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Place, Culture, and Representation

The Art and Politics of the Harlem Renaissance

Introduction

Between 1910 and 1930, the African American population increased by about forty percent in northern states (especially in major urban areas) as a result of the Great Migration. Cities including Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and New York City (including Harlem) had some of the largest population increases in the early part of the twentieth century. African Americans, who had until that time resided mostly in the southern United States, were not only fleeing violence that occurred in the South, but were also being recruited for industrial jobs that were offered in these northern cities. Because jobs were concentrated in urban areas, which had also attracted millions of new or recent European immigrants, tensions rose as people competed for employment and housing. At the same time, the return of many soldiers from World War I, both black and white, added to this competition for jobs and resources. In the summer of 1919, also known as “Red Summer,” race riots occurred in more than three dozen cities.

Many African Americans were disappointed with the lack of opportunities open to them as the United States struggled to transform itself from a rural to an urban society. There was a palpable disparity between the promise of U.S. democracy and its reality. They were angered by the racial prejudice and violence they often encountered. A larger, better-educated urban population fully comprehended the limitations that white-dominated society had placed on them. As African Americans became increasingly disillusioned about achieving the justice that wartime rhetoric had seemed to promise, many determined to pursue their goals of equality and success more aggressively than ever before.

This post-war era also gave rise to several organized political and economic movements that helped fuel the Harlem Renaissance. These movements created a new sense of empowerment in the African American community. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) had nearly 44,000 members by the end of 1918. In the early 1920s, Marcus Garvey’s message of racial pride drew hundreds of thousands of ordinary men and women to his United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), and its Back to Africa movement. At the same time, wealthy white patrons “took up” New York’s African American community, financially supporting young artists and writers, opening up publishing opportunities and financing Harlem’s “exotic” music scene.

What followed was an artistic rebirth, or renaissance, of art and ideas that has been compared to the European Renaissance, beginning in the fourteenth century. During this time, African Americans saw the opportunity to create a new identity for themselves. Within this artistic output, two ideologies were dominant. The first—represented by W. E. B. Du Bois, James Weldon Johnson of the NAACP, and others—viewed the arts as an area where talented and culturally privileged African Americans could lead their race’s fight for equality. They wanted artists to draw on their cultural heritage and experience, proving the beauty of their race and its critical contribution to American culture as a whole. Artistic success, they believed, would not only foster pride in the African American community, but also prove to white Americans that blacks were their equals. Du Bois hailed the “Talented Tenth” and Alain Locke the “New Negro” as thinking persons whose race had survived war, migration, and prejudice, and aimed to lead the way to future social justice.

Some African American artists, on the other hand, opposed the art-as-propaganda view supported by Du Bois and others. Artists such as Claude McKay, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Aaron Douglas believed that they needed to depict the ordinary African American person as an individual, while simultaneously speaking to a unique African American experience, and celebrating life and all it had to offer. They argued against depicting only “cultured” and “high class” African Americans who mirrored the standards of white society. These young artists advocated art for art’s sake. Some artists, such as Zora Neale Hurston, were criticized for accepting white patronage.

The Great Depression slowed the Harlem Renaissance, mainly due to the loss of patronage from white supporters. Influential journals of the time, including the National Urban League’s Opportunity and the NAACP’s The Crisis also reduced their financial support of African American artists, and some artists moved on to other artistic opportunities outside of Harlem.

Grade Level

Middle & High School

Classroom Connections

English Language Arts
Literature
Social Studies
U.S. History

Curriculum Snapshot

The Harlem Renaissance

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