February 26, 2011

Feb 26 – Harlem Renaissance: Romantic, Profound and Political

When I lived in New York, I used to love going up to Harlem. The history, the beauty, the culture and the food were fantastic. Harlem has been experiencing a true resurgence for the last decade, or so. Beautiful, brownstone neighborhoods are being refurbished; and fabulous night spots, brunch nooks and cultural gems are opening or re-opening – even former U.S. President, Bill Clinton, opened his offices there. Every few days, or so, some of my friends post photos on Facebook of the fun they are having with friends and family, in Harlem; and it makes me nostalgic. Check out this recent article (click here), from New York Magazine, entitled, The New New Harlem.

Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama in Bill Clinton's Harlem Office

No, that’s not a typo. It’s called ‘New New’ because almost 90 years ago, Harlem experienced its first Renaissance. The Harlem Renaissance was a cultural and political movement, which spanned the 1920s and 30s – although many of its ideals continued much later. At the time that it was being ‘lived’, it was called, The New Negro Movement, named after a 1925 anthology, which African-American writer, Alain Locke, wrote, entitled, The New Negro: An Interpretation. Alain is widely considered to be the Father of The Harlem Renaissance.

Alain Locke

So, how did it begin? Originally, Harlem (which moreorless extends from 110th to 155th Streets and from the East to the Hudson Rivers) was built in the 19th century, for White middle and upper middle classes. Stately homes, wide, grand avenues and cultural centers, such as polo grounds and an opera house, were the marks of exclusivity and wealth, in this area.  At the end of the 19th century, New York experienced and large influx of European immigrants, and the ‘native White people’ abandoned Harlem in droves. In 1910, a large block, along 135th Street and Fifth Avenue, was purchased by various African-American realtors and a church group. During World War I, many more African-Americans arrived, and continued to do so, during (the first) Great Migration due both to the need for unskilled labor, as well as the fact that Harlem was quickly becoming a cultural mecca for them.   Gentrification of midtown Manhattan was pushing Black people ‘uptown’ to where living was more affordable. Between 1900 and 1920, the number of African-Americans living in Harlem doubled – and the subway now extended that far North, as well – making for easier access.

125th Street 1920s
By the 1920s, an explosion of Black art, music and especially literature had hit the scene. It was the first time that African-Americans could earn a living as ‘artists’ and be critically acknowledged in their fields – by both Black and White people. As celebrated Harlem Renaissance writer, Langston Hughes wrote in his autobiography, The Big Sea, “The Negro was in vogue.” 

Writers such as Langston Hughes, W.E.B. Dubois and Zora Neale Hurston (who famously noted that, “White artists were employing aspects of Black culture in their works”. She called these people ‘Negrotarians’.) were entertaining the people, but also making strong, political statements with their works.

Langston Hughes

W.E.B. DuBois
Zora Neale Hurston

Musicians, such as Cab Calloway, Ethel Waters, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Louis Armstrong were tickling the senses and making people get up and dance to swing jazz.  Everyone, who was anyone, was hanging out at The Savoy Ballroom, The Cotton Club and the Apollo Theater. Click here to see Cab Calloway performing to Langston Hughes’s 1926 poem, The Weary Blues.
Cab Calloway and his Orchestra

Count Basie
Ella Fitzgerald
Sarah Vaughan

Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong

Swing Dancing

Some critics of The Harlem Renaissance said that it was actually just Black people ‘mimicking’ White people’s way of life – especially, the clothes and the aspirations; but as Langston Hughes wrote in The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain, in 1926, "If White people are pleased, we are glad. If they are not, it doesn't matter.... If Colored people are pleased, we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn't matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves."

Painters, such as Aaron Douglas and Jacob Lawrence; and photographers, such as James Van Der Zee, were capturing it all. The music. The Weddings. The society photos. The political marches and political statements. James’s photos, especially, are some of the most celebrated of all time.

Aaron Douglas

An Aaron Douglas painting

Jacob Lawrence
A Jacob Lawrence painting
James Van Der Zee

James Van Der Zee photo
James Van Der Zee photo
James Van Der Zee photo

James Van Der Zee photo

The 1929 Stock Market Crash and the subsequent Great Depression saw the beginning of the end of The Harlem Renaissance. People could not only afford to be ‘cultural’, they actually could no longer create the mindset for it. They could not see how culture related to economics. While The Harlem Renaissance, as an historical movement, was over, the effects were longstanding. Art, culture and politics continued to thrive and be ‘exported’ from Harlem; and The Civil Rights Movement saw Harlem as one of its ‘headquarters’ in the North. The role Harlem has continued to play after its Renaissance has changed the American, cultural landscape forever.

How wonderful that Harlem is back ‘in vogue’; but there are many people who continued to live and thrive there, who knew it was so, all along. Get yourself there, as soon as you can.

Sources: Wikipedia, Answers.com, Yale University, Biography.com, PBS, Google Images, YouTube

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