The Harlem Renaissance was a Black cultural movement that occurred between the two world wars. However, its impacts on African American culture are long-lasting, and even today, the scholars and artists at the center of the movement are integral to the culture of Black Americans. The Harlem Renaissance began with the mass migration of Black Americans to the North from the South, where Jim Crow laws and hate groups flourished after the end of the Reconstruction era. Around 175,000 participants in what would be called the Great Migration ended up in a three-square-mile area in north Manhattan called Harlem. It soon became the Black cultural Mecca of the United States, with scholars, artists, middle-class folk, and unskilled laborers united under African American culture. Here are 6 of the artists and scholars who led the movement and built it into what it was.
1. Langston Hughes
James Mercer Langston Hughes was born in 1901 in Joplin, Missouri. When he and his mother settled in Cleveland, Ohio, the teenage Hughes became entranced with poetry after being introduced to works by Walt Whitman and Carl Sanburg. The young Hughes began writing and seemingly never stopped. By the end of his life, Hughes amassed a collection of writing that included poems, novels, short stories, and plays.
Hughes worked odd jobs after graduating high school and moved to New York after enrolling at Columbia University. He left after only a year of school, instead opting to travel. When he finally returned to the United States, his poetry was noticed by Harlem Renaissance art patron Carl Van Vechten. In 1926, Hughes published his first book of poetry, The Weary Blues, for which Van Vechten wrote the introduction.
Hughes’ style incorporated the rhythm of jazz and blues music into poetry. His poetry was supremely relatable to the Black experience because his themes focused on Black Americans’ everyday lives. He encapsulated the worthiness of Black people to be a focal point of art, and he spoke to his audience directly, rather than the popular style of the time, which saw poets turning inward and waxing on themes of esotericism and obscurity. Hughes wrote in the way that real people talked, and in doing so, captured the minds of the public, as his writing was a glance behind the curtain and into the everyday life of a Black American.
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Hughes is credited with spreading the ideas of the Harlem Renaissance all around the country. He went on reading tours throughout the South. Although he had a fee for his recitals, Hughes often waived it so that people could simply hear poetry and become acquainted with the evolving experiences of African American culture. Hughes’ autobiography, The Big Sea (1940), is credited with influencing how the Harlem Renaissance would be remembered by his descriptions of the people he met and the culture he experienced. Hughes is even credited for introducing the name Harlem Renaissance into the popular zeitgeist, as beforehand, it was called the Negro Renaissance.
Langston Hughes died from prostate cancer complications in 1967. His ashes are interred under the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. His home, also in Harlem, has New York Landmark status, and the street where he lived was named in his honor. Hughes’ impact on the culture of the Harlem Renaissance is undeniable, and his memory continues to be synonymous with the time period today.
2. Louis Armstrong
Louis Armstrong was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1901. His neighborhood, called “The Battlefield,” reflected the violence and danger Armstrong experienced there. He dropped out of school after the fifth grade to support himself and was able to save up to buy his first cornet. In 1912, Armstrong was arrested and sent to the Colored Waif’s Home for Boys. There, he learned how to play the cornet, and after his release, Armstrong began to pursue music as a career. He was mentored by Joe “King” Oliver, the city’s top cornetist, and Armstrong himself soon became one of the most in-demand talents in New Orleans.
In 1922, Oliver asked Armstrong to join his band in Chicago, where his popularity grew, and he was introduced to the explosion of Black culture that spread from Harlem. After a brief stint in New York, Armstrong returned to Chicago to make records in his own name. His style was not grand bandstand jazz but a more concentrated act, which would come to define the period in terms of the genre.
These records by Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five (later Hot Seven) are considered the most influential records in jazz history. His unique scat-style vocals and his ability to transform jazz into a soloist act were unheard of and became a defining characteristic of the genre through the Harlem Renaissance. Popularity for Louis Armstrong came through his incredible confidence and positivity; he embodied the Harlem Renaissance by breaking the mold of what African American music and culture were conceived as. One person with whom he was particularly popular was author Langston Hughes, who incorporated the jazz elements he loved from Armstrong’s music into his own writing.
Armstrong continued to tour for the rest of his life. He influenced many musicians that followed him, including Billie Holiday and Bing Crosby. He broke barriers for Black artists, performing in front of diverse groups and establishing himself as a world-class musician, despite the racism that pervaded the upper echelons of culture at the time. In addition to his records of the 20s, his most popular songs include “Stardust,” “La Vie En Rose,” and “What a Wonderful World.” Armstrong passed away in 1971 at his home in Queens, New York.
3. Marcus Garvey
Marcus Mosiah Garvey Jr. was born in St. Ann’s Bay, Jamaica, in 1887. After moving through many Latin American countries, Garvey moved to London, where he studied at Birbeck College and began his work in Pan-African nationalism. In 1914, he founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) in Jamaica. The UNIA sought Black nationalism by celebrating African history and culture and pushing for the “back to Africa” movement.
Garvey arrived in New York in 1916, hoping to spread the message of the UNIA to Black Americans in Harlem. He began the Black Star Line, a fleet of ships that would take African Americans to and fro from the US to Africa, and he boosted Black economic independence by investing in restaurants and shopping centers. Garvey was a Black nationalist in addition to being invested in Pan-Africanism, which made him a controversial figure in the public eye. The FBI, the press, and stockholders gave him a reputation for being a con artist, and he was convicted of mail fraud charges in 1922. Due to outrage among Black activists, Garvey’s sentence was commuted, and he was deported back to Jamaica in 1927.
Garvey continued his activism in Jamaica and the UK before dying in 1940. His ideology inspired many during the Harlem Renaissance, and his influence has inspired members of many Black political movements since, including the Nation of Islam and the Black Power Movement.
4. Ma Rainey
Gertrude Malissa Nix Pridgett, later known as Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, was born in Columbus, Georgia, in 1886. The daughter of two minstrel performers, Rainey began her singing career as a teen and toured in vaudeville and minstrel shows around the country. Rainey is known as the “Mother of the Blues” and influenced the music of the Harlem Renaissance by combining vaudeville with the Southern blues, a form of song derived from the call-and-response music of West Africa brought to the United States by enslaved Africans.
Rainey was one of the earliest blues artists to record her music when she signed a deal with Paramount in 1923. She produced some of the greatest examples of blues music during the Harlem Renaissance period. Her song “See See Rider Blues” was added to the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry.
Rainey’s music presented life as an independent, openly bisexual Black woman in its most real form. Her songs captured the woes and the triumphs of breaking the rules of society and transforming the onus of being a Black woman into an art form. The Harlem Renaissance was defined by Black men and women harnessing who they were for their art, for siphoning their culture into, in this case, blues music. Rainey’s music and the lyrics reflected the Harlem Renaissance through its African influence and its telling of the African American experience, respectively. Angela Davis wrote that the female protagonists of Rainey’s songs “explicitly celebrate their right to conduct themselves as expansively and even as undesirably as men.”
Rainey returned to Columbus, Georgia, from Chicago after the deaths of her mother and sister, where she died of heart disease in 1939. She mentored and influenced blues singers for the rest of her life and decades beyond her death.
5. W.E.B Du Bois
William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was born in 1868 in Massachusetts. He was educated at Fisk University and was then the first Black American to receive a Ph.D. from Harvard. He believed in the power of educated African Americans and that the “talented tenth” of Black Americans would lead the movement for political and social equality. This emphasis on classical education was in direct opposition to other prominent activists of the time, including Booker T. Washington. Du Bois believed that the educated could usher all Black Americans into a higher social status and level them on the economic playing field.
This ideology influenced the Niagara Movement, an organization of Civil Rights activists, to produce a Declaration of Principles, a list of demands that called for an end to discrimination against African Americans in all forms. Later, the movement’s writers, including Du Bois, founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Peoples (NAACP), which fought for equality on a national stage, and inspired African Americans to celebrate Black culture.
Du Bois combined these two goals as the editor of the NAACP publication The Crisis, which contained political treatises on equality and Black literature and art. The Crisis showcased the Harlem Renaissance ideals, wherein art and the fight for equality co-existed and influenced one another. He remained the editor of the publication for 20 years. In his later years, Du Bois moved to Ghana, where he died at the age of 96.
6. Zora Neale Hurston
Zora Neale Hurston was born in Alabama in 1891 to formerly enslaved parents. She grew up in Eatonville, Florida, where her father was eventually one of the first of the town’s mayors. After graduating high school, Hurston received her Associate’s degree from Howard University, where she helped found the school’s newspaper. She moved to New York in 1925, where she earned a BA in anthropology from Barnard College.
Hurston settled in Harlem and became a fixture of the arts scene there. Her home was renowned as a place for those involved in the Harlem Renaissance to flock to. She was friends with fellow authors Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen and even started a short-lived literary magazine, Fire!!, with other Black artists living in Harlem.
As an anthropologist and an author, Hurston incorporated her research on the African diaspora into her writing. Her writing is well known as insight into the lives and cultures of Black Americans at the time. Her work, including her most famous novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1934), was not well received by her contemporaries and drew heavy criticism. Hurston later established herself as a drama teacher and a founder of the dramatic arts school at Bethune-Cookman College.
Despite her prolific career, Hurston died penniless in Florida, having never had great success and acclaim. This changed when author Alice Walker published an essay entitled “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston” in Ms magazine. Walker’s article sparked new interest in the work of Hurston and posthumously entrenched her as one of the most influential writers of the 20th century, especially as it related to her portrayal of the lives of African Americans. While Hurston was initially buried in an unmarked grave, Walker located and placed a marker at her gravesite, allowing the generations to come to honor Hurston, even in death.