They built and defined a whole artistic era that did much to promote the rights of African-Americans. Here are some of the names that challenged and changed a history of oppression in what was called the Harlem Renaissance.
During the 1920s there was an artistic, cultural, and intellectual rush in Harlem that constituted a resistance against racial injustice in the United States. By the early 1900s, Harlem had gradually become an African-American neighborhood in New York City; and as more immigrants poured in during the Great Migration, their culture became increasingly popular. Unfortunately, this growing popularity also led to racist hostility by white groups (what a surprise...); which, in turn, strengthened African-American unity and caused a cultural counter-movement that eventually developed into an exciting artistic era known as the Harlem Renaissance.
Many talented and brilliant people were part of this movement, which was not limited to the U.S.: it reached Europe and had worldwide effects for black people. Here are some of the names you should know that shaped this artistic explosion.
("Getting Religion", Archibald Motley)
Zora Neale Hurston
Most famous for the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, this writer and anthropologist was known for her moving portrayals of racial struggles in the south of the United States during the beginning of the 20th century. Hurston was born in Alabama, and lived in Florida and New York —where she would become one of the most influential figures in the Harlem Renaissance. Her life in the south inspired most of her writing, focusing on racial division and her own struggles as an African-American woman during the period.
Poet, novelist, playwright, columnist and activist, Langston Hughes is one of the best known writers from the Harlem Renaissance. He spoke with the ardent voice of his generation and community, and was an early figure for what is known as jazz poetry (a literary genre which reflects and turns the rhythm and improvisation of jazz into verse).
Cullen flourished as a poet, children’s writer, novelist and playwright during the Harlem Renaissance. He completed a masters degree in English at Harvard University and ultimately became a central figure for African-American literature. His works often confront the history of ethnic oppression against black people and are concerned with the discovery and development of cultural values and awareness of his community's historical context.
Originally from Jamaica, McKay migrated to the U.S. in 1912 to pursue a literary career. As an immigrant, he was initially shocked by the extreme racism against African-Americans in the south, where segregation was rampant —which inspired him to write poetry dealing directly with the situation. His texts focused on challenging white authority and on celebrating his own Jamaican heritage, providing an international flavor to the movement.
One of the most fascinating figures to come out of the Harlem Renaissance, Josephine Baker was an American-born French entertainer. She was a celebrated dancer during her early career in New York, and later became a notable character both in World War II and in the American civil rights movement. She participated in several Broadway shows in her youth, but reached international fame only after she moved to Paris in 1925. There, she was part of the French Resistance against the Nazi Occupation of France, for which she was awarded the Croix de Guerre and named a Chivalier of the Legion of Honor (the highest French order of merit). Following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., she was offered the leadership of the civil rights movement (which she declined for the sake of her children). She's one of those people who make you wonder what you've done with your life!
What can be said about Louis Armstrong, a.k.a “Pops”, that hasn’t been said a million times before? He’s one of the best known musicians in the history of jazz: a brilliant trumpeter, singer and composer whose career began in the 1920s, right in the midst of the Harlem Renaissance. By 1925 he was already being billed as “the World’s Greatest Trumpet Player”, and his international renown did much to advance African-American talent during this period.
Among the non-writers who led the Harlem Renaissance is Charles Alston, celebrated painter and sculptor whose bust of Martin Luther King Jr. became the first work featuring a person of color to be displayed at the White House. His versatile and flexible art allowed him to experiment many different styles throughout his career, often breathing life into the Harlem scene and serving to consolidate the masterful African-American potential in the public eye.
Jessie Redmon Fauset
She focused on promoting the portrayal of authentic African-American life and history, and on advancing causes against racial discrimination and for feminism. She’s best remembered as a writer an editor who was incredibly important for the support and promotion of African-American talent, as she helped discover, mentor, and publish many of the names included in this list (Langston Hughes, Claude McKay and Countee Cullen, for example). Without her, there would not have been a Harlem Renaissance as we know it (which also would have had dire consequences for the civil rights movement).
Alain LeRoy Locke
Philosopher, writer, educator, and patron of the arts, Locke was behind the philosophical structure and edification of the Harlem Renaissance. As chair of the Department of Philosophy at Howard University in the mid 1920s, Locke taught the first classes on race relations, for which he was stripped of his position. (Don’t worry, though —he was reinstated three years later.) He also helped publish and mentor black musicians, writers, intellectuals and painters whom he encouraged to look to Africa for inspiration and to depict African and African-American subjects; and promoted the awareness, among black audiences as well as whites, of the potential for racial equality.
William Edward B. Du Bois
As the first African-American to earn a doctorate degree from Harvard University, Du Bois represented a major example of how people of color were not only capable, but extremely fit to operate at the highest levels of academic performance. He is remembered as a prolific and influential author, historian, sociologist, editor, and civil rights activist who advocated Pan-Africanism (an intellectual movement that seeks to strengthen the bonds of solidarity among all people of African descent). He championed the cause of racial equality through integration rather than separation; and was a firm believer that art is a venue to uphold the moral responsibilities of those who produce it.
There are so many more names we should be familiar with from this time of creative bliss. Hubert Harrison, Jacob Lawrence, Nella Larsen, Archibald Motley and Marcus Garvey are but a few in an overwhelming list of amazing characters who participated in the Harlem Renaissance and, as such, worked to improve the lives of millions of people not only in America, but throughout the western world. They helped change the public view of people of color; they challenged prejudices and forged the basis which led to marvelous moral progress against racism. They also gave us invaluable works of art; and for that we are immensely fortunate. Who would you add to this list?
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