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The Harlem Renaissance  

Rachel Farebrother

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.