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HARLEM RENAISSANCE: The Blossoming of African-American Culture in the 1920s
In Harlem, a largely African-American neighborhood in New York City, a creative explosion of literature, music, and other forms of artistic expression burst on the scene in the 1920s. Known as the Harlem Renaissance, this cultural flourishing brought the debate over racial identity, integration, and the future of black America to the forefront of national consciousness. Many people argued that the writers and artists of the Harlem Renaissance had an obligation to convey “respectable” images of African Americans to white society to counter centuries of racist stereotypes of blacks in popular culture. Art, they contended, should be used for political means, not for its own sake. Others, however, argued that the writers and artists of the Harlem Renaissance should aim to capture the unique voices of the black masses, not the artificial, “proper” portrayals that catered to the elite tastes of white society and the black bourgeoisie. Countering racist stereotypes in popular culture was crucial to achieving equality for African Americans, they contended, but not at the cost of sacrificing genuine and realistic forms of black artistry.
Let your students get the facts and decide for themselves: Should Harlem Renaissance writers and artists have primarily sought to integrate with mainstream culture and advance the political goals of the civil rights establishment through their works? Or should they have been free to express authentic and distinctly African-American themes? Be sure to check out Issues & Controversies in American History’s clear and unbiased examination of the arguments surrounding the Harlem Renaissance this month.
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