Harlem Renaissance: Art for the sake of equality

Warning: This post includes poetry by Langston Hughes that uses the N-Word.

About the Harlem Renaissance

Centuries after the European Renaissance, it was America’s turn for a reawakening of artistic expression and culture. The Great Migration’s first wave began around 1910 when about 1.6 million African Americans left the southern states for better opportunities in northern metropolitan cities. The Great Migration and ebbed and flowed until 1970. But the initial mass exodus was a game changer for New York City’s Harlem neighborhood. It became the epicenter of an artistic and intellectual explosion that crossed over to mainstream white audiences.

For the multitudes of African Americans escaping racism, the Great Migration was more than a geographic cure. It was the birth of an artistic movement. The Harlem Renaissance reshaped art, music, theater and literature from 1918 to the mid-1930s. I like to think of it as an artistic rebellion. Many migrators had grandparents who had been slaves and felt crushing violence wielded by Jim Crow laws.

The Harlem Renaissance was a breakthrough because it was the first time that African Americans were portrayed as human beings and recognized achievement. The era provided an artistic spotlight that was not relegated to minstrel shows and Caucasian people wearing blackface. But it was more than visual and performance arts as well as literature. The Harlem Renaissance included pathfinders of social reform, political activists and celebrated African American achievement.

This video by the History Channel explains how the Great Migration ushered in an era of celebration of African American culture.




The Harlem Renaissance “Don’t Mean a Thing” without Edward “Duke” Ellington


To put Duke Ellington’s prolific musical achievements into prospective, his “gigantic body of work is still being assessed a quarter century after his death” in 1974 (Ruhlmann). Not only that, his Jazz albums topped the Billboard Charts in 1979, 1999, 2001, 2002, 2009, 2010 and 2013. Not to mention 11 Grammies. His talent is just amazing. His half-century career spanned the jazz, new age, pop/rock and R&B genres. He toured as a band leader and composed film scores and musicals.

The Duke of the Harlem Renaissance is undeniably the most important jazz composer of all-time. He was the band leader at the Cotton Club in Harlem, where he first found fame when the radio broadcasts from those performances hit the airwaves. The Ellington band lasted just three years at the Cotton Club. In February 1931, Duke and his band left for a tour that literally lasted 43 years and only ended with his death.

Love him, Love him. Love him! He is undoubtedly the greatest musical genius of the twentieth century. His music exudes happiness and just makes you want to dance. I found myself tapping my foot in time with the music as I listened to his music while writing this blog.


Josephine Baker: international star and equal rights crusader

I love her and not just because the gorgeous Josephine Baker “wore little more than a smile” while performing (biography.com). When Baker insisted her contracts specify racially mixed audiences, she integrated audiences. How could you not love the woman who fought and won for equity? But if that isn’t enough to inspire adoration, she adopted a dozen ethnically mixed children and called them her “rainbow tribe” (biography.com).

She honed her art as a singer and dancer performing in clubs and on street corners in America before moving to France. She was the toast of Paris where all things Jazz and exotic became a national obsession. It probably helped that she wore only a feather skirt when performing the Danse Sauvage at the at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées.

What I love of about Baker, is that she was more than a pretty face. She worked for the Red Cross during World War II. She smuggled messages in her panties and sheet music for the French Resistance. Now that takes more guts than dancing in a skirt made from a dozen bananas.


Playwright and poet Langston Hughes confronts the elephant in the room


WARNING: this clip contains the n-word.


It’s impossible to discuss the Harlem Renaissance without Langston Hughes. He was a prolific playwright, poet and voice of the era. Although he never sought to be a spokesman, his literature defined the African American experience.

He was the first African American writer to make his living through his art and public lecturer in part because of “the phenomenal acceptance and love he received from average black people. He used his poetry and prose to illustrate that ‘there is no lack within the Negro people of beauty, strength and power,’ and he chose to do so on their own level, on their own terms.” (Poetry Foundation).

His work is brutally honest. He shined a glaring light on racial issues that most people denied or swept under the rug. His poem, “Mulatto” confronts a white man who denies his mixed race son while degenerating the woman he raped as “What’s a body but a toy?/Juicy bodies/Of nigger wenches” (Hughes).

And for that, I have nothing but the deepest respect and admiration for his courage and his literary genius. “Mulatto” is heartbreaking. It’s honest and for that some critics reviled him.

Literary critics like Estace Gay slammed Hughes for penning Mulatto. “”It does not matter to me whether every poem in the book is true to life. Why should it be paraded before the American public by a Negro author as being typical or representative of the Negro? Bad enough to have white authors holding up our imperfections to public gaze.” (Poetry Foundation).

For me, Hughes’ courage for saying what few would acknowledge at that time, is inspiring, which is why I included “Mulatto.” It has ugly words that I would never utter, but which is why the video is Hughes reading the poem.

Works Cited


Anonymous. “Great Migration (African American).” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation,       n.d. Web. 26 Mar. 2016. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Migration_%28African_American%29.>

Awetblackbough. “Langston Hughes Reads Mulatto.” YouTube. YouTube, 25 July 2010.      Web. 28 Mar. 2016. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4_6Z1_3btQ8>.

Bretodeau. “Duke Ellington – It Don’t Mean a Thing (1943).” YouTube. YouTube, 03 Jan.   2008. Web. 27 Mar. 2016. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qDQpZT3GhDg>.

“Duke Ellington – Role in Harlem Renaissance.” Bio.com. A&E Networks Television,    n.d.   Web. 27 Mar. 2016. < http://www.biography.com/people/duke-ellington-      9286338/videos/duke-ellington-role-in-harlem-renaissance-15037507978>

GeorgeFormbyJr. “(1927) Josephine Baker Dancing Charleston Baby with Feathers.” YouTube. YouTube, 24 Sept. 2014. Web. 28 Mar. 2016. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3evyJgFQelk>.

“Josephine Baker.” Bio.com. A&E Networks Television, n.d. Web. 26 Mar. 2016.             http://www.biography.com/people/josephine-baker-9195959#curtain-call.

“Langston Hughes.” Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation, n.d. Web. 26 Mar. 2016.  <http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/langston-hughes#poet>

Powell, Richard J. “The Harlem Renaissance.” Art Lex Art Dictionary. Delahunt, Michael R., 14 Mar. 2011. Web. 25 Mar. 2016. http://www.artlex.com/ArtLex/a/african_american_4.html.

“The Harlem Renaissance.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, n.d. Web. 26 Mar.  2016. < http://www.history.com/topics/black-history/harlem-renaissance/videos>