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What was the Harlem Renaissance?

The Harlem Renaissance refers to the African-American boom of cultural expression that peaked in the 1920s. Harlem, in New York City, was at the center of what was first called the New Negro Movement and then the Harlem Renaissance. The Harlem Renaissance was a celebration of African-American heritage expressed through an outpouring of art, literature, music and dance.

The Harlem Renaissance was helped along by intellectuals and the expansion of urban cultures. Artistic expression and articulated appreciation of African-American culture helped to get white Americans to take notice of the talents of black Americans for the first time. The Harlem Renaissance succeeded in destroying some racist stereotypes through brilliant works in song, dance, paint and print.

Missouri-born African-American Langston Hughes wrote fiction works relating to black American experiences such as in his poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” The Cotton Club and the Apollo Theater became popular venues for African-American performers. Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald are some of the great African-American musical artists to come out of the Harlem Renaissance.

The Harlem Renaissance began to wind down by the middle of the 1930s. The Great Depression was at least partly responsible for the end of the Harlem Renaissance as financial necessities became more important that artistic expression. Strong supporters of the Harlem Renaissance such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) changed course to support those who were struggling economically. Many African-American artists from the Harlem Renaissance had to leave Harlem to find work elsewhere, but black writers who were still writing kept being published after the Harlem Renaissance.

For the first time, white-owned publishing houses published books by black authors. Some white Americans helped to promote the literary works of black Americans to the white community. Black-owned businesses helped black artists. The Harlem Renaissance was about being proud to be African-American, or a black American.

Black figures and not just white figures were now being depicted in American art. Black musicians were playing to white crowds. Jazz and blues as well as gospel types of music were very popular during the Harlem Renaissance. African-American plays, poetry, fiction and essays were produced at a high rate.

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