How the Harlem Renaissance Ushered in New Era of Black Pride

Legendary singer Billie Holiday with musicians including Ben Webster, left, and Johnny Russell, right, in Harlem in 1935. (Photo: JP Jazz Archive, Redferns)
Legendary singer Billie Holiday with musicians including Ben Webster, left, and Johnny Russell, right, in Harlem in 1935.
(Photo: JP Jazz Archive, Redferns)

Neighborhoods change.

Harlem today has become a hot real estate market as well-heeled buyers flood into the northern end of Manhattan seeking bargain properties.

The Harlem of recent decades, by contrast, was often synonymous with poverty and crime.

But Harlem 100 years ago was ground zero of an explosion of arts, politics and culture in black America. The Harlem Renaissance — known then as the “New Negro Movement” — saw the rise of jazz, the launch of such literary careers as Langston Hughes’ and Zora Neale Hurston’s, and a new sense of black identity and pride.

It wasn’t just in Harlem. Chicago, Cleveland and other Northern cities saw similar cultural and artistic movements, born out of the massive migrations of African Americans from the rural South, first to Southern cities and then into the North.

“This is a period when the majority of black people in the United States are born as free people — the first generation when they’re not largely born as slaves,” says Minkah Makalani, assistant professor of African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.

But they still faced racial oppression and violence in the South, Makalani says, so “they find their way out of that and create some of the most vibrant artifacts and cultural practices that literally inform everything in the American culture today, be it dance, music, writing, poetry. It’s a very vibrant robust period.

“You also have these kinds of compelling commentaries on democracy, on politics, on what a just society will look like. They’re having these profound discussions about what does it mean to be a democracy, what does it mean to be a world power, where do black people fit in. And it’s not monolithic.”

The people and places associated with the Harlem Renaissance are a roll call for American letters, art and thought: musicians Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong; writer Wallace Thurman and mural artist Aaron Douglas; world-famous venues such as the Cotton Club and the Apollo Theatre; and United Negro Improvement Association founder Marcus Garvey, known as the “black Moses.”

The prospect of jobs added to the allure of Harlem and other areas of the industrialized North, but people also were motivated to migrate by Jim Crow laws and other racial oppression in the South, says Davarian Baldwin, the Raether Distinguished Professor of American Studies at Connecticut’s Trinity College.

“Part of the reason for their leaving was political,” Baldwin says. “They already were prepared and engaged and remaking cities. They brought with them new expectations. They had to engage in debates not just with whites but older, more affluent African Americans in the North.”

Those Southern migrations north coincided with huge migration trends across the globe, leading to convergences of numerous different groups in places like Harlem and political and cultural flourishings growing out of that, Baldwin says.

“Ford (Motor) really went out of its way to hire African-American workers for the first time,” says Charles Lester, visiting assistant professor of history at Pennsylvania’s Albright College. “All these job opportunities are drawing farmers to places like Detroit and Chicago and New York. The net effect is over 1 million Americans leave the South in a 20-year period. Half end up in five cities — Cleveland, Chicago, Detroit, New York City and Pittsburgh. As you might imagine, it’s going to create a lot of cultural side effects.”

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SOURCE: USA Today – Matthew Daneman

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