Throughout the history of African Americans, there have been important historical figures as well as times. Revered and inspirational leaders and eras like, Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement, Nat Turner and the slave revolt, or Huey Newton and the Black Panther Party. One such period that will always remain a significant part of black art and culture is the Harlem Renaissance. It changed the meaning of art and poetry, as it was known then. Furthermore, the Harlem Renaissance forever left a mark on the evolution of the black culture. The Harlem Renaissance found its birth in the early 1920’s, in Harlem, New York.
The period has been thought of as one of African Americans greatest times in writing. After War World I in 1918, African Americans were faced with one of the lowest points in history since the end of slavery. Poverty increased greatly in the South, as did the number of lynchings. The fear of race riots in the South caused large number of African Americans to move North between 1919 and 1926, to cities such as Chicago and Washington D. C. The idea that an educated black person should lead blacks to liberation was first founded from the works of W. E. B. DuBois.
He also believed that blacks could not gain social equality by imitating the ideas of white people. Equality would have to be achieved by teaching black racial pride with an emphasis on black cultural heritage. The Cultural Revolution began as a series of literacy discussions in bars and coffee shops of lower Manhattan (Greenwich Village) and (Upper Manhattan) Harlem. Jean Toomer did one of the first and highly praised works. This would be Toomer’s only contribution to a time that he would later reject. Toomer is also known for his exquisite poetry like; Cotton Song, Evening Song, Georgia Dusk and Reapers.
Jane Weldon Johnson had written the controversial “Autobiography of an Ex-colored Man” in 1924 and he had also edited ” The Book of American Negro Poetry. ” This collection included many of the Renaissance’s most talented poets. Included was Claude McKay, a Jamaican born writer. Weldon’s collection also included a young talented poet named Langston Hughes. Hughes had a love for music, mainly the blues, which became a bridge between African American Literature and Folk music. Zora Neale Hurston, an anthropologist originally born in Florida, wrote the literary magazine “Fire! Although it lasted only one issue because of financial difficulties, Hughes, publisher Wallace Thurman, and a number of other influential black artists had shared in making one of most recognized Harlem Renaissance materials. Hurston later went on to publish “Their Eyes were Watching God,” in 1937, still keeping with the themes of strong black characters.
Music was another art form found in the Harlem Renaissance. It became the background, inspiration, and the structure for the Harlem Renaissance literature. A style of music known as jazz represented the new, urban, unpredictable lifestyle.
One of the greatest jazz singers of this time was Bessie Smith. She was a southerner and her recordings were rare for black performers during her time. Duke Ellington, whose legendary band played at the Cotton Club, personifies jazz. Charlie Parker and Billie Holiday would also record jazz music form the 1930’s until the 1950’s. Langston Hughes was one of the few poets that would combine both blues and jazz to create an original art form. Claude McKay used the jazz atmosphere in his novel “Home to Harlem. ” In this novel, he presented Harlem as a beautiful, fantastic place.
In the Harlem Renaissance somewhere using words to create images, while others were using canvas and various mediums to produce a visual art. By 1926, another stage in the developmental history of African-American visual artists came about, with the establishment of the Harmon Foundation. The Harmon Foundation became a tool for introducing the works of African-American artists to the world. William E. Harmon became the chief philanthropist and patron in the support of African-American artists and culture. Harmon’s interest in African-American artists reflected “his interest in promoting justice and social commitment.
The “deprivation of black Americans, he reasoned, was a national problem, not simply a burden on blacks alone. ” Harmon and foundation were extremely vital in keeping the African-American artists working, learning, and creating expressions in the arts. Such artists as; Hale Woodruff, Edward Burra, Jacob Lawrence, John T. Biggers, Lois Mailou Jones, and William H. Johnson were among the talented that blossomed and shared their beliefs and fears through art. One artist that contributed his talents to the Renaissance was Aaron Douglas.
For almost thirty years Aaron Douglas was head of the Department of Art at Fisk University, influencing a great many students, including a number who were to become prominent African American artists. Before that tenure Douglas was the leading artist of the Harlem Renaissance, known especially for his striking murals in libraries and other public buildings. These murals usually depicted significant events and people in African American history. While his murals were usually two dimensional and almost geometrical, his portraits, such as this one of “Marian Anderson,” were traditional and classical.
Douglas personified what the Harlem renaissance was about, expression and acknowledgement of the greatness of African Americans. Furthermore, with that knowledge going on to have racial esteem, to do great things and influence others, thus making a mark on the world. The Harlem Renaissance taught future artist to look at art from an all-encompassing view. It knocked down barriers between literary and musical expression. The Renaissance added a new chapter in American History. A chapter that would highlight the African American thoughts and feelings as well as display their many talents.