This is the fifth article in my 1920s Week series.
New York City has been lively at any time during its 400-year history, but in the 1920s the epicenter of its cultural orbit shifted for the first time north of Central Park. The Harlem Renaissance, one of the greatest cultural, artistic and literary explosions of the modern world, forever remade the American landscape of letters, music, dance, art and society. Arguably no single place in the United States has ever contributed more to American cultural history in so short a time than the Harlem Renaissance did. It is truly one of the most magnificent flowerings of cultural expression in modern Western history.
What’s amazing about it was how quickly it happened. Very few African-Americans lived in Harlem, comparatively speaking, before the First World War. An old Dutch neighborhood dating from the New Amsterdam days of the 17th century, Harlem became an ethnic center beginning about 1900 when immigrants and eventually blacks began to move in. Middle-class whites moved out, and African-American families and singles moved in together with their community leaders, churches and schools, all of whom sought to establish Harlem as a center of African-American life in the New York area. The entry of the United States into World War I provided a huge boom in jobs in industrial centers of the North. Blacks moved out of the rural South into the urban North in huge numbers in the late 1910s, and one of the places they settled was Harlem. By 1920 Harlem was almost unrecognizable from what it had been in 1900.
Some amazingly talented people numbered among Harlem’s new residents. One of them was Ridgely Torrence, a playwright whose compendium of dramas, Three Plays for a Negro Theater, premiered in Harlem in 1917, while the war was still going on. Torrence’s plays endeavored to show African-American life as it really was, and not in the crude blackface stereotypes of the minstrel and vaudeville theater then popular in New York. By the early 1920s black theater was an institution in Harlem, exhibiting the work of playwrights as well as performers. Josephine Baker, one of the most successful vaudevillians of the 20th century, built her career as a performer in Harlem. In the mid-1920s she took her act to Europe, where she was the highest-paid American performer overseas in the years before World War II. Josephine Baker is one of my personal heroes. In later years she was an important activist, striking blows both for African-American civil rights and the early stirrings of LGBT recognition, especially among bisexuals. The cachet she earned at the clubs of Harlem in the 1920s helped sustain her long and amazingly interesting career.
“Creole Love Call,” one of the greatest jazz songs ever recorded, was an early hit for Duke Ellington when he played at the Cotton Club in the late 1920s.
Duke Ellington, one of the greatest musicians in American history, was at the center of the Harlem Renaissance. He had helped invent jazz in the early 1910s, and while in New York a decade later perfected his creation, writing and recording songs throughout the 1920s. A major step in his career was his joining the Cotton Club–a nightclub featuring black musicians but catering exclusively to white upper-class audiences–as the house band there beginning in December 1927. This was only the beginning of a long and illustrious career that lasted until Ellington’s death in 1974.
In addition to performance artists and musicians, writers were vitally important to the Harlem Renaissance. As a geographical and cultural location, Harlem churned out more long-lasting and high-quality literature in the 1920s than any place on Earth with the possible exception of Paris, where expatriate Americans like Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein were also hard at work during the same years. Langston Hughes, who sought to highlight racial themes as well as the everyday lives and attitudes of African-Americans, was one of the most important. One of his great poems, “The Weary Blues,” which first appeared in 1925, sought to meld poetry with the rhythms and sensibilities of jazz and R&B music, thus creating a cultural fusion that could only have come out of Harlem in the 1920s. Zora Neale Hurston was another important Harlem Renaissance writer. Along with Hughes and others, Hurston was a member of the “Niggerati,” a fairly radical (for the time) group of African-American writers whose stories and poems dealt not only with racial themes, but also LGBT issues–one of the ultimate taboos of the 1920s–and sought to challenge the conventions of mostly white-oriented literary culture.
Josephine Baker, seen here performing in 1926, is one of my personal heroes. Her life was almost unmatched in the 20th century for its passion, its cultural richness and the conviction of her progressive achievements as a woman and a human being.
Was the Harlem Renaissance really new? Some people argued that it wasn’t–that artistic and cultural expression from the African-American community had always been just as rich and prolific, even from the time of slavery, but it was simply that white mainstream culture suddenly began to notice it in the 1920s and assumed it must have been something entirely new. It’s certainly true that the Harlem Renaissance had a long reach, geographically and temporally. Many people active in Harlem in the 1920s turned up again decades later helping to advance the African-American civil rights struggle of the 1950s/60s. Josephine Baker, who I mentioned earlier, found her greatest fame in the “cabaret culture” of Weimar Germany in the 1930s just before the Nazis came to power. James Baldwin, one of the most important black writers of the 20th century, was born during the Harlem Renaissance and took great inspiration from its traditions, including the diversion of its energy into advancing LGBT causes at a time when they were (still) taboo. As a bisexual man married to another man, I seriously doubt I would be able to have the relationship I have today without people like Josephine Baker and James Baldwin blazing the trail for us in so many ways.
The history of human culture in the modern era is one of the richest and most fascinating studies one can engage in when examining the past. In my opinion the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s was one of the great chapters in the history of human thought. It was unprecedented at the time and has been unmatched in the 90 years since. Any survey of the 1920s is incomplete without it.