The Harlem Renaissance was a powerful cultural movement that began around 1910 and lasted into the 1930s, led by Black Americans in New York City and throughout the country. In the early 20th century, hundreds of thousands of Black Americans arrived in the American North seeking safer lives, as well as personal and economic freedom and opportunity. In New York City, they set down roots and built a creative community that led the Manhattan neighborhood of Harlem to become known internationally as a mecca for Black culture and pride. Influential creatives such as writers Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, musician Louis Armstrong, and artist Augusta Savage were all part of this golden age in Black literature, music, art, and performance.
The enslavement of Black people in the U.S. had ended only about 45 years before this Renaissance took off, and the Jim Crow era of the segregated American South that followed slavery was both unsafe and unprofitable for Black people. These conditions led millions to move to the North and Midwest of the country in what is now known as the Great Migration, from around 1910 into the 1970s. Many people migrated to the Northeast, and more than 175,000 people moved to Harlem.
The Harlem Renaissance spurred Black-centric literary publications, a popular nightclub and speakeasy scene, and a community wherein Black makers and dreamers supported one another in developing their identities and a shared sense of belonging. These Renaissance visionaries expressed themselves through jazz and blues music, poetry and political commentary, sculpture and paintings, and other media. While this cultural period wound down in the 1930s, due to the Great Depression and other factors, it left an indelible impression on the soul of the country, and is widely considered to have been a catalyst for the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Here are eight quotes from the luminous creative minds of the Harlem Renaissance.
Stir the root-life of a withered people. Call them from their houses and teach them to dream.
– Jean Toomer
Jean Toomer was a writer whose life and works spanned the American racial divide. A man of both Black and white heritage, he went to both all-Black and all-white schools, attended multiple colleges, including in New York, and traveled extensively. This quote comes from Toomer’s book Cane, a collection of stories and poems that is Toomer’s most acclaimed work. It illustrates the author’s experiences in both the American South and North, and was widely praised as a central Harlem Renaissance work.
And all I’m saying is, see, what a wonderful world it would be if only we’d give it a chance. Love, baby, love. That’s the secret, yeah. If lots more of us loved each other, we’d solve lots more problems.
– Louis Armstrong
Jazz legend Louis Armstrong’s career as a trumpeter, singer, composer, and actor spanned five decades, starting in the early 1920s. He gained success as a soloist and within various bands in Chicago and Queens, and regularly graced Harlem’s club scene. His unique, rumbly voice, onstage charm, and musical prowess made him a national icon. In the quote above, he references his still-famous and oft-covered song, “What a Wonderful World.”
Mama exhorted her children at every opportunity to “jump at de sun.” We might not land on the sun, but at least we would get off the ground.
– Zora Neale Hurston
Zora Neale Hurston was a writer, anthropologist, and teacher whose parents were once enslaved. She studied and uplifted Black culture, including that of the African diaspora, and often wrote about the experiences of Black women in the Southern U.S. She drew on both personal experience and research in her novels and poems, including the now well-known book Their Eyes Were Watching God. Her talents were recognized among Harlem Renaissance creatives and within the Black community of the period but, largely due to racial and gender barriers, she struggled to gain widespread recognition and economic security during her lifetime.
Humor is your own unconscious therapy. Like a welcome summer rain, humor may suddenly cleanse and cool the earth, the air, and you.
– Langston Hughes
A friend of and literary collaborator with Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes was a prolific poet whose portrayal of Black America was lauded during and after his lifetime. He was a standout writer whose lyrical and accessible works conveyed the range of Black American life he experienced and witnessed, including grief, rage, curiosity, hope, love, and laughter. The critic Donald B. Gibson wrote that rather than being esoteric, Hughes “addressed his poetry to the people, specifically to Black people.”
I believe that all men, black and brown and white, are brothers, varying through time and opportunity, in form and gift and feature, but differing in no essential particular, and alike in soul and in the possibility of infinite development.
– W.E.B. Du Bois
W.E.B. Du Bois was a Black author, civil rights leader, professor, historian, and sociologist. A prominent figure in the Great Migration, he protested segregation and encouraged Black people to migrate away from the South. He also co-founded the NAACP and the Niagara Movement, an advocacy group of Black academics, and founded and edited the NAACP’s magazine, The Crisis, which supported Black writers of the period and, in 1921, printed Langston Hughes’ first published poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” DuBois called “the color line” the defining problem of the 20th century and was one of the era’s most influential thinkers and activists.
I have created nothing really beautiful, really lasting, but if I can inspire one of these youngsters to develop the talent I know they possess, then my monument will be in their work.
– Augusta Savage
Savage was a sculptor, art teacher, and art program director who migrated from Florida to Harlem. She became known for deftly creating realistic busts of Black people, including prominent leaders such as W.E.B. Du Bois. She was the first Black person to be a member of the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors and received fellowships to study in Europe. She was also the first director of the Harlem Community Art Center. Teaching was a lifelong passion of hers, as the quote above explains. Despite the humility she expressed, she created many beautiful works.
I don’t want no drummer. I set the tempo.
– Bessie Smith
Bessie Smith, aka the “Empress of the Blues,” was a soulful singer who became one of the highest-paid Black performers of her time. After starting out singing on the streets and dancing in minstrel shows, she was discovered by blues legend Ma Rainey, who guided her early career. Smith signed a deal with Columbia Records in 1923 and collaborated with many other greats, including Louis Armstrong.
Your world is as big as you make it.
I know, for I used to abide
In the narrowest nest in a corner,
My wings pressing close to my side.
But I sighted the distant horizon
Where the skyline encircled the sea
And I throbbed with a burning desire
To travel this immensity.
I battered the cordons around me
And cradled my wings on the breeze,
Then soared to the uttermost reaches
With rapture, with power, with ease!
–Georgia Douglas Johnson
Georgia Douglas Johnson was a writer, musician, and educator during the Harlem Renaissance. Raised in Georgia, she later moved to Washington, D.C., with her husband. The family home served as a hub for prominent Black writers and intellectuals of the Renaissance within the nation’s capital, hosting gatherings that became known as the S Street Salon or the Saturday Nighters. Like other aspiring Black authors of the period, she was published in The Crisis, from the NAACP. The above description of freeing her wings captures the courage and self-determination that were central to the Great Migration and Harlem Renaissance. In many ways, Johnson and other writers, artists, actors, activists, and musicians of this era laid a foundation for creative Black Americans today.