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The Harlem Renaissance - a Black Cultural Revolution

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Essay title: The Harlem Renaissance - a Black Cultural Revolution

The Harlem Renaissance- A Black Cultural Revolution

James Weldon Johnson once said that “Harlem is indeed the great Mecca for the sight-seer; the pleasure seeker, the curious, the adventurous, the enterprising, the ambitious and the talented of the whole Negro world.”(“Harlem Renaissance”) When one thinks of the Harlem Renaissance, one thinks of the great explosion of creativity bursting from the talented minds of African-Americans in the 1920s. Although principally thought of as an African-American literary movement, the Harlem Renaissance’s influence extended through every form of culture: art, dance, music, theatre, literature, history, and politics. Along with the great contribution this period made towards art and entertainment, the Harlem Renaissance also made a great impact on a social level. The Harlem Renaissance gave birth to the first African-American cultural identity and played a significant role in the political thought of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

How did the Harlem Renaissance become a hub of Black culture and identity? Around the beginning of the 20th century, a period known as the Great Migration took place. 750,000 African Americans fled the economically depressed rural South and migrated to the urban cities of the North to take advantage of the numerous employment opportunities and racially tolerant atmosphere. 175,000 of these African-Americans settled in New York City. Between the end of World War I and 1924, some significant works made by African-Americans were published; these works revealed the increasing creative fervor developing in Harlem. The groundbreaking book A Social History of the American Negro by Benjamin Brawley was published. The book that really drew attention to Harlem was Harlem Shadows by Claude McKay. The collection contains some of his most famous sonnets and poems. Also influential was the publication of Jessie Fauset’s novel There is Confusion, exploring how Blacks in large cities find their identities amongst the dominating social stigmas set by Whites. With these works as a foundation, legendary black thinker and leader Charles S. Johnson wanted to do something that would expose all the talent in Harlem to the world. Starting in 1924 Johnson planned a big literary extravaganza using Jessie Fauset’s novel There Is Confusion as the reason for the event. He invited all the Black writers in Harlem and numerous influential editors and publishers to the Civic Club dinner. The editors and publishers were so impressed that many of the Harlem writers got deals that very night. Paul Kellogg, the editor of the influential white magazine Survey Graphic, sprung up an idea to have a special black culture issue featuring some of Harlem’s finest writers including Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, Jessie Fauset, and others. The next great event that launched the Harlem Renaissance was the publication of Nigger Heaven by the white author Carl Van Vechten. The bestselling Nigger Heaven brought Harlem culture to the attention of white people all over America. Finally the creation of the literary journal magazine Fire!! by novelist Wallace Thurman allowed many Black writers to stake their claim in the Harlem gold mine. Three of the best American writers were introduced from Fire!!: Wallace Thurman, creator of Fire!! and the influential author of The Blacker The Berry; Langston Hughes, the most widely recognized and prominent poet to emerge from the Harlem Renaissance; and Zora Neale Hurston, arguably the greatest African-American woman writer of the classic There Eyes Were Watching God.

One way that the Harlem Renaissance contributed socially, was that it created the first positive Black identity. “Although its artists produced important works of literature and music, the Harlem Renaissance proved above all to be important for its race-consciousness, a new sense that black people had a rich culture.” (The Harlem Renaissance Celebrates…”) Previously the image portrayed of African-Americans was one of an illiterate, dirty peasant. But the Harlem Renaissance sought to change all that. “Many of the intellectuals, creative writers, and artists of the Harlem Renaissance saw as one of the purposes of the movement was the creation of more positive images of African Americans than had generally existed in American Culture before the 1920s.” (Powell) By the decline of the Harlem Renaissance, the image of African-Americans had transformed to one of urban, cosmopolitan sophistication. One of the great characteristics of the Harlem Renaissance is that all the artists worked equally on this goal. Thus, all these works made by African Americans-their paintings, their writings, their music- became the American culture at that time. Never up until that point in history were African-Americans regarded as intellectual contemporaries by their European and American White counterparts. Black

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