The Harlem Renaissance was an artistic and literary movement expressing Black or African-American culture during the 1920s, centered in Harlem, a neighborhood in upper Manhattan in New York City. The term has grown to encompass all expressions of Black culture during the decade of the 1920s, even some which occurred overseas, such as revues by dancer Josephine Baker in Paris. The movement was a major cultural event in the history of black Americans. By reviving blacks' culture and self-esteem, black intellectuals strove for the fusion of blacks and whites, or blacks dissolving into American society, in an enlightenment movement after World War I. This laid the foundation for the American civil rights movement.
At the time the movement was sometimes referred to as “the New Negro Renaissance”. At that time, the term “Negro” was in standard use.
Among the artists prominent in the Harlem Renaissance were the poets Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes and Claude McKay, the novelists Nella Larsen, Jean Toomer and Wallace Thurman, and the graphic artist Aaron Douglas.
While the movement was exclusively concerned with Black artists and culture, a number of white persons were important in supporting and promoting the movement. Most important was the dramatic and literary critic, photographer and author Carl Van Vechten. Van Vechten had been the first music and dance critic for The New York Times, and as drama critic for the New York Press had been at the famous riot which occurred at the debut of Igor Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring in 1913. He was known for giving prominent whites tours of Harlem’s night life, including author Somerset Maugham and most importantly, publisher Alfred A. Knopf.
Alain Locke, J. A. Rogers, and Charles Johnson recognized the unique contribution of jazz. The Harlem night life was particularly vibrant during the 1920s, when Prohibition popularized speakeasy nightclubs such as The Cotton Club. “Going Uptown” became a slang term for whites going to Harlem to sample the night club scene. Many famous jazz artists became successful performing in these clubs, including violinist Eddie South, singer and band leader Cab Calloway, and band leader Duke Ellington. Also achieving popularity were female blues singers such as Bessie Smith and Ethel Waters.
The magazine Opportunity, edited by Alain Locke was a major force. Other literary publications included Fire! and The New Negro. Among the many ideas debated during the Harlem Renaissance were whether Blacks should seek to participate in and gain the respect of the White community or seek a separate identity, whether Blacks should welcome White interest in their culture or see it as an invasion of privacy, and the competing roles of African culture and the American culture of former slaves in forging a new Black identity.
The movement was immensely influential in the larger cultural milieu of the 1920s. Among other things, the movement further promoted an idea which would have a long and active life among white intellectuals and in white popular culture: the notion of primitivist, African Blackness as an antidote to the bloodless abstraction which many critics saw in white culture.
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