The exact start of the Harlem Renaissance cannot be easily identified––nor, for that matter, can its end. There are in fact those who maintain that the Harlem Renaissance has never come to full head-on conclusion. It has instead adapted, evolved, and shifted forms like a chameleon of cultural consciousness and moved with steady unimpeded grace from one decade to the next and from one century to the next.
As for when it started: the physical migration of African Americans out of rural areas of the South, from the Caribbean and elsewhere into the New York City neighborhood of Harlem during the 1910s, certainly set the stage for the dazzling explosion of creative genius that would come to be known as the Harlem Renaissance. The people of African descent who made their way to Harlem “on the first thing smoking,” as Zora Neale Hurston put it, not only became captivating subjects of paintings, plays, novels, poetry, short stories, and poems. They also became devoted audiences, patrons, and often very vocal critics of the same.
Stepping into the Jazz Swing of Things
Should we say the Harlem Renaissance started with Eubie Blake and Noble Sissles’ hit Broadway musical Shuffle Along in 1921, the publication of Claude McKay’s volume of poems, Harlem Shadows in 1922, or the publication of The New Negro: Voices of the Harlem Renaissance, the era-defining anthology edited in by Alain Locke, in 1925? Whether pointing to one of these years and events or reaching back even further, the renaissance without question was in full swing by the time jazzmaster Duke Ellington took over the bandstand at Harlem’s Cotton Club in 1927 and still going strong when Cab Calloway took over the beat in 1931.
One reason it may be argued that the Harlem Renaissance has never ended is because the artists, authors, composers, performers, educators, political leaders, and general laborers who provided its substance created more than just memorable moments. They established legacies, traditions, and cultural and spiritual pathways that made possible whatever advances African Africans have made since then.
Their struggles in fact often helped refine America’s ever-evolving application of principles of justice and democracy. They may very well be referred to as African America’s Greatest Generation because it was their determination and endurance that allowed Blacks to assert themselves as individual human beings rather than simply lumped all together as representatives of a sociological category stamped on their lives for the convenience of what was then an overtly oppressive White America.
NEXT: The Harlem Renaissance and the Year 2020 Part 2: All Eyes on the Year 2020
co-author of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance
and ELEMENTAL The Power of Illuminated Love
Have a Happy Black History Month
- 100th Anniversary of the Harlem Renaissance
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- Jazz Harlem Renaissance Baby Doll
- Harlem Renaissance Dialogues Part 1 Living and Writing Black History
- Harlem Renaissance Dialogues Part 2 Savannah and the Harlem Renaissance
- Great Moments in African-American History 2009 Part 3
- Countdown of Great Moments 2010 Part 2 Beyonce and Jay-Z
- Black History Month Enhanced by International Year for People of African Descent
- Celebrating the International Year for People of African Descent