After enduring centuries of slavery and a bitter Civil War in a struggle to be free, African Americans in the southern United States must have enjoyed a new reality in the years following the Civil War, right? Unfortunately, most African Americans did not experience the promised land they had strived for.
Instead, racism continued and economic difficulties increased. Eventually, hundreds of thousands of African Americans began moving north in the 1890s, searching for a better life in the urban north where industrialization had created new jobs and a booming economy. This large-scale movement became known as the Great Migration.
Brought together in the urban north in places like New York City and Chicago, African Americans formed growing communities of people who shared a common past, as well as an uncertain future. Rather than focusing on the disappointments of the past, these people found a renewed interest in their cultural heritage, igniting a rebirth of African American culture that would become known as the Harlem Renaissance.
This explosion of African American cultural expression involved all sorts of diverse groups, from writers, artists, and musicians to poets, photographers, and scholars. While evidence of this rebirth of African American culture could be found all over the urban north, it was primarily centered in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City.
The Harlem Renaissance began in earnest toward the end of World War I. It continued into the mid-1930s, but it began to lose steam in 1929 when the stock market crashed, signaling the beginning of the Great Depression.
Although many different types of art flourished during the Harlem Renaissance, the movement had its most profound impact on African American literature. During that time, the movement actually was known as the "New Negro Movement," which borrowed its name from a 1925 anthology by Alain Locke.
A wide variety of writers and poets published works that redefined what it was to be an African American. Gone were the stereotypes of the past. New definitions based upon cultural pride and history took their place.
Some of the famous names associated with the Harlem Renaissance include Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Jean Toomer, James Weldon Johnson, W.E.B. Du Bois, Charles S. Johnson, Rudolf Fisher, Wallace Thurman, Nella Larsen, Arna Bontemps, Countee Cullen, and Zora Neale Hurston, among many, many others. Their realistic portrayals of African American life helped to break down the walls of racial inequality while reestablishing cultural pride at the same time.
The Harlem Renaissance was transformational for African American culture. Importantly, it also had a significant impact on all of American culture. It helped set the stage and lay the groundwork for the civil rights movement that would come in just a few decades.