The Culture Behind The Harlem Renaissance Cultural Studies Essay

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The Harlem Renaissance was an African American cultural movement that spanned between the 1920's and the 1930's. It was known as the "New Negro Movement" and was centered in the Harlem district outside of New York City. New York City began to expand in becoming the "Negro middle class" after being abandoned by the native white middle class. Many more African Americans arrived during World War I because of The Great Migration. Due to the war, there was a need for unskilled industrial workers because immigration virtually ceased. The Harlem Renaissance assisted in launching works of music and literature that aided in redefining how America viewed the African American Population.

In 1917, the premier of Three Plays for a Negro Theatre was performed featuring African American actors conveying complex human emotions and yearnings. [1] James Weldon Johnson stated that the premieres of these plays were "the most important single event in the entire history of the Negro in the American Theatre". [2] In 1919, Claude Mckay published his famous poem, "If We Must Die". The poem never alluded to race but it put racism, national race riots, and lynching to the forefront of his work. [3] These early works describe the reality of contemporary Negro life in America.

Jazz music became an essential element of the Harlem Renaissance during the 1920's. This genre of music blossomed with low-class African Americans around the distinct neighborhood of Harlem. Many of the middle and upper-class African Americans were unsure or hostile towards jazz music because it was believed that African Americans should "assimilate into the white business culture" in America such as in Chicago, New York, St. Louis, and Detroit. [4] Those people that did enjoy jazz music would attend nightclubs in which jazz artists would perform regularly. The popular nightclubs during this period would be the Savoy Ballroom, the Apollo Theatre, and the Cotton Club. [5] The Harlem Stride Style of playing the piano was created during the Harlem Renaissance and helped intertwine the low-class African Americans and the socially elite African Americans because wealthy blacks had more access to jazz music. With traditional jazz, the piano was seen as an instrument of the wealthy and assisted in connecting all African Americans. [6] The popularity of jazz music spread throughout America and soon was at an all-time high. Jazz musicians at the time like Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, Jelly Roll Morton, and Willie "The Lion" Smith were very talented and competitive, and were considered to have laid the foundation for future musicians of their genre. [7] 

As jazz music spread throughout the country, the music style of blacks started to become more attractive to white Americans. White novelists, dramatists, and composers started to exploit the musical tendencies and themes of African Americans in their works. [8] Composers began to use poems that were written by African Americans in their own compositions and would implement them into their own rhythms. African Americans now were able to connect with White America in the world of musical composition. Roland Hayes was the first African American to gain nation wide appreciation as an artist. He trained with Arthur Calhoun in Chattanooga, and at Fisk University in Nashville. [9] Later, he studied with Arthur Hubbard in Boston and with George Henshel and Amanda Ira Aldridge in London, England. He began singing in public as a student, and toured with the Fisk Jubilee Singers in 1911. [10] 

The Savoy Ballroom was the most sophisticated venue for swing dancing and jazz influenced by the popular song "Stompin' At The Savoy". [11] Even with the popularity of the Savoy Ballroom, the Apollo Theatre has had the most lasting impression of the Harlem Renaissance. The Apollo Theatre was a former burlesque house and has become an everlasting symbol of African American lifestyles during this exclusive period. The theatre is known as "one of the most famous clubs for popular music in the United States and a popular location for artist to display their talents and start their careers." [12] Some frequent topics represented by the artist during the Harlem Renaissance were influenced by the experience of slavery, emerging African American traditions, the national racism, and the dilemmas inherent with performing and writing for elite white audiences.

The Harlem Renaissance was successful in the way that it portrayed the African American lifestyle to the corpus of America. Not only through an explosion of culture and arts, but on a social level, the Harlem Renaissance aided in influencing how America and the rest of the world viewed the African American population. The migration of southern Blacks to the north changed the image of the African-American from rural, undereducated peasants to one of urban, cosmopolitan sophistication. This new identity led to a greater social consciousness, and African-Americans became players on the world stage, expanding intellectual and social contacts internationally. [13] This point of time became a reference as a foundation for communities to build upon during the Civil Rights Era in the 1950's and 1960's. The urban setting of rapidly developing Harlem and the rural African Americans moving north while adapting to the urban life provided a community for African Americans of all backgrounds. Through this, the Harlem Renaissance encouraged a new appreciation of folk roots and culture. [14] Cultural materials and spirituals offer a source for the artistic and intellectual minds that freed African Americans from their past establishments. Through these experiences, a confidence sprung throughout this group of people that united and progressed them as a people.