This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Harlem Renaissance, an African-American movement that flourished during the 1920s and marked a social, cultural and artistic boom, with influences on literature, painting, music (mainly blues and jazz) and , above all, the recovery of black identity and its incorporation into American social life.
During the First World War (1914-18) a mass movement called the Great Black Migration originated, an exodus of more than 6 million people who emigrated from the “deep south”, fleeing oppression and segregation laws from Jim Crow, to northern cities, such as New York, Chicago, Detroit, Cincinnati, Pittsburg or Philadelphia, and mostly settling in the Upper West Side of the island of Manhattan, in Harlem (New York). The influence of this movement extended even outside the US borders, reaching Cuba, Puerto Rico, Haiti and Jamaica. Such was the migration that New York was considered the black capital of the United States.
In the first decades of the 20th century, Harlem became the home of the New Black Movement, which was mostly known as the Harlem Renaissance, driven by artists and intellectuals such as the activist, sociologist, historian, writer and one of the founders of the NAACP (National Association for the Progress of People of Color, according to its acronym in English) WEB Du Bois, the writer, philosopher and professor at Howard University Alain Locke, and the editor, poet, essayist and novelist Jessie Fausset.
All of them and other writers, especially African-American poets, artists, musicians and intellectuals were attracted to the Harlem neighborhood to develop new ways of expressing pride in their race and celebrating their cultural heritage. The African-American writer Wallace Henry Thurman, ironically, defined this group of people as “niggerati”a conjunction of the words “nigger”and “literati”,a term that was also coined by the anthropologist and writer and one of the most important Renaissance figures from Harlem, Zora Neale Hurston.
In literature they highlighted emblematic figures such as those already named WEB Du Bois (who was also the editor of the magazine “The Crisis”, whose objective was to teach and educate giving visibility to new intellectual talents within the black community) Alain Locke, Jessie Fauset Langston Hughes, pioneer of jazz poetry, Claude Mckay, the novelist who signed one of the most brilliant works of the “Home to Harlem”movement (1928) or the writers Regina Anderson, Effie Lee Newsome orHallie Quinn Brown, among others. In the plastic arts we can highlight artists such as Ernie Barnes, Archibald Motley, Charles Alston, Augusta Savage, Aaron Douglas, Jacob Lawrence, Horace PippinorSelma Burke.
The Harlem Renaissance emerged when the jazz was already underway. This period was characterized by the increasing popularity and proliferation of this type of music. Like ragtime and blues, its predecessor genres, jazz was invented by black musicians, which makes it an intrinsic part of the movement. Louis Armstrong, Cab Colloway Duke Ellington, George Murphy “Pops” Foster, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Bessie Smith or Josephine Baker, all performed in the best clubs in Harlem:Cotton Club, Apollo Theater or the Savoy, being precisely these segregated premises, a fact highlighted by the white writer Carl Van Vechten, in his book “Nigger Heaven”, which set the situation on fire even more, but also served as a stimulus and challenge for those intellectuals and black artists who wanted to recover their integrity and identity . Without forgetting those who were remarkably educated, who enjoyed a good standard of living and rubbed shoulders with the elites: the aforementioned W.E.B Du Bois, Marcus Garvey, Cyril Briggs, A’leila Walker, Charles Spurgeon Johnson orArthur Schomburg
Although its decline occurred in the late 1930s, the Harlem Renaissance movement is considered a boom in which African Americans contributed to the best American culture, mainly New York. They did it in a meaningful way and laid the foundations of what is now New York City, a metropolis, a world of contrasts and home to different and diverse cultures.