The Harlem Renaissance or New Negro movement was an unprecedented flowering of Black American cultural production and activism in the 1920s and 1930s. Shaped by larger social shifts such as the Great Migration—the mass movement of Black Americans from rural southern communities to northern cities such as New York and Chicago—it was a period when, in Langston Hughes’s words, “the Negro was in vogue.” Dancers like Bill “Bojangles” Robinson became celebrities, blues records topped the charts, and there were new opportunities for performance, publication, and artistic collaboration for Black performers, artists, and writers. Harlem became the actual and symbolic capital of the movement (and a significant setting and idea in Black American expressive art), but the outpouring of Black cultural expression spanned the United States (from cities like Chicago to the US South, which was often imagined as a wellspring of Black American folk culture). Since the publication of Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic (1993), conceptions of the Harlem Renaissance have been transformed by attention to the transcultural and diasporic reach of Black cultural production. Participants in the movement, who included luminaries such as Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Nella Larsen, engaged in vigorous debate about art and its purpose; the complex relationships between culture, race, and politics; and questions of audience. The cultural experimentation for which the era is known owes much to interartistic experimentation: writers and artists drew inspiration from jazz and blues, dance, and visual art to reimagine Black American identities and experiences, and to make modernity Black.
The Harlem Renaissance
Black Song, Dance, and Theater in pre-World War I New York City
Between 1896 and 1915, Black professional entertainers transformed New York City’s most established culture industries—musical theater and popular song publishing—and helped create two new ones: social dancing and music recording. While Black culture workers’ full impact on popular entertainment and Black modernism would not be felt until after World War I, the Harlem Renaissance and the Jazz Age were decades in the making. Stage performers Williams and Walker and their musical director Will Marion Cook introduced full-scale Black musical theater to Broadway between 1902 and 1909; songwriters-turned-performers Cole and Johnson expanded the style and substance of ragtime songs along Tin Pan Alley; James Reese Europe created a labor union for Black musicians that got hundreds of players out of Black nightclubs into high-paying White elites’ homes, eventually bringing a 200-person all-Black symphony orchestra to Carnegie Hall for the first concert of its kind at the august performance space. James Europe’s Clef Club Inc. also caught the ears of Manhattan’s leading social dancers, the White Irene and Vernon Castle, in ways that helped disseminate Europe’s ragtime dance bands across America and, by 1913, became the first Black band to record phonographs, setting important precedents for the hit jazz and blues records of the postwar era. While James Europe would go on to win renown as the musical director of the Harlem Hell Fighters—the most-decorated infantry unit to fight in World War I—his prewar community of professional entertainers had already successfully entered into New York City’s burgeoning, and increasingly national, commercial culture markets. By studying some of the key figures in this story it becomes possible to get a fuller sense of the true cultural ferment that marked this era of Black musical development. Stage performers Williams and Walker and Cole and Johnson, behind-the-scenes songwriters Will Marion Cook and James Weldon Johnson, and musicians such as James Reese Europe’s artistic and entrepreneurial interventions made African Americans central players in creating the Manhattan musical marketplace and helped make New York City the capital of U.S. performance and entertainment.
Jazz, Blues, and Ragtime in America, 1900–1945
In January 1938, Benny Goodman took command of Carnegie Hall on a blustery New York City evening and for two hours his band tore through the history of jazz in a performance that came to define the entire Swing Era. Goodman played Carnegie Hall at the top of his jazz game leading his crack band—including Gene Krupa on drums and Harry James on trumpet—through new, original arrangements by Fletcher Henderson. Compounding the historic nature of the highly publicized jazz concert, Goodman welcomed onto the stage members of Duke Ellington’s band to join in on what would be the first major jazz performance by an integrated band. With its sprit of inclusion as well as its emphasis on the historical contours of the first decades of jazz, Goodman’s Carnegie Hall concert represented the apex of jazz music’s acceptance as the most popular form of American musical expression. In addition, Goodman’s concert coincided with the resurgence of the record industry, hit hard by the Great Depression. By the late 1930s, millions of Americans purchased swing records and tuned into jazz radio programs, including Goodman’s own show, which averaged two million listeners during that period. And yet, only forty years separated this major popular triumph and the very origins of jazz music. Between 1900 and 1945, American musical culture changed dramatically; new sounds via new technologies came to define the national experience. At the same time, there were massive demographic shifts as black southerners moved to the Midwest and North, and urban culture eclipsed rural life as the norm. America in 1900 was mainly a rural and disconnected nation, defined by regional identities where cultural forms were transmitted through live performances. By the end of World War II, however, a definable national musical culture had emerged, as radio came to link Americans across time and space. Regional cultures blurred as a national culture emerged via radio transmissions, motion picture releases, and phonograph records. The turbulent decade of the 1920s sat at the center of this musical and cultural transformation as American life underwent dramatic changes in the first decades of the 20th century.
The Great Migrations and Black Urban Life in the United States, 1914–1970
During the 20th century, the black population of the United States transitioned from largely rural to mostly urban. In the early 1900s the majority of African Americans lived in rural, agricultural areas. Depictions of black people in popular culture often focused on pastoral settings, like the cotton fields of the rural South. But a dramatic shift occurred during the Great Migrations (1914–1930 and 1941–1970) when millions of rural black southerners relocated to US cities. Motivated by economic opportunities in urban industrial areas during World Wars I and II, African Americans opted to move to southern cities as well as to urban centers in the Northeast, Midwest, and West Coast. New communities emerged that contained black social and cultural institutions, and musical and literary expressions flourished. Black migrants who left the South exercised voting rights, sending the first black representatives to Congress in the 20th century. Migrants often referred to themselves as “New Negroes,” pointing to their social, political, and cultural achievements, as well as their use of armed self-defense during violent racial confrontations, as evidence of their new stance on race.