The Harlem Renaissance arts movement is generally defined as having occurred between 1919, when World War I ended, and 1929 or shortly thereafter, when the stock market crashed and the Great Depression began. During these years, black intellectual and artistic life flourished in many northern U.S. cities. It reached its peak, however, in New York City, particularly in that part of the city north of Central Park called "Harlem" which came to be known as "the Negro capital of the world."
In the early part of the twentieth century, black Americans moved to northern U.S. cities for many reasons, but primarily to escape the segregated and violent South and to find work at high-paying factory jobs. Among northern cities, however, the Harlem area of New York City was special. Developed originally for middle-class and upper-middle-class white New Yorkers, Harlem was an attractive urban environment that just happened to have too few white occupants. When the area was opened up for black residency, many African Americans took advantage of the opportunity and were able to live in the best accomodations available to them anywhere in the U.S. Harlem then became home to African Americans from all social classes, including many prominent black leaders, artists, writers, and musicians.
In the 1920s, Harlem quickly became "the place to be," and the center of black cultural and political activity. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the National Urban League, and the Universal Negro Improvement Association were all headquartered in Harlem, as were the magazines the Crisis, Opportunity, the Messenger, and Negro World. Poets and fiction writers such as Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Countee Cullen, Claude McCay, Nella Larsen, Georgia Douglass Johnson, and Jessie Fauset were published in these magazines. Further, these writers knew one another, and one another's writings, and this created a creative climate for the development of new ways of approaching African American poetry and prose.
Many of the writers and artists associated with the Harlem Renaissance became an elite class of black Americans. For some, this status was comfortable; others, however, felt uneasy at being soremoved from the majority of black Americans. Also debated was just what kind of writing, or art, should be created by African Americans. Because of the racist views of most white Americans, some African American leaders argued that black artists had a responsibility as "representatives of the race." For writers, this means certain restrictions in what they could write, and how they could depict black characters. Many writers rebelled against this notion and argued for their own freedom; and in exercising this freedom, new kinds of written works were created. Langston Hughes's poetry, for example, seeks to imitate the sound of jazz and blues music, rather than stick with more traditional poetic meter. Zora Neale Hurston's fiction relies on black folklife and dialect, and expresses thoughts about life and relationships among people in very fresh ways.
Harlem was also the home of a new and very popular musical sound of the 1920s, jazz, which catered to both a black and a white audience. Fletcher Henderson's sound, big-band "swing," often called "sweet" jazz, was the dominant music of the 1920s among white New Yorkers, and his Savoy jam sessions were regularly broadcast over the radio. Henderson's main competetor was the Cotton Club orchestra led by another famous Harlem musician, Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington, also popular among white audiences. In fact, the Cotton Club, Harlem's best known and gaudiest nightclub, was for white patrons only. Vocalists Mamie Smith and Ethel Waters were also famous musicians who regularly performed in Harlem, as frequently for black as for white audiences. The sound of their music was more "bluesy," and very early recordings of their music became "hit records" within the African American community.
The Harlem arts world relied on the patronage of wealthy white Americans who were willing to support the creative endeavors of talented African Americans. The Wall Street crash in 1929 brought this patronage to an end, however, and the subsequent Great Depression created conditions which made artistic production an almost impossible accomplishment. By the 1930s, the Harlem Renaissance was over. Fortunately for us, much of the art and music and literature created during this period is with us still, waiting for our study and enjoyment.