It was centered in Harlem, a neighborhood in Manhattan, New York City. The Harlem Renaissance began in the 1920s and lasted through the 1930s. Harlem was an important destination for Black Americans migrating out of the Jim Crow South and seeking new opportunities and more equal rights in the north.
Christianity was one of the major features of the movement. Authors discussed the religion and its impact on their lives in a variety of articles, novels, and poems. For example, ‘Madam and the Minister’ by Langston Hughes. Central to the movement was the idea that the creation of new art, literature, and music could uplift the African American community and challenge the stereotypes and racism that were incredibly prevalent throughout the country.
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Definition of the Harlem Renaissance
The Harlem Renaissance was an incredibly important African American cultural movement during the 1920s and 1930s in New York City. The movement, which was known as the “New Negro Movement” at the time, occurred in the wake of the struggle for Civil Rights in the United States. Throughout this period, authors author to tie in African-American culture in their poetry. Jazz poetry was developed, and poems like ‘The Weary Blues‘ by Langston Hughes were incredibly influential.
Some of the most common themes authors engaged with during this period were Black identity, the effects of racism, the influence of white audiences, equality, and humanity. Proving the latter was one of the most important goals of the movement.
Examples of Harlem Renaissance Poems
‘Harlem Shadows’ memorably addresses the lives of Black sex workers in Harlem. The poet describes their experience while also acknowledging their strength. It was published in 1922 in Harlem Shadows. The collection was incredibly influential during the Harlem Renaissance and helped to solidify McKay’s place as one of the most important writers of the period. Here are a few lines from this important poem:
I hear the halting footsteps of a lass
In Negro Harlem when the night lets fall
Its veil. I see the shapes of girls who pass
To bend and barter at desire’s call.
Ah, little dark girls who in slippered feet
Go prowling through the night from street to street!
Throughout this piece, McKay engages with themes of racism and poverty. He depicts women who work to survive in the only way they can. They freeze on the streets of Harlem and are in constant danger. These women, he makes clear, were forced into this position through historical racism and poverty. They have no other way to support themselves and those they care about. The women are doing the best they can in a truly terrible situation.
Read more of Claude McKay’s poetry.
‘Harlem (A Dream Deferred)’ by Langston Hughes is an important and powerful poem. The poet wrote it in response to what he felt like a Black man navigating a career and personal life in a white-dominated world. Hughes begins his poem with a question. “What happens to a dream deferred?” He follows this famous line with:
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
This piece was published in Montage of a Dream Deferred in 1951. This piece and others like ‘Mother to Son’ and ‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers’ are central to Harlem Renaissance literature. Readers may recognize “a raisin in the sun” as the title of the famous 1959 play by Lorraine Hansberry.
Explore Langston Hughes’ poems.
From the Dark Tower by Countee Cullen
‘From the Dark Tower’ was published in 1927 in Cullen’s second poetry collection, titled Copper Sun. ‘From the Dark Tower‘ explores the subject of racism, specifically how Black people are deprived of what’s rightfully theirs. It addresses the future of Black men, women, and children. The poet’s speaker begins by saying that “we,” Black men and women, aren’t always going to be the ones doing all the hard work that others profit from. “We,” he adds, aren’t always going to be the ones submitting to mistreatment. The second half of the poem contains the images that this piece is famous for. It reads:
The night whose sable breast relieves the stark,
White stars is no less lovely being dark,
And there are buds that cannot bloom at all
In light, but crumple, piteous, and fall;
So in the dark we hide the heart that bleeds,
And wait, and tend our agonizing seeds.
Read more poems by Countee Cullen.
The Harlem Renaissance was an incredibly important literary, art, and cultural movement because it brought Black experience into the eyes of a wide variety of readers. It redefined how America viewed African Americans on a broad scale.
Some of the most notable people of the movement were Claude McKay, Zora Neale Hurston, jazz musician Duke Ellington, W.E.B. Du Bois (founder of the NAACP), and Langston Hughes.
The major themes were the fight for equality, the expression of the Black experience, oppression, and the expression of humanity. Poets were often influenced by their everyday experiences and how they related to the experiences of other Black men and women.
Jazz was important because it sought to create a unique voice for African Americans, just as poetry and art did. It became quite popular with a wide variety of audiences, allowing America a new insight into the lives of Black Americans.
One of the reasons the Harlem Renaissance began was the movement of Black Americans out of the south, where they were pursued by Jim Crow laws, and into the North, where they could live freer lives.
Related Literary Terms
- American Realism: was a style of writing, music, and art during the 20th century in the United States, specifically in New York.
- American Renaissance: period of literature lasted from 1830 to the beginning of the Civil War, around 1861.
- Beat Generation: a literary movement that began after the Second World War and is known for its liberal attitudes towards life.
- Imagism: a literary movement of the early 20th century. The proponents were interested in the use of precise imagery and clear language.
- Literary Modernism: originated in the late 19th and 20th centuries. It was mainly focused in Europe and North America.
- New Woman Movement and Writing: was a feminist ideal that was profoundly influential on 19th and 20th-century literature, as well as broader feminist beliefs.
- Read: Harlem by Langston Hughes
- Read: Jazz and the African American Literary Tradition
- Listen: Langston Hughes: Leading Voice of the Harlem Renaissance