By Rachel Davis
The 1920’s: Oh what a wonderful time for America, right? The economy was fantastic, business was booming, and social changes allowed people to have fun. New music, clothes, dance moves, hairstyles, and makeup trends were making their way into everyday life. One of the most significant movements during the this time period was the Harlem Renaissance; a blossoming of African-American culture. It was mainly driven by the passion for racial equality, showing itself in the form of art.
The Harlem Renaissance started in the 1910’s, but was in its prime in the 20’s. In 1916, southern blacks moved to the north in large numbers to escape Jim Crow laws. Segregation and harsher discrimination was very prominent in the south, whereas the north allowed blacks to have more political, social, and economic freedoms and opportunities. Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, and Harlem were the most moved to cities. “The Harlem Renaissance” is in reference to Harlem, New York: the city where the majority of African-Americans moved to.
Although society wasn’t perfect, they had just enough freedom to begin their cultural movement. The main focus of the Harlem Renaissance was literature. Black authors and poets were creating pieces that circled around the idea of striving for racial equality. Their work would get published in a black owned newspaper or magazine, which led huge impacts within the community. The most well known poets and authors were known to have lasting social effects during their time. The publishing of black authors demanded for their voices to be heard.
The Red Summer of 1919 was a time period where race riots and civil uprisings were becoming very frequent. Claude Mckay, one of the most popular Harlem Renaissance poets, responded to the events. He wrote “If We Must Die” to explain the violence African-Americans suffer. His most famous poem, “America”, talks about how he finds strength in standing up to racist America.
“I stand within her walls with not a shred
Of terror, malice, not a word of jeer.
Darkly I gaze into the days ahead,
And see her might and granite wonders there,
Beneath the touch of Time’s unerring hand,
Like priceless treasures sinking in the sand”
-Excerpt from “America”, Claude Mckay
Many authors shone through during the era, all producing works with a common message of equality. Langston Hughes, Georgia Douglas Johnson, Zora Neale Hurston, Countee Cullen, Jessie Redmon Fauset, Gwendolyn B. Bennett, and Alain Leroy Locke are just a few examples of the most popular and influential writers. Many were social activists and used writing as a way to prove the intelligence, perseverance, and bravery as African-Americans. As well as standing up for themselves, they used their platform to speak for others in the community.
When southern blacks moved to the north, one of the things they brought with them was music. Blues and jazz music became the big thing, and even white people went to clubs to listen to black performers play live. Music became such a giant part of the culture, especially in Harlem. Unfortunately, many clubs still remained segregated. The most popular club in Harlem, the Cotton Club, remained segregated all throughout the 20’s.
Louis Daniel Armstrong is one of the most well-known jazz musicians. Armstrong was a trumpeter, corneter, vocalist, composer, and even acted in some movies. He started his career by playing with small bands in New Orleans. During this time he performed in small clubs, parades, and funerals. He moved to Chicago to perform in a Creole Creole Jazz band, which ended two years later with his move to New York City. His career took off in New York, and in 1929 he began working on Broadway. By far, Armstrong had the most influence on jazz music. In 1924 he joined the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra. From then he switched from cornet to the trumpet and started recording his own music. He was known for his ability to improvise and still have a perfect performance. He was also one of the first black musicians to open up his performances to both black and white people. At the time, many black musicians popular among white audiences didn’t play for black audiences. Armstrong was the first African-American in history to bring a black and white middle-class audience together.
Ella Fitzgerald, also known as ‘The Lady of Jazz”, was another iconic figure in both black and musical history. After a tough childhood of having to live without her mother, move around, and escape her abusive stepfather, she found her 15-year-old self at Apollo Theater on amateur night. Originally, she always wanted to be a dancer. Nerves got the best of her, and she froze, unable to bring herself to dance. With some pressure from the man in charge to perform, she started singing. She won. Afterwards, Chick Webb, a jazz band leader and drummer, became her legal guardian. He asked her to join him at venues like the Cotton Club to sing in his band. They recorded songs together, and after his death, the band was renamed to Ella Fitzgerald and Her Famous Orchestra. World War II came along, which broke the band up. Afterwards, she worked towards her solo career. She moved listeners with her powerful voice and vocal range, which made her a prominent female in society.
At the turn of the century, women protested and strived for their own political voices. In 1919 white women were granted the right to vote. Black women demanded to be heard; demanded to be taken seriously; demanded to stop racism; sexism. Along with Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday was another very popular jazz singer. Her career took off in the ’30s, towards the end of the Harlem Renaissance. Both women are remembered as icons; strong voices.
Black women were tired of being silent. The women writers, artists, dancers, singers, and songwriters lived and breathed confidence. Through the social rebellion, women were inspired to take on their own roles and speak out about gender inequality. Georgia Douglas Johnson was a remarkable poet. Of her many works, “The Heart of a Woman” was her most popular in reference to female empowerment.
The heart of a woman goes forth with the dawn,
As a lone bird, soft winging, so restlessly on,
Afar o’er life’s turrets and vales does it roam
In the wake of those echoes the heart calls home.
The heart of a woman falls back with the night,
And enters some alien cage in its plight,
And tries to forget it has dreamed of the stars
While it breaks, breaks, breaks on the sheltering bars.
-The Heart of a Woman, Georgia Douglas Johnson
Currently, there are still many issues in the United States regarding race. To say racism no longer exists would be a blatant lie. African-Americans are more likely to be treated unfairly by judges, getting longer prison sentences than a white person would get for the same crime. Many live in fear of police and know that simply being black makes them a target to some. Doctors are often found not listening to black patients, resulting in more deaths that could’ve been avoided. These are mothers. Fathers. Sons. Daughters. Sisters. Brothers. Friends. They are future engineers, plumbers, astronauts, doctors, police, and judges. History is important. As a society, America has come so far thanks to all the brave men and women who stood against injustices. There’s still a long way to go, and remembering the Harlem Renaissance helps to preserve the goals that still apply today.