Photo by The New York Public Library on Unsplash
“I tire so of hearing people say, Let things take their course. Tomorrow is another day. I do not need my freedom when I'm dead. I cannot live on tomorrow's bread.” — Langston Hughes, “Freedom”
Following the wake of World War I, hundreds and thousands of African-Americans began leaving the rural South and migrating to urban areas up North in an escape of harsh segregation laws and a search for more economic opportunities. This expansion is known as “The Great Migration,” and is what sparked a wave of activism and social change referred to as the Harlem Renaissance or the New Negro Renaissance.
Harlem was originally created for upper-class white families, but with property overexpansion and a lack of families moving in, this created opportunities for Black families to purchase housing. This neighborhood soon became an epicenter of black culture and development. While only encompassing three square miles, Harlem housed black artists, writers and musicians which took the city by storm.
Reflecting on Black Life Within Poetry and Jazz
The Harlem Renaissance emerged during the prohibition era where most of the United States inhabited speakeasies. These underground bars that sold illegal alcohol often played jazz music — a mix of different African-American musical traditions. Jazz quickly gained popularity and recognition through names like Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith.
Jazz encompasses a spiritual and rhythmic sound that comes from African-American folk traditions. These same traditions and melodies also inspired new forms of poetic expression, focusing on combining and experimenting with traditional techniques and African-American culture. One of Harlem’s most influential political and societal figures was Langston Hughes.
As a major poet, author and playwright, Hughes sought to avoid writing idealized portrayals and negative stereotypes of Black Americans and instead focused on an authentic depiction of the Black working-class. Unfortunately, many black intellectuals of the time criticized him for showing their idea of an “ugly side” of black life to the public.
While he was denounced by white critics and chastised by fellow black intellectuals, he is remembered as one of the most loved and recognized writers of this time period for exactly what he was condemned for — faithfully showcasing all of black life.
Other poets and writers that influenced the Harlem Renaissance are Zora Neale Hurston, Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, James Weldon Johnson, Jean Toomer, Nella Larsen, and Arna Bontemps. All these artists — and many others — sought to showcase their views and voices in a time where the opportunities were little to none.
The act of writing — putting one's views without fear on paper — is rebellion in itself. Harlem offered a home to black publications and newspapers, allowing a more widespread readership of these reflections. The artistic accounts made pressing issues more clear to non-black activists and lawmakers which ushered in new forms of change.
This incredibly significant artistic and cultural progression also influenced both the Black Power Movement and the Black Arts Movement. All three of these massive demonstrations target black pride, strength and community. Without the massive influence of Harlem and the artists and people who lived there, the fear, anger and frustration of the injustice within the United States and many other countries would not have been recognized.
The poetic artform is a direct declaration of empowerment and strength within the Black Community. It seems absurd to discuss civil rights and power without recognizing the effectiveness of poetry and writing in elevating the movement.
To read more work by poets from the Harlem Renaissance, click here for the Poetry Foundation’s collection of influential poetry of the time period.