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Duke Ellington (at piano) was one of America's most famous composers.
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The Harlem Renaissance
In the 1920s, artists and writers in “the capital of black America” produced an explosion of creativity in music and culture

By Bryan Brown | for Junior Scholastic

Decades later, poet Langston Hughes could still remember the excitement. Just 19, he was in New York City, riding uptown on the subway, and finally getting his first sight of Harlem.

“It was still early morning and people were going to work,” Hughes wrote in his memoir. “Hundreds of colored* people! I wanted to shake hands with them, speak to them. . . . Harlem! I stood there, dropped my bags, and felt happy again.”

In 1921, the young black poet, originally from Missouri, was soon to be part of one of the most creative periods in U.S. history. This flowering of African-American writing, music, and art is called the Harlem Renaissance (a period of rebirth or revival).

Harlem in the 1920s was like nowhere else on Earth. During World War I (1914-18), a mass movement called the Great Migration, an exodus of 6 million blacks from the South to Northern cities like New York, Chicago, and Detroit (1916-70), began bringing African-Americans by the tens of thousands from the rural South to Northern cities. In New York, most of them made their way to upper Manhattan, where the city’s local blacks were moving to take advantage of plentiful apartments.

“Negro* Colony Growing,” read a July 1923 headline in The New York Times. By then, an estimated 150,000 blacks were packed into Harlem, a city within a city with its own vibrant street life and culture.

Among the new arrivals was a whole generation of young writers and thinkers. “Harlem was like a great magnet for the Negro intellectual, pulling him from everywhere,” Hughes wrote. As a group, they began writing with a bold new voice about what it meant to be a black American.

“At the beginning of the 20th century, black people were believed to have no history or culture,” said scholar Howard Dodson Jr. For many Americans, the Harlem Renaissance was the first clue that they were wrong.

Hughes’s voice was one of the most memorable. His response to the 19th-century poet Walt Whitman’s declaration “I Hear America Singing” could have spoken for the whole movement. “I, too, sing America,” he wrote:

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

A chorus of poems, novels, and essays poured forth. Florida native Zora Neale Hurston, who arrived in Harlem with $1.50 in her purse, would write of the burden of black women in her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. In 1925, a collection of works by Harlem’s writers contained a challenge in its very title: The New Negro.

THE JAZZ AGE

The Harlem Renaissance was just as vibrant in its visual art. Artists such as Aaron Douglas absorbed the work of modern masters like Pablo Picasso, then added striking symbols to capture the African-American experience.

Meanwhile, the sounds of Harlem were spreading across the country. During the 1920s, the U.S. was celebrating a time of prosperity called the Jazz Age, named for that combination of African rhythm and modern harmony developed by American blacks. Whites ventured to Harlem venues like the Cotton Club—where black customers were barred—to hear the “hot” music. The club’s bandleader, Duke Ellington, became one of America’s greatest popular composers. There and in clubs catering to black customers, musicians like trumpeter Louis Armstrong set a new, higher bar for skill and passion in American music.

The Great Depression of the 1930s put a damper on the high times. But Harlem remained “the capital of black America,” as historians have called it.

As the 20th century progressed and blacks began to play a fuller role in American life, many of them remembered the Harlem Renaissance as the beginning of a great transformation. For African- Americans, it was a time when black pride was a new, thrilling sensation—and was even, as one scholar has put it, “the rebirth of a people.”