The birth of the African-American popular culture as a global phenomenon dates back to the 20th century in Harlem, New York. Harlem is popularly known as the Black Cultural Mecca famous for its great jazz clubs, African-American arts, culture, and heritage.
The city was originally a Dutch settlement in the 17th century and was named after Haarlem city in the Netherlands. Since 1902, the town has been a settlement of African Americans. The Harlem Renaissance spans between 1918- 1937 but was in its peak between 1920-1929. It is an essential era in African American history noted as the most influential movement in African American literary works and the creative culture.
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It all began when the First World War left a terrible mark on the industrial cities in America. Many African Americans were to train and fight in the war and this meant industrial companies suffered from the impact of low labour.
While this happened, there was also the development of African-American creative culture in various parts of America where African-Americans lived. African-Americans were expressing themselves more and more through the arts, but their reach was limited to the Black community, specifically the African-American intellectual group, which was very small.
Many African-Americans in the South saw the need for labour in the North as an opportunity to migrate and find work where life seemed more advanced, liberal and promising. The’ Great Migration’ of the black community from rural to urban cities affected Chicago, Detroit and New York.
In New York, Harlem saw more black immigrants than any other city because, in earlier years, Harlem had developed into the “Black Capital of America”. White settlers sold off their property to many African Americans when the town was unable to develop as an elite white community.
Harlem attracted like-minded intellectuals and creatives such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson, Claude McKay, Georgia Douglas Johnson, Langston Hughes, Counte Basie and many others who will later join as time went on.
The Harlem Rainessance initially started in early 1918 when African-American creatives would meet to discuss their works and how best to push them beyond the Black community. They made it a point to establish outlets and platforms where they could not only present their works but have intellectual discussions around it. This helped develop the African-American arts into a more serious and polished product. The movement became known as the ‘Black Pride Movement’ before officially becoming the ‘New Negro Movement’ named after Alain Locke’s anthology in 1925.
The movement also ensured that African Americans working within the creative scenes got the credit they deserved for their impact. It also served as a means of achieving equality and civil rights through artistic expression.
Through their hard work, the movement ensured that the works from African-Americans crossed over to a white-American audience in America and across the world. Many creatives, through the support of others, were able to produce outstanding works that were well packaged to appeal to both the black and white audience. They also supported each other with grants, loans, education opportunities and travel opportunities to get their works to other parts of the world.
A typical example of the success of the Harlem Renaissance was the identification that many white Americans wanted to enjoy the culture of the African-Americans. They, therefore, opened clubs that would cater to their needs and later become huge businesses. The Cotton Club is one of such examples.
The white community opened up to African-American music, theatre, literature, and fine arts. The era would birth huge genres such as Jazz and Blues in music as well as successful books and theatre productions such as Shuffle Along which would make it to Broadway.
The Harlem Renaissance uplifted the African-American race providing a voice that caught the attention of the world and earned respect paving the way for many politicians and civil rights movements in the 1940s.
Though mainly in Harlem, the impact of the era would touch other parts of America and blacks all over the world. It influenced Black writers and creatives in Europe and the Caribbean and would later initiate the popular culture of Africa in the 1930s birthing the ‘Black to Africa Movement’ and connect the African-Americans to their roots through creativity.
Due to the sudden fall of the stock market which led to the Great Depression, the Harlem Renaissance slowly began to fade away by 1929, but this was not a problem because the pioneers had already marked their impact and started a rapidly growing African-American popular culture which would provide the platform for many legendary creatives born many years later.