An era that started around 1919 and went on until the mid-1930s is termed the Harlem Renaissance. This era is mostly considered to have declined in the wake of the Great Depression. As a cultural movement, the Harlem Renaissance saw the introduction of the African American culture into the Northern, North Eastern, and Mid Western cities of the United States. This is mainly because there was an influx of African American citizens immigrating to these regions, previously unoccupied by them. Initially, Harlem was home to upper and middle class whites, but with the influx of European immigrants they moved further up north. As a suburban neighborhood, Harlem soon became a convergence point for immigrants from the South as well as from other countries with African ancestry, such as the Caribbean Islands. The African Americans of the Harlem Renaissance were mainly freed slaves and their families. They had come to New York as part of the Great Migration where former slaves moved north from their southern havens in search of better standards of living after the end of slavery. Upon their emancipation, most of the slaves and their families lived through the tough times with the institutionalization of racism in the south and political disenfranchising of the blacks and poor whites by the Democratic whites. Without political representation and a civil voice, former slaves had to find greener pastures and the North seemed calm and lucrative enough. That is why the Great Migration started, and ended in the Harlem Renaissance. At Harlem, people were seeking work having moved from the plantations in the South. This was at the beginning of the 20th Century, when the exclusive suburb was taken over by the black realtors and church groups. During the World War I, the populations of the African American people in the Northern cities increased as they left the poor living conditions in the racist South to pursue better opportunities in the North and Midwest.
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As a cultural movement, the Harlem Renaissance can be seen as a period in African American history as well as American cultural history that resulted from the changes experienced by the African American populations after the abolition of slavery. The African American population was only setting itself up as a part of the general American population, having newly acquired their status as free men and women. Their entry into the general American society sparked numerous changes in cultural and social dimensions. Thus, it is impossible to disregard their significance to American history.
The current paper is not necessarily about the Harlem Renaissance, but rather about the African American populations at the time. The paper will consider issues such as religion, occupation, language, family life, social structure, cultural contexts, economics and any rivalries that may have existed at the time.
Religious values can be defined as the things that set religious communities apart from the non religious ones. These are thus values that dictate how people define good and bad, make moral decisions and relate with others. These values often vary by religion with regards to their prioritization, but mainly they are all the same across each faith.
Being freed from the Southern plantations, it can be stated that people of the Harlem Renaissance were mainly Christians by religion. During the days of slavery, Christianity was seen as a religion imposed upon the slaves by their masters. A few years on, Christianity became an option for the slaves to become educated as they could only access the church schools due to their financial and social status. Thus, as slavery came to an end, the former slaves and their families forming the African American community of the Harlem Renaissance were mostly Christians as an issue of both social and intellectual belonging. This means that Christianity was spread amongst the African American people of the Harlem Renaissance. This, however, was not always the case.
The African Americans had mixed feelings towards Christianity at the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance. Most of them had been introduced to Christianity while in the South and were witnesses to the cruelty and inhumane nature of the masters, most of whom professed the same faith in God. As a result, they always questioned the authenticity of this religion based on the fact that some of its followers were very cruel and evil. With the changing circumstances and their access to education, they developed a new philosophical approach, in which each individual was responsible for their actions and accountable to God not based on the religion to which they subscribed, but on their actions and thoughts. In this way, the actions of their former masters became irrelevant to their faith and soon after the start of the Renaissance there was an overwhelming wave of Christianity that saw almost the entire African American community subscribing to one church or another. The need to worship and belong to a religious denomination became a strict part of the African American culture such that the church became a powerful institution in social change and political will. The church became a formidable institution with regards to how the affairs of the African American community were run. Church services also became relevant to the time of strategizing the approaches for dealing with a variety of community issues.
Amongst many aspects of religion at the time, one could clearly pick out a few values that cut across the entire African American community, regardless of the denomination as there were Orthodox Christians, Catholics, Protestants and Pentecostal believers. While each family or social grouping within the African American community aligned itself with a bigger church, they all believed in God and refrained from questioning Him. It became a cultural practice to go to church and attend sermons, and the centrality of the church during this period can be seen in the power of religious ministers with regards to the social and political institution that was Harlem at the time.
The main religious values that were taught during the Harlem Renaissance amongst the African Americans included peace, equality, perseverance, modesty, compassion and humility as well as servitude.
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Back in the South, African Americans had suffered racist attacks from the side of the local governments through vigilante activity. They had also been subjected to torture and unpaid labor as a result of the failure of the Reconstruction after the abolition of slavery. Their freedom only brought a worse form of affliction upon them, and this is what drove them away from the region they had grown to call home. Thus, when they had an opportunity to move to Harlem, they saw it as an opportunity equal to what was written in the Bible, when the people of Israel were pulled out of Egypt into a better land and better life. Their move to Harlem was seen as salvation by Gods merciful hands and thus, they believed in Him even more. During their peaceful stay at Harlem, they were often reminded by the religious leaders to uphold peaceful coexistence even in the face of adversity, and this value spread out across the entire African American community. The people were thus generally peace-loving and tried their best to live up to the teachings of their preachers and the Bible. It can thus be stated that during the Harlem Renaissance, peace was a major value for the people. While most of them were Christians, even those who were not, were forced to live by the code or at the risk of being considered the bad seeds.
Amongst the most important basics of Christianity and other religions during the Harlem Renaissance was the value of equality. During this time, the African Americans had fresh memories of their slavery and they were understandably angry. Also, with the failed Reconstruction and the resulting institutionalization of racial discrimination by the Democrats in the South, there were a lot of negative feelings towards the whites. To avoid a clash, the religious leaders at the time set out to procure a forgiveness and reconciliation mission by using the scriptures. Sermons were increasingly centered on the subject of equality, as preachers called on to the populations to see everyone as a God’s creation regardless of their race, nationality and economic status. This call may have yielded great results as the African American community rather than seeking revenge for the misdeeds perpetrated against them by the whites in the South, set out to introduce themselves and their culture to the whites in the North and Midwest. They moved on from their hurt and went on to form a new impression in the hearts and minds of the white people.
This, however, was a one-sided effort as the African Americans continued to encounter racial discrimination and stereotyping attacks while staying in Harlem and other Northern and Midwestern areas. It can be stated that while there was a major effort on the part of these African Americans with regards to a harmonious co-existence, the efforts did not bare as much fruit as expected, because other communities were closed off to the idea of cultural diversity and were more comfortable sticking to their kind.
The Harlem Renaissance was largely a time for the African American people to recover from their hardships and build a better future for themselves and their children. They had just left slavery and unpaid labor behind to earn a living in the Northern cities, and thus, they were looking forward to a better life. At Harlem, there were few jobs and a high number of immigrants from the South as well as from other countries competing for those jobs. In this way, the African American people had to face a hard time yet again. Sensing their despair, the community leaders set out to give them hope by preaching perseverance as a religious value. Learning from the example of Jesus, people were encouraged to go through their tough times with a hope of a better tomorrow. Generally, the African American community was taken through the Biblical stories of endurance, often with a happy ending, to ensure that they did not lose hope. With this, the leaders managed to keep people calm and hopeful through their tough times. To do this, the African American citizens at Harlem often convened to encourage one another in their daily living experience, especially with regards to their economic hardships.
Generally, overindulgence was considered sinful at the time when so many surrounding people were suffering. Modesty thus became a central religious value amongst the African Americans of the Harlem Renaissance. In more ways than one, people were taught decency and modesty as a right thing unlike indecency and obscenity. Children were discouraged and often punished for using strong language, and the young adults too were trained to speak without offending others. Generally, these people cared a lot about the welfare of those around them and thus, modesty became a great way of ensuring a harmonious coexistence with ones neighbors.
Amongst the most distinctive values of the African American people even up to date is their ability to pull together in times of suffering. This is what compassion is all about; it may be considered an ability to feel another persons pain and offer them the kind of support that they need at the time. During the Harlem Renaissance, African Americans lived in the spirit of brotherhood, in which they shared each others joys and sorrows as well. In this way, they were taught to be compassionate towards one another and live together as a community that could support each of their own. This value provided a great basis for their brotherhood that saw them supporting each other through the difficult times and rejoicing in one anothers victories.
Looking at the history of people who were influential during the Harlem Renaissance, it is clear that humility was among the great values learnt by the society through religion. People greatly respected humble personalities, and humility became a virtue to be admired in a person. Within religion, humility was equated to holiness or righteousness as religious leaders were expected to be humble. As a religious value, humility was the basis of good leadership to the African American people at the time.
Servitude implies the willingness and ability to serve people selflessly and without reservations. Amongst the leaders of the African American citizens during the Harlem Renaissance, servitude was seen as a great trait that enabled them to not only earn the respect of people, but also to be listened to by other races from all over the world. Thus, servitude as a religious value was emphasized especially regarding those seeking leadership in whichever capacity. This basically implies that being an African American leader required one to be selfless and capable of sacrificing for the sake of their subjects. This explains why the leaders of this community at the time were not only highly respected within their communities, but were to be respected throughout the world long after they passed on.
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Having been mostly slaves in the South, the African Americans of the Harlem Renaissance were a renewed lot with a new vision of themselves. Most of them sent their children to school and encouraged them to pursue education as their way out of poverty and discrimination. As a result, the African Americans of the Harlem Renaissance had many occupations depending on their level of education. There were the unskilled laborers, intellectuals, musicians, writers, artists and businessmen.
The African American populations were encouraged to move to the urbanized North because of the opportunities it presented with regards to jobs and a better life in general. Once in Harlem, they went on seeking employment as cleaners, watchmen, cooks, loaders, bus conductors and factory workers among others. These people were unskilled in that they had spent most of their lives working as slaves in the South and the urbanized North did not have farms and plantations that they could work in. Thus, they had to fit in with the available opportunities by taking up manual labor in the factories. Also, with the World War I, the opportunities for employment greatly increased as many people were conscripted and had to leave the factories to go to war. The unskilled laborers were thus able to improve their living standards, although the compensation may not have been as lucrative. Nevertheless, they appreciated it, as it was much better than the unpaid labor and slavery in the South.
With the renewed pride and consciousness amongst the African Americans in terms of their culture, they embraced education and sought to become a significant part of the American population by participating in nation building initiatives. As a result, many African American intellectuals came to be during the Harlem Renaissance having made significant contributions to their communities by becoming role models and heroes. Some of these include W.E.B DuBois, Langston Hughes and Marcus Garvey among others. The intellectuals were pivotal in creating and spreading a philosophical dispensation that saw the African Americans of the Harlem Renaissance embracing their identity and culture and showing it off to the rest of the nation with pride and acceptance. These intellectuals also showed people that success did not discriminate those who worked hard and believed in themselves. As a result, young African Americans were able to pursue their dreams and eventually become professionals as doctors, lawyers, teachers and even engineers.
Musicians, Composers, and Dancers
Dance and music were an essential part of the African American culture even while in the South. During the Harlem Renaissance, people took entertainment more seriously, especially now that they were no longer slaves and people were making enough money to pay for shows and records of their own. The entertainment business grew significantly amongst the African Americans of the Harlem Renaissance, and it can be said that this era saw a high number of African American musicians, composers and dancers as well as those working in the sphere of entertainment. The entertainers of that time include Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, Gladys Bentley, Ivie Anderson, Lucille Bogan, and Eubie Blake among others. Josephine Baker and The Nicholas Brothers are among the renowned dancers of the time.
Literature is considered to have undergone the most significant change and development during the Harlem Renaissance owing the number of African American writers that came forth and got published during the time. Amongst them were James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston, Rudolf Fisher, Nella Larsen, Walter White and Langston Hughes. It was during this time that white publishers became interested in black literature and the African American writers finally made their breakthrough in a field otherwise dominated by the whites. With the increasing number and popularity of black literature, the African American community cemented its place in the American culture through a widespread literature movement that brought the African American culture to the rest of the American population. The writers soon became a pivotal part of the cultural movement as they were responsible for telling the African American story to the rest of the world.
As a part of the change in momentum with regards to cultural expressions, the African American art also became more noticeable during the Harlem Renaissance. As a result, the artists of the time were considered an equal part of the cultural movement as they played a significant role in bringing the African American story to the world. Amongst the famous artists were Meta Filler, Palmer Hayden, Aaron Douglas and William Johnson; their works included paintings, sculptures and portraits with significant ties to the African American culture and experience. The artists were famous for their ability to tell stories and not just appealing to aesthetics. This made the African American art a great part of the American history as the artists of the following generations were not only inspired, but also greatly influenced by them. Their pieces covered political, social, religious and economic themes from the perspective of the African American people.
After their emancipation, some former slaves had entered into partnerships, by means of which they earned little money. They used this to set themselves up in Harlem where some bought houses and others set up businesses. The houses were then rented off to the new African American families from the South, creating African American communities that had black landlords and black owned businesses. The businessmen were not only a great inspiration for the community, but also a great source of economic stability as they became the financial institutions that provided loans based on trust and brotherhood. These loans were often used for emergencies, school fees and starting up small businesses. In the end, it is these businessmen who greatly built the Harlem community to become a cultural center as they opened museums, operas and other spots that have continued to attract visitors to the place. The Harlem business community is thus credited with developing the area into an international center for the African American culture.
African Americans are a generally social group, in which family ties are considered sacred. As a result, they lived in large extended family settings. While slavery had separated most families, those that remained intact were privileged to get together after the Great Migration and they lived together during the Harlem Renaissance. The family structure was matriarchal where mother was always in charge of the family. Mothers cared for their children and their extended families as best as they could, not only working to provide for them but also striving to instill the desired values and traits in them. As a result, the people of the Harlem Renaissance lived in tight family units with a great respect for the womenfolk.
In Harlem, families were sacred and people respected family ties. This means that families often lived together and those who could not be together often found a place in other families. While the apartments were relatively small, especially for the blue collar workers families, they got by through their love and respect for one another. In some cases, fathers were absent and mothers had to work to sustain families. In the cases where fathers were available and capable of providing for their families, wives were responsible for home making and raising children.
Also, there were some cases when children had no parents for one reason or another. Some had been orphaned while in the South and during the Great Migration, while others had simply found themselves without parents, probably having been abandoned at a tender age. These children were in some cases taken in by other families, while others were left to provide for themselves on the streets because of the harsh economic times. While the Harlem community believed in brotherhood, they had challenges too; taking care of the orphans was a great challenge. They, however, tried their best, just as they tried to take care of the single mothers.
The Harlem Renaissance was a greatly harsh time for the African American community with regards to their economic situation. They were newly arriving from the South, most of them only with the clothes on their backs, having barely survived the maltreatment by the wealthy white Democrats. Upon their arrival in the Northern city, they hoped to find a job and sustain their livelihoods, but before that they needed a starting point. Harlem was an urban area in the New York City and thus the population was already relatively high. Thus, the African Americans in their large numbers had to compete for the scarce job opportunities offered by the developing city. This means that they had to settle for low paying jobs, especially in manual departments, which they considered demeaning to their race. The fact that they set their pride aside and accepted manual jobs implies that they had no option being in a new place with no source of livelihood at all. It may be stated that the African Americans of the Harlem Renaissance were going through a foundational period, in which they were laying the groundwork on a very tough terrain. Yet they needed to believe in the future even though they had nothing to fall back on.
A good number of the population got work as unskilled laborers doing manual jobs in the city and in factories, while others were fortunate enough to acquire education and get employment in the formal sector. Also, there were those who had made some investments back in the South and had come with little money. These were able to set themselves up with businesses and small real estate firms. These were the economic powerhouses of the Harlem area as banks were relatively unreceptive of the community.
Years later, the community developed into a social and economic hub as more and more opportunities were presented to the populations. With jobs and businesses, some of the African Americans of the Harlem Renaissance were able to improve their living standards and become middle and even upper class citizens through hard work, job promotions and successful businesses. Some were, however, unable to experience this kind of success and they continued to struggle with poor living conditions and manual labor. It is these people that suffered most during the Renaissance. They had to live through the hard times and keep the hope alive despite the bleak situation.
Looking at the African American population from an economic perspective, there are a number of things that come to mind. There were socio-economic divisions that may have been carried all the way from the South, while other divisions may have come as a result of hard work and strategic thinking. The African Americans at Harlem could be divided into low, middle and upper socio-economic classes. The upper class constituted of a very few families, mostly comprised of intellectuals and businessmen with holdings in the citys most lucrative businesses. While there were very few upper class African American families, they were significant in that they inspired the lower class to work hard and did not have to be white to be successful. The upper class citizens were mostly those with great influence in their fields of interest such as entertainment, literature, banking and education as well as entrepreneurship among others.
The middle class African Americans were mostly the professionals like teachers, doctors and lawyers who could afford paying their rent for large apartments. The landlords and businessmen were also a part of the middle class and they could sustain themselves comfortably. The middle class at the time constituted of people with a stable source of income, mostly employed in skilled labor. They could pay their rent, take up loans and attain higher education to make their lives better. These individuals and families were also a part of the growing consumerist culture and they spent most of their money on new appliances and products as advertised in the media.
The low class, on the other hand, constituted of the manual laborers and jobless individuals who could barely afford a living. They struggled with rent and education, most of them opting to work double shifts and double jobs in some cases. These families also often took in boarders to help with covering their rents.
The most successful people during the Harlem Renaissance were, however, the litterateurs and artists, as the era was a cultural movement. Cultural expressions were a great investment such that the wealth lied mostly in the art industry with music, literature and art. Musicians, dancers and composers gained a lot of recognition, especially in the white communities as they were being introduced to something new and very different from what they were accustomed to. They made a lot of money from shows both in and out of Harlem. Litterateurs, on the other hand, got the attention of the white publishers and increased the demand for their works thus generating a niche for themselves in the world of literature. They were thus able to live a good life and stabilize themselves economically.
Economically, the African Americans of the Harlem Renaissance were diversified in that they were at different points in their financial lives. Some were able to become economically stable and live comfortably, owing their employment or artistic endeavors, while others were left to struggle against the hardships of a low income bracket as well as unemployment.
The Harlem Renaissance is even stated to have ended because of economic hardships as experienced during the Great Depression as most of the middle income families lost their status and went back to low income, and the crime rates peaked, thus threatening the stability of the entire Harlem community. The economic tribulations that came along with the Great Depression led to a decline in the community and ensured that the cultural movement could not continue as people began losing hope in themselves and their ability to make their lives better.
Being a black community, the African Americans of the Harlem Renaissance faced great rivalry from two sides. First, they had to deal with racial discrimination from the native whites as well as the immigrants. Secondly, they had to encounter the animosity of their fellow blacks in terms of the immigrant families.
Native Whites and White Immigrants
Having just left the South in pursuit of more humane living conditions, the African Americans of the Harlem Renaissance were emotionally vulnerable to racial discrimination. They had suffered too much of the institutionalized version after the failed Reconstruction after the abolition of slavery. While in the North, they hoped for social integration and acceptance as the urban populations were expected to be more civilized. However, they encountered a few representatives of the white community who were rigid about integration and opted to stay away from the African American community altogether.
Most of the people who grew up during the Renaissance encountered segregation in that they were teased and taunted for being different. The media portrayed being white as a definition of being powerful, successful and beautiful such that the young African Americans doubted their selves worth. In some instances, they were put in a position where they had to physically confront their adversaries in order to defend their selves. And while the whites who were originally Americans had come to tolerate the presence of the African Americans as a part of their national heritage, the European immigrants were not as receptive and they continued to insult and demean the African Americans, often seeing them as runaway slaves as opposed to the emancipated ones. In more ways than one, the immigrants presented more of a challenge to the social integration of the African Americans of the Harlem Renaissance than their native white counterparts.
The Black Immigrants
Immigrants were flocking to the United States during the time, most of them seeking better opportunities with regards to the political and economic stability, and they were all attracted to Harlem. This means that the community was composed of a mixture of the African Americans from the South and other black immigrants mostly from the Caribbean and West Indies. These two communities had a lot of differences, despite having the same skin tone. First, the immigrants had their families intact unlike the former slaves, whose families had been torn apart by slavery. Also, these immigrants had a patriarchal family structure unlike the matriarchal structure of the former slaves. They also had different social and cultural practices including religious allegiance and sense of fashion. Consequently, there was a bitter rivalry between the two groups with each accusing the other of being fake and deviating from the original African culture. The immigrants claimed to be the real Africans, practicing the original cultures and not being influenced by the whites. The former slaves, on the other hand, claimed to be modern African Americans and not backwards like the immigrants.
There were a lot of exchanges within the Harlem community that pitted the immigrants against the former slaves during the Renaissance. While on the surface, they were one harmonious community of the African American citizens; they had strong conflicts that were bubbling under up until the end of the Renaissance. In more ways than one, these rivalries led the African Americans to question the origin of some of their cultural practices, while the immigrants embraced the need to be modern in order to fit the American culture.
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Their Place in the American Society
The African Americans of the Harlem Renaissance were enlightened of their place in the American society by their intellectual members who had for so long tried to understand the concept of being citizens in a land far from home. They specifically appreciated the fact that their main role was to introduce themselves to the American population in order to establish that they were as similar as they were different and that being American went beyond having the same skin tone.
Looking at the contributions of the African Americans of the Harlem Renaissance into the American history, it is clear that their role in the American society was that of enlightenment. For so long had they only been known as slaves with a past as dark as their skin, that erasing this identity was being a problem amongst the whites and even amongst themselves. But as free and educated persons, they had an ability to communicate and formulate relationships that would enable them to express their culture and let the whites in on what being an African American really meant. This was clear in the way cultural expressions in the form of music, art, dance, literature and fashion took the center stage. The whites thus became more interested and appreciative of the African Americans as a result of the Harlem Renaissance.
The African Americans of the Harlem Renaissance played a significant role for the American society; they opened it up to embracing former slaves by letting the whites in on their culture and way of life. Generally, these people were mistreated out of ignorance and fear. The whites formerly kept away from them since they did not know anything about them. Through the cultural movement of the Harlem Renaissance, however, they set out to enlighten the nation on who they were, where they came from, what they had experienced and why they were the same humans as the rest. In other words, the African Americans of the Harlem Renaissance introduced the African American culture to the American society and laid a foundation for acceptance and co-existence between the blacks and the whites. And while racial discrimination did not end immediately, it can be stated that the African American communities all across the country experienced a lot more tolerance and acceptance as the whites were coming to accept the fact that they too were humans with strengths and weaknesses, needs and wants, dreams, ambitions and potentials like the rest of them. It can be stated that the Harlem Renaissance set a stage for the acceptance and assimilation of the African American community into the American society in the end.
Before the Harlem Renaissance, the African Americans did not dictate the directions of their lives. They were merely slaves with no political will or financial capacity. During the Renaissance however, they acquired education and were able to vote as they were now in the Northern city of New York where equality was just around the corner. The African Americans of the Harlem Renaissance could thus make their own decisions and control the events in their lives. Economically, however, some things were out of their control like the Great Depression that ended the cultural movement of the Harlem Renaissance. They were thus vulnerable to the natural forces although they mostly lived by their rules at the time. Those who ventured into music and literature enjoyed remarkable success, but the manual laborers, middle class professionals and businessmen suffered a great deal during the Great Depression. Their success was greatly undermined by the harshness of the recession on the nations economy. The historical significance of this group of people can be assessed on the basis of the effects of their actions and the time period, within which they existed. First, the African Americans of the Harlem Renaissance laid a foundation for the elimination of racial discrimination. They also set a pace for development in the African American communities with regards to a change of attitude and a need to succeed.