The Harlem Renaissance and the Jazz Age
The 1920s saw the continuation of African American migration out of the American South. As African Americans moved north, they brought with them a culture born of their experiences navigating an often unfair society based on social norms for which they possessed little ability to change. African Americans in the South developed complex ways of dealing with their secondary status, from cautious acquiescence to outright defiance. Out of these cultural navigations came jazz, America’s first authentic art form.
F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1937
Original location of the Cotton Club
Jazz grew out of the era’s ragtime music, and its influence was not restricted to the musical arena. Author F. Scott Fitzgerald labeled the period from the end of the Great War to the Great Depression as the “Jazz Age” as much for the cultural change it brought about as the music that defined it. While much of the country found solace in the policies associated with Prohibition, Fitzgerald chronicled the hedonism found in the Jazz Age in many of his works, including The Beautiful and the Damned, The Great Gatsby, and Tales from the Jazz Age. Speakeasies and night clubs abounded in urban areas as Prohibition was routinely circumvented or ignored outright.
Bigotry in American society remained a formidable obstacle, but jazz music and the culture it produced offered Americans an unprecedented opportunity to interact with one another regardless of race. White patrons routinely frequented jazz clubs to listen to African American performers like Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, and Duke Ellington.
Duke Ellington established commercial radio as a medium for music. Thousands of Americans tuned in weekly for Ellington’s performances from the famous Cotton Club. Located in Harlem, a Manhattan neighborhood famous as a refuge for African Americans, the Cotton Club nevertheless often denied admission to black patrons even as African American jazz performers headlined the establishment. Many famous Americans visited the music venue, including the mayor of New York. The Cotton Club’s policies regarding race highlighted the frustration of many African Americans at the time.
The Harlem Renaissance
In 1925 Howard University Professor of Philosophy Alain Locke published an essay entitled “The New Negro,” arguing that African Americans should reject their historical image as former slaves. Locke’s writing encompassed many of Marcus Garvey’s ideas about black pride as African Americans who migrated from the Jim Crow South began expressing their disdain openly for their secondary status in American society. Locke became known as the “Father of the Harlem Renaissance,” a movement that represented an outpouring of African American culture and entrepreneurship.
Harlem became a mecca for African Americans seeking to embrace their own cultural heritage. Expressions of African American culture encompassed literature, performance, and visual arts. It also produced new works in the areas of sociology, history and philosophy as an educated African American middle class emerged.
The most notable figure from the Harlem Renaissance remains writer Langston Hughes. Hughes wrote novels, short stories, and plays, but is most remembered for his poetry. His personal views evolved over time from antagonism to frustration regarding the plight of African Americans. Hughes’ work is noted for its search for acceptance of African Americans within the large framework of American society, which was most evident in his famous short poem “Motto.” The poem’s last verse reads “My motto, As I live and learn is: Dig and be dug, in return.”
Did you know?
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?