During the Great Migration of 1914-1918, many rural Americans from South headed to the industrial North for employment opportunities. Among the many new mass congregations in American industrial cities, was a Harlem, New York City, a convergence of African-Americans from all over the country.
Harlem was essentially a Jewish neighborhood, until the black community settled here and in some parts of Chicago and Washington D.C, in the early decades of 1900. It went on to become the most influential African-American neighborhood in the 1920s.
Jean Toomer, Claude McKay, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes and James Johnson were acclaimed authors who grew in importance nationally. Their works pertaining to production of fictional work, art, magazines and newspapers demanding equality and humanitarian rights became tremendously popular nationwide.
The Harlem Renaissance showed the entire world that these people who were once thought of as slaves: people who could not think for themselves, could not be educated and were not allowed equal rights were now making significant contributions to societies all over the world in all facets of education, literature, the arts, and culture.
The movement embraced more than literature: it included race-building and image-building, jazz poeticcs, progressive or socialist politics, racial integration, the musical and sexual freedom of Harlem nightlife, and the pursuit of hedonism.
Sterling Brown, a lesser-known Renaissance writer, has identified five themes animating the movement: 1) Africa as a source of race pride, 2) black American heroes, 3) racial political propaganda, 4) the black folk tradition, and 5) candid self-revelation.
Nobody could have anticipated the Great Depression, but the renaissance was shattered by it because of naive assumptions about the centrality of culture, unrelated to economic and social realities. They were comrades in this innocence with many white intellectuals of the time.
No aspect of the Harlem Renaissance shaped America and the entire world as much as jazz. Jazz flouted many musical conventions with its syncopated rhythms and improvised instrumental solos.
Harlem's Cotton Club boasted the talents of Duke Ellington. Singers such as Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday popularized blues and jazz vocals. Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong drew huge audiences as white Americans as well as African Americans caught jazz fever.
For aspiring African-American writers in the 1920s, Harlem was the place to be. Never before in America had there been such a creative environment for black poets, playwrights, novelists, essayists, artists, and musicians. While blacks in other cities faced race riots, many in Harlem were able to thrive in a supportive community.