the Harlem group was to join Gurdjieff’s system of self-development with a comprehensively intellectual and spiritual response to the racialization of American culture. Thus, the racial component in the writings of the Harlem group is their special contribution to addressing the problem of the world’s condition.

Zora Neal Hurston: A creative writer who was interested not in social problems, but in the problems of individuals, black or white. Her writings reflect she was not influenced by racial discretion.

Movement-based techniques

Harlem Renaissance was escorted by Negro movement based techniques which included all forms of artistic work, from literary expression to visual works, nearly all black artists of that era contributed in that movement, so as to form their own identity and to make the white Americans realize their talent.

Harlem artists were equipped with powerful new concepts and efficient techniques for the evolution of new states of consciousness, which according to them were helpful in transforming American culture. By conducting such a movement African Americans set high hopes to seek social equality which they never had since World War I. So, their techniques were simple and peace loving, a movement without bloodshed.

Racism was always present in the American culture, 1920s was the period which helped racism to bloom in various ways. One of them was the African American segregation and the drastic social and cultural transformations which appeared as the results of industrial modernization, the growth of cities, rural-to-urban shifts in population, and unchecked immigration in the years before the 1920s brought about a wide range of violent and ruthless social responses. These reactions took the forms of brutal labour disputes, curtailment of Asian immigration through the Alien Immigration Laws, terror campaigns of the re-emerged Ku Klux Klan, and founding of new white supremacist groups such as the Anglo-Saxon Clubs of America. In 1920s racism was one of the major causes of high rate at which people were lynch; between 1918 and 1927, 455 persons were lynched in America, 416 of who were African-Americans. Added to these popular expressions of racism were political, medical, and educational institutions that made racism respectable and spread the gospel of racism throughout American society. (Woodson, 1999, p. 4).

The Harlem artists as a response to the bloodshed of World War I began to experiment with an alternative to the modernist aesthetic, an art that had racial subjects without having been derived from the racial ideology of the New Negro movement. In other words, the Harlem artists set out to create a new kind of literary art, a ‘racial’ art that was antiracial. Although the Gurdjieffian school of Harlem literature continued to explore ways to apply the ‘objective’ aesthetic, in contrast to Toomer’s concern with the transformation of the world through a general change in consciousness, their focus was narrow. The Harlem writers solely directed their efforts towards attaining their ideology, psychology, and sociology of race. (Woodson, 1999, p. 24).

Short Term Impacts

Among its short term impacts were the most significant achievements of African Americans. Their high hopes let them able to appear as a new American identity aloof from racial segregation. But that was only a misperception as shortly after the Harlem group began its literary efforts, America entered the Great Depression. Corbould writes, “Harlem riots of 1935 were better than Harlem slum of 1940s”. (Corbould, 2007, p. 859) This clearly elaborates the economic condition of the city Harlem after HR. The collapse of the world’s economy must have seemed to them like the beginning of the end of civilization. Actual depictions of the Depression are absent from the Harlem group’s texts written after 1929, although it certainly contributed to the central role of destruction and involution in their writings.

Despite the huge critics confronted by the artists of Harlem Renaissance, the short term outcome if considered between 1930 (end of HR) and 1934 was positive. Blacks were able to recognize themselves in front of white Americans and up to some extent they were able to alleviate racist perceptions. But according to many critics Harlem Renaissance writing is marked by racialism, but the writers reflect the spirit of the times in their refusal to join causes or movements.

According to Wilson (2003), “Harlem Renaissance was an effort to thrive in the professional world with individuals to accommodate the demands of white, middle-class, and working-class African Americans while simultaneously balancing their expectations for all they need were to create new positive images of African Americans”. (Wilson, 2003, p. 130) However their expectations shattered soon after 1934, when they remained unable to cope up with the increasing poverty in Harlem.

Long Term Impacts

Harlem which used to be a thriving black city, pulsing with vivid passions and packed with many types of classes of people gentrified in the late 1990s, after a long war of racial unrest which later brought inadequate housing and health conditions for the Africans of Harlem, they were able to build up a community which made its own place in U.S., but still there remains a barrier between Harlem and other cities of U.S. This barrier indicates that despite several movements like Harlem Renaissance, Africans are unable to merge themselves with white Americans. Though they are able to make the world realize of a new nation of ‘African Americans’, but still there are obstructions in considering them ‘Americans’, for they remained unable to answer the circumstances which brought them the era of 1970s – the worst economic and social era of injustice and inequality in the history of Harlem.

Work Cited

Corbould Clare, (2007) “Streets, Sounds and Identity in Interwar Harlem” In: Journal of Social History. Volume: 40. Issue: 4. p: 859.

Knadler Stephen, (2004) “Domestic Violence in the Harlem Renaissance: Remaking the Record in Nella Larsen’s Passing and Toni Morrison’s Jazz” In: African American Review. Volume: 38. Issue: 1. p: 99+.

Russ A. Robert, (1997) “Harlem Renaissance Re-Examined”: Whitston Publishing Company: Troy, NY.

Wilson James, (2003) “A Beautiful Pageant: African American Theatre, Drama, and Performance in the Harlem Renaissance, 1910-1927” In: Theatre History Studies. Volume: 23. p: 130+.

Woodson Jon, (1999) “To Make a New Race: Gurdjieff, Toomer, and the Harlem Renaissance”: University Press of Mississippi: Jackson, MS.