Harlem Renaissance

In the 1920's and 30's, the upper-Manhattan district of New York City called Harlem was the flourishing capital of African-American culture. Writers, musicians, artists, photographers, philosophers, and intellectuals created works that probed the black American heritage with a psychological intensity and a fierce pride.

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Photo: Langston Hughes, photographed by Jack Delano, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Digital ID cph 3a43849

The most prominent figure of the Harlem Renaissance was W.E.B. Du Bois, leader of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) and editor of its official journal, The Crisis. Du Bois served for decades as the community’s conscience and as a spokesperson for African-American advancement.

Other prominent black and white citizens joined forces to publish, patronize, and promote African-American culture, among them Joel and Amy Spingarn, Charlotte Mason, and Carl Van Vechten, who enriched the movement artistically as well as financially. Given his affluence and his position in white mainstream society, Van Vechten’s slice-of-life novel Nigger Heaven (1926), and his stunning photographs of Harlem and his artist friends, did a great deal to win widespread attention for the renaissance that was taking place.

Among the leading creative figures of the period were the writers Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Jessie Redmon Fauset, Arna Bontemps, Alain Locke, Jean Toomer, and Zora Neale Hurston; the photographer James Van Der Zee; and the musicians Duke Ellington and Eubie Blake. Jazz, blues, and ragtime exerted a profound influence on the literature of the period, from the cadences of Langston Hughes to the later prose of James Baldwin. The Apollo Theater and legendary cabarets like The Cotton Club became meccas for the new music, enticing visitors into the larger African-American artistic experience.

–Thomas Hampson and Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold, PBS I Hear America Singing




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