Harlem Renaissance: Self-Expression Through Art

The Harlem Renaissance is often referred to as the birthplace of modern black culture. This movement of expression through art and literature showed a development in African American communities’ contributions towards society. The time period began to present blacks in a new light that had been dimmed by the so-called inferiority of their existence. Not only were these laborers freed from the constraints of white privilege, but they were also artistic spiritual beings who had as much beauty to create as everyone else living freely. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the United States of America was highly segregated in every aspect of daily life. American history professors have repeatedly reminded their students how everything from housing, schools, restaurants, and even cemeteries were racially specific and much of this did not change for many decades. African Americans, along with other non-white races, were oppressed and denied common human decencies in order to prevent any integration, and preserve white superiority.

Slaves only gained their freedom in the year of 1863 and black culture had not yet developed into the artistic powerhouse it is today because it was stomped out of the heads of the first slaves that arrived in the country. Thinkers during the time of the renaissance challenged the perception of color then spread that new view through the United State’s media and it resonated through black culture until modern times. The Harlem renaissance is a successful revolution because it allowed the African American community to express themselves for the first time, and altered the route in which black society had been traveling by reconstructing the idea of what being black meant through the works and teachings of thinkers during the time. In this way “Thinkers act as social engineers; that is, they force us to rethink social reality…”.

The fact that African Americans did not receive freedom until 1863 is undeniably the primary reason as to why this spark of such free and artistic expression began during the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920’s. Until the abolishment of slavery slaves were not legally allowed to read and write, putting them at a great disadvantage compared to their white superiors. The first high school for blacks in the country, named Paul Laurence Dunbar High opened in the year of 1870 in Washington DC, approximately seven years after the emancipation proclamation was passed during Abraham Lincoln’s presidency. Although not the most expensive, or advanced school, this institution dedicated to furthering the intellect of young black lives marked an important stepping stone for the continuation of African American lives beyond the plantation fields.

The start of the race towards equality began at the attainment of knowledge, which enabled more African Americans to develop into people that far surpassed their once ignored potential. The ability to coherently organize and express one’s own thoughts to others would become a more common thing in the black community as more of them received educations. Alain Locke, a Howard University professor of philosophy released The New Negro in 1925. Locke’s essay, which later developed into a book, was a collection of works and interpretations of the idea behind being both African and American. The interpretation was developed through the writings and teachings of many thinkers of the era such as Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Claude McKay, Jean Toomer, and Eric Walrond. Their works along with the works of many others cultivated and matured the growing pride in being an African American.

The collection of these works and Locke’s individual interpretation was not published as a simple read for mere entertainment, although some may believe it to be that. The poetry, essays, and even songs present were provided to give the readers of it a sense of what black culture was, is, and where it was going to be within the following generations of the roaring twenties. Locke intended this book to reach into the deeper philosophical effects of being black in a country where people were despised for it. “For generations the Negro has been the peasant matrix of that section of America which has most undervalued him, and here he has contributed not only materially in labor and in social patience, but spiritually as well.” African Americans were not just then becoming contributing members of society. As slaves, African Americans worked tirelessly at the abusive hand of their masters while struggling to remain in a stationary position rather than approach and do violent actions against those masters.

As the lower class of human society, during their entire time in the nation, African Americans acted as property; Their time was spent servicing white families while not instigating any altercations. Once their freedom had finally been achieved, the color of their skin no longer determined their freedom. The color of their skin would then serve as a social identity. For all African Americans this meant the color of their skin affected the way they identified themselves within social groups and the rest of society as a whole. The social identity connected with skin of color would define the entirety of black culture until the start of the renaissance as a lower class civilization with incredible improbability of rising to equality in American society.

During the Great War, which is modernly referred to as World War I, the migration of hundreds of thousands of African Americans occurred in the United States. Dr. Soto states that “a Great Migration of African Americans from the rural South to the urban North altered the course of American society.” The transference out of the land they were once imprisoned on and into bustling urban areas modernized many African Americans and started to create a sense of community because the great migration was an “influx of so many Negroes almost immediately transformed sections of cities such as Harlem and the South Side of Chicago into something more than city blocks that had suddenly become“unaccountably full of black people.”

In many cities all African Americans tended to live in the same neighborhood or general area, and these areas would transform the dynamic of American cities forever. The increased populous led to increased violence against African Americans, committed by whites, in both the North and South of the United States; this prompted the rise of black leaders in urban communities, especially in New York. A group of wealthy African American businessmen created The Colored American newspaper and stood as a staple of black activism in the city throughout decades. As immigration and migration continued, black life proceeded to move uptown in New York towards harlem, and as the color moved so did the “experience, taste, and temperament for protests.”

Harlem became the runway for black artist. There was no place better to express their sorrows than the colored side of the Big Apple itself. Jazz vibrated through the brick apartment building walls in harlem as musical engineers like Duke Ellington, Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, and more sculpted a new sound and genre of music entirely. Locations like the Cotton Club were littered with visitors several nights weekly. When Harlem became the home to the newest and raddest sound in the nation, it was under immense media attention. Activist took advantage of this, whether they were doing it for racial, spiritual, or political reasons the uprise in New York activism came to life.

In Harlem: The Crucible of Modern African American Culture, Lionel Bascom quotes Columbia University Professor Manning Marable on his thought on why Harlem became the staple in black culture in the 1920’s. “African Americans … were looking in part for sites where they could establish cultural institutions and construct notions of community that were spaces that they could call their own.” All the oppressed wanted was a place to call home and many saw Harlem as that place. Artists of African American heritage were being played on local radios and black poets were being published more frequently. The Harlem renaissance is often believed to be the “defining moment in African American literature.”

Literature was greatly important in the movement, but believing it is the only reason ignores the vast diversity of this time in African American’s social history and how many different parts of black culture grew. Through the collection and mixture of all types of art during this revolution, an alternative concept of being of African descent began to develop to be addressed literally by Alain Locke’s essay “ The New Negro.” Locke later wrote in the 1950’s that this revolution in New York was “a movement that never surpassed the ‘gawky’ and ‘pimply’ stage of adolescence, one that had essentially failed in its attempt to achieve universal, objective approaches in its creation.” Professor Locke was saying that although such a burst of artistic expression was created and viewed by the American populace that the socio-cultural revolution failed to bring any real change to the lives of colored people in the United States.

The importance isn’t about the Harlem renaissance reconstructing black lives everywhere and doing it immediately because that never happened; the truth is that, although the movement itself was unsuccessful in the eyes of Locke, the creation of the new negro altered the path of black lives indefinitely by providing the powerful driving voice behind black pride. Until modern times we see black pride openly professed to the masses and protest aiming to better the lives of current and future generations of African Americans.

Bascom wrote in his study of the Harlem Renaissance that, “In Harlem, that quest was anchored by a wide array of civic, religious, and radical fraternal organizations started by prominent black leaders who succeeded in establishing what we now know as modern African American culture.” The communities constructed in Harlem were just urbanized replications of the older communities blacks created in the south, Africa, and the Caribbean. All of these deeply African cultured societies were living in the same place and growing together because the migration brought them to the same place. This mixture of these different black backgrounds molded together to change create a more universal definition about being black no matter where you suffered.

Rossi Haynes, an African American author, was writing story books aimed towards black children and were written to install black pride in them. This idea was not only progressive but extremely radical in that it had not been custom to teach children to have a sense of confidence because they are black. George Haynes whom worked under W. E. B. Du Bois and descendent of Rossi Haynes, architected the exposure of black art by heading the new commision of negro churches to increase race relations, and strived to alter the view of African American stereotypes through art. Rewriting this stereotype was achieved through works like Langston Hughes poem, Harlem: Dream Deferred. Hughes put to question what would happened when the dreams of African americans get pushed to the side.

The overall idea behind this poem is does the dream dry up and die like a raisin or does it continue to prosper in hope of ever becoming true. Poets were no longer writing poetry for negroes, they were writing it as negroes. Instead of trying to take others lives and write them they began to express their own individual passion. The Harlem Renaissance was in reality just a more artistic approach towards the same civil rights movements that had been occurring since the abolishment of slavery. The primary difference between the two was how the information about black lives and the harsh reality of them was brought to public attention.

A dream deferred does not simply dry but it adapts to approach the same goal in a different manner in hope of achieve success. As one of the most famous African American Actresses of her time, Ellie waters sang the song Darkies Never Dream in the movie Bubbling Over. The song much like Hughes poem spoke of a dream that black people had or had never been allowed to have. Ellie sings that “darkies” learned to be content by understanding the road they walk is hard, unfair, and never in their favor. African Americans were being denied basic human rights, even the right to dream of being able to progress down their own chosen paths in life. Dreams seem to be a recurring theme throughout African American activism. One of the most recognized speeches in United States history came from Martin Luther King Jr.,and most Americans today think of the same four words when they hear this name, “I have a dream.”

Many African Americans have dedicated their lives throughout history in approach of the dream of truly equal treatment. Slaves dreamed of these things as well but never really had the driving force behind their culture to achieve it. The Harlem Renaissance concentrated all the previous movements towards equality that African Americans had done and expressed them through an outpour of art from Harlem.

The message rang through radios, movie screens, and books all to produce a sense of black pride and comfort in color. By no longer accepting inferiority and believing in their own rights, people of color would soon develop the same pride whites had in their own culture. It didn’t stop there though. The pride black people felt grew into a more overwhelming feeling of self appreciation. After being denied so much for too long things had shifted for a point and black artists were then being recognized as some the most talented beings in the nation. Thus proving that the color of someone’s skin did not impact their ability to affect the world, but only the power structures in place silenced those trying to contribute to the greater good.

Harlem was merely a plant in a garden of civil rights movements. At one point it was the most beautiful blossom but now it just melts into the flower bed of the dozens of seeds that grew around it and from it. The spark of life had been blown into the lungs of African Americans, and it took the acknowledgement of their talents and potential to do so. After being given the utensils to join regular society such as education and economic opportunity, the black community did it as fluidly as possible with such a racist and discriminatory government still in place.

Today we see that movements like Black Lives Matter still address the mistreatment and over police of African Americans because there is a stigma that men of color are predetermined to be more likely to commit crimes. I believe this to be a direct relation to the set back blacks suffered for decades at the hands of a all white government. They address that job opportunities are repealed from these men and women who get convicted trumped up charges because all job applications ask about criminal history. There has been a dream that has not been yet fully achieved. It seems to change and diversify but it has been the same throughout history.

As time progresses new parts of the dream come true foreshadowing that the equality of man is approaching this nation. The collective art and literature created in the Harlem Renaissance was the match that lit the fire inside African Americans giving them the power to chase and achieve this dream. Today we see the dream still being chased and even though the Harlem Revolution did not achieve the dream itself, it did bring into sight the fact that a dream was there and could be achieved.


  1. Bascom, Lionel C. Harlem: The Crucible of Modern African American Culture. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, an Imprint of ABC-CLIO, LLC, 2017.
  2. “Bubbling Over” , Directed by Leigh Jason, Performed by Ethel Waters (1934; Los Angeles: Van Beuren Studios), Online.
  3. Hughes, Langston, Evelyn Louise Crawford, and MaryLouise Patterson. Letters From Langston : From the Harlem Renaissance to the Red Scare and Beyond. Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2016. https://gcsu.idm.oclc.org/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=1105577&site=eds-live&scope=site.
  4. Haynes, Bruce D., and Syma Solovitch. Down the up Staircase: Three Generations of a Harlem Family. New York: Columbia University Press, 2017. https://gcsu.idm.oclc.org/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=1628740&site=eds-live&scope=site.
  5. Locke, Alain LeRoy. The New Negro, an Interpretation Edited by Alain Locke. New York, NY: A. and C. Boni, 1925.
  6. Soto, Michael. Measuring the Harlem Renaissance: The U.S. Census, African American Identity, and Literary Form. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2016. https://gcsu.idm.oclc.org/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=1842566&site=eds-live&scope=site.