How the Harlem Renaissance helped forge a new sense of Black identity

Sparked by an influx of Black Southerners seeking better lives in the north, this early 20th century explosion of Black cultural expression left its mark on generations of civil rights activists, artists, and thinkers.

Harlem wasn't the only northern U.S. city that saw an upswell of Black cultural expression in the early 20th century. Chicago became a vibrant literary and artistic center—captured here by Archibald Motley's celebrated painting Nightlife, which depicts a crowded South Side cabaret.
Chicago History Museum/Bridgeman Images

In 1925, James Weldon Johnson watched a steady stream of Black migrants laden with belongings, waiting on trains that would take them northward from the deep South to better lives. He was one of them. Like many, the Florida native’s destination was Harlem, a Manhattan neighborhood nicknamed “the Black mecca.”

Johnson would go on to write “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” nicknamed the Black national anthem, and become the leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). To him, Harlem represented a place where Black people enjoyed dignity, opportunity, and fellowship. Johnson wrote in 1925 that he believed the “advantages and opportunities are greater in Harlem than in any other place in the country.”

The poet was just one of the hundreds of thousands of Black Americans drawn to Harlem in the early 20th century—and a participant in an explosion of cultural expression now called the Harlem Renaissance. The upswell wasn’t limited to New York City, either; it could be felt in other northern and midwestern cities whose Black populations surged during the era.

Throughout the period, which stretched between 1917 and the 1930s, Black talent thrived, and Black artists, musicians, and thinkers helped forge a new sense of racial identity.

How the Harlem Renaissance began

Harlem’s growth into a cultural center was spurred by the Great Migration—a decades-long exodus of Black Southerners to northern metropolises that began around 1915. Black people left the South for multiple reasons, including harsh Jim Crow laws that denied Black people their civil rights and economic conditions that made advancement next to impossible. They saw opportunity in northern cities, where workers were needed during labor shortages sparked by World War I. Between 1915 and about 1960, northern industrial cities absorbed five million Black people.

Many went to Harlem—a New York neighborhood that had once been a rural, wealthy white enclave. During a real estate crash at the turn of the 20th century, landlords became more willing to rent to Black tenants. Property values then plummeted as white residents attempted to offload their real estate and move away. Eventually, the area became majority Black, and Harlem turned into a magnet for migrants in search of economic opportunity and a rich cultural and social life.

These newcomers weren’t just from the American South: A substantial subset came from Caribbean countries like Jamaica, Antigua, and Trinidad, escaping economic downturns caused by the decline of sugar prices throughout the West Indies. By 1930, notes historian Jason Parker, a quarter of all Harlem residents hailed from the West Indies.

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That cultural mixture spurred new types of expression and thought. Nurtured by Black churches and businesses, Harlem teemed with life. There, a poor Black worker could brush shoulders with educated, wealthy Black residents. They could take part in entertainment by Black people, for Black people. And they could be exposed to a vision of Black achievement and potential that was unheard of in most parts of the United States.

Luminaries of the Harlem Renaissance

The Harlem Renaissance unfolded across multiple modes of expression, from music to fashion, from poetry to philosophy. It was alive in blues and jazz music by figures like Bessie Smith, Cab Calloway, Dizzy Gillespie, and Billie Holiday. It could be found in poems by Langston Hughes and Georgia Douglas Johnson, novels by Zora Neale Hurston and Wallace Thurman, paintings by Aaron Douglas and Beauford Delaney, and the emergence of Black periodicals like The Crisis and Fire!!

The era’s Black tastemakers helped mentor, promote, and encourage the renaissance. The rise of mass communication allowed Black advocacy organizations like the NAACP a national voice. Jessie Redmon Fauset, the literary editor of the NAACP magazine The Crisis, used the platform to bring national attention to Black authors. She became known as the “midwife of the Harlem Renaissance.” Another Harlem Renaissance-era kingmaker was the writer Alain Locke, dubbed the movement’s “dean” for his mentorship of figures like Hughes and Hurston and his insistence that Black artists draw attention to, and inspiration from, their cultural heritage.

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Activists like Marcus Garvey and W.E.B. DuBois encouraged a sense of Black excellence, pride, and shared identity widely known as the “New Negro” movement. Instead of yielding to the era’s relentless racism, the movement’s proponents openly protested it. They embraced ideals of education and progress and poured their energy into the struggle for civil rights through organizations like the NAACP, the Universal Negro Improvement Association, and African Communities League. These institutions encouraged Black Americans to agitate for social change and civil rights, including protesting the ongoing practice of lynching throughout the U.S.

Response to the Harlem Renaissance

The Harlem Renaissance didn’t stop in Harlem: The cultural upswell took hold across the north and in the west. In Chicago, for example, Black luminaries held public art exhibitions and gathered a groundbreaking collection of materials on Black history housed at the city’s public library. Kansas City, Missouri became an influential center for jazz and blues.

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The movement’s influence spread throughout white culture, too. It turned Harlem into a popular destination for white pleasure-seekers who frequented speakeasies and “black-and-tan saloons.” Known as “slumming,” the Prohibition Era practice brought white patrons into contact with Black cultural expression—art and music they considered exotic, dangerous, and titillating.

Ironically, instead of participating in the Black nightlife they had come to see, notes historian Chad Heap, many curious whites never got farther than establishments like the Cotton Club, a Southern plantation-themed nightclub that catered specifically to white clientele.

For Black residents—Americans who experienced art and thought centered on the Black experience for the first time during the era—Harlem was anything but a tourist destination. For them, it celebrated cultural possibility, upholding Black people who had been so denigrated by mainstream white society as complex figures with real lives.

The legacy of the Harlem Renaissance

The Harlem Renaissance was vibrant, but eventually it burned out. With the dawn of the Great Depression and the end of Prohibition, Harlem’s economic prosperity waned. By 1935, economic blight, housing and employment discrimination, and ongoing police brutality toward Black residents had created a tinderbox. That year, an erroneous rumor that police had beaten to death a Black teenager suspected of shoplifting sparked a race riot in Harlem. By World War II, the renaissance was a thing of the past.

Yet its influence lives on. The cultural upswell of the Harlem Renaissance set the stage for the modern flourishing of Black artists and thinkers and the continued struggle for civil rights for Black Americans. As historian Clement Alexander Price wrote, “The embittered past of Blacks was taken onto a much higher plane of intellectual and artistic consideration during the Harlem Renaissance….one of modern America’s truly significant artistic and cultural movements.”

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