Since the mid to late eighteen hundreds Harlem has been a city of immigration and migration. Alain Locke puts it this way: "Harlem has come to mean... another statue of liberty on the landward side of New York" (Locke, "Harlem"). He continues that Harlem "stands for a folk-movement which in human significance can be compared with the pushing back of the western frontier...
or the waves of immigration which have swept overseas." Locke defines Harlem as a city of opportunity and hope for the vast number of immigrants that traveled into the city in the early part of its history. However, the Harlem Renaissance is not due to immigration; no, the Harlem Renaissance is because of the migration of the black community from the South. Harlem, stated by Locke, "has become the greatest Negro community the world has known." Another historian comments that the name "Harlem" itself is a pseudonym for "Negro metropolis" (Johnson, "The Making of Harlem"). So what happened in this African-American community for it to be called a renaissance? There was a renaissance in Harlem that defined what an "African-American" is. This is to say that the Harlem Renaissance can be defined as the finding of an identity for the black individual as well as the black community in America through the vessels of art: including music, painting, poetry; it was about the "Negro's thrust towards Democracy" (Locke, "Harlem"). In the early 1900 s, the African American population became anxious to migrate from the repressive southern states into the northern cities.
They simply wanted a better life for themselves and their families. Harlem was a popular place for these men, women and children to settle. Because of this migration Harlem became the center of African-American Culture. Particularly in the 1920 s, African-American literature, art, music, dance, and social commentary began to flourish in Harlem. More than a literary movement, the Harlem Renaissance exalted the unique culture of African-Americans and redefined African-American expression, encouraging the celebration of their heritage. For many African Americans, writing was an escape.
Authors wrote to escape the trials and tribulations of life, such as poverty and discrimination. In the 1920 s, writers like Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, and Zora Neale Hurston began publishing their poetry and prose that would come to define the African-American writing of the time. Langston Hughes is an excellent example of a black writer in Harlem. With his rich poetic voice, nurturing generosity, warm humor, and abiding love of African American people, he was one of the dominant voices in American literature of this century and perhaps the single most influential black poet.
He is recorded as once saying that he wrote "to explain and illuminate the Negro condition in America" (Crosby, "Langston Hughes"). To explain and illuminate the "Negro condition" was the goal of most African American writers in Harlem during the twenties. The works of these writers helped define the "African-American" to the people of America. The music of the Harlem Renaissance was predominantly Jazz. Jazz is characterized by improvisation, syncopated rhythms, and contrapuntal ensemble playing. J.
A. Rogers captures the importance of Jazz as being the music of the African American best: "Jazz in spite of it all is one part American and three parts American Negro" (Rogers, "Jazz at Home"). Stemming from African American spirituals sung in previous centuries, Jazz began in the slums of Harlem in an effort to create a style of music that had the beat of the blues but the joys of rock and roll. Jazz helped define the African- American individual and encouraged community, through music, during the renaissance. The visual art of the Harlem Renaissance was an attempt at developing a new African-American aesthetic in the fine arts. Having essentially no tradition to draw upon, the would-be painters, sculptors and graphic artists set out to establish their artistic community mainly through improvisation and style.
Believing that their life experiences were valuable sources of material for their art, these artists created an iconography (usage of recognizable symbols to convey the artist's message) representative of the Harlem Renaissance era. Thematic content included Africa as a source of inspiration, African-American history, folk idioms, including music and religion of the South, and social injustice. Their collective efforts not only established this new African-American identity, but also contributed to the development of our modern American culture. The Harlem Renaissance transformed African-American identity and history, but it also transformed American culture in general.
Never before had so many Americans read the thoughts of African-Americans and embraced the African-American community's productions, expressions, and style. A renaissance is defined by Webster's Dictionary by "a revival of intellectual or artistic achievement and vigor." In Harlem there was a revival of intelligence, art, music, and culture. During the twentieth century there was a renaissance in a small corner of New York called Harlem that forever defines who an "African-American" really is.