The Harlem Renaissance began in the Harlem neighborhood in New York City as a Black cultural center in the early 20th century. A social and artistic explosion lasted from the 1910s through the mid-1930s. This time is considered a “golden age” in African American culture. This movement brought with it not only more art and literature but recognition for Black artists in America.
One of the most famous writers of the Harlem Renaissance was Langston Hughes. A well-known poet, Hughes also wrote novels, short stories, and plays. He did not draw inspiration from previous poets, but he wrote with a rhythmic meter inspired by Blues and jazz music. Hughes also wrote a poem entitled “The Weary Blues.” He promoted equality, condemned racism and injustice, and told the struggles that Black Americans face.
The syncopated rhythms and improvisation in Blues music attracted new listeners during the Harlem Renaissance. This unique sound meant that no two performances would sound the same. Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday popularized Blues and jazz vocals at this time. During the Harlem Renaissance, a new way of playing the piano, the Harlem Stride style, was created. It soon became popular and spread throughout the country. This style is prominent in the song “Backwater Blues,” performed by Bessie Smith and James P. Johnson.
Zora Neale Hurston was a Harlem Renaissance anthropologist and folklorist. Her work celebrated the African American culture of the rural South, representing the female perspective in this cultural movement. She was commissioned to record Blues musicians and other folk artists in Florida. Her recordings of work songs and even a Blues melody by Zora herself gave insight into Florida’s often forgotten Blues history.
The Harlem Renaissance painter, Aaron Douglas, shows similar ideals that the Blues promoted. His paintings helped establish the Blues as a form of art seen by the entertainment industry. In the mural “Songs of the Towers,” Aaron Douglas painted how he saw Blues artists and African American history.