The Harlem Renaissance: Black Cultural Innovation Unleashed
Black migrants from the segregated South went to Harlem in New York City and sparked a creative renaissance that continues to shape American culture today.
The HarlemRenaissance was a period of black cultural and social achievement during the early‐mid 20th century that left an indelible footprint on our nation’s history.
Sparked by the Great Migration — a period from after World War I through the 1960s when thousands of blacks relocated from the Jim Crow South to major U.S. cities in the North and West — the Harlem Renaissance ushered in an unprecedented time of artistic expression, offering a rich portrayal of what it meant to be black in America.1
Over the years Harlem rapidly emerged as an epicenter of black intellectual, social, and artistic creativity. Teaming with bustling businesses, entertainment venues, restaurants, and publishing houses, the city became a vibrant locale of community and free expression for blacks from all walks of life.
The area attracted an astonishing assortment of black artists, writers, musicians, entertainers, poets, photographers, and other skilled artisans who had fled the South in the hope of developing their creative talents instead of being condemned to a life of sharecropping or manual labor.
Among the most prominent Renaissance contributors were intellectuals W.E.B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey; actors and entertainers Josephine Baker and Paul Robeson; writers and poets Zora Neale Hurston, Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, and Alain Locke; musicians Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, and scores of others.
A venue known as the Cotton Club emerged as one of the most famous nightclubs during this period. While it was considered progressive that an entertainment spot where blacks performed in front of white patrons existed, it also symbolized the racist assumptions of the day via the stereotypical African motifs that dictated the costuming, set decoration, and “jungle music” that white audiences demanded.
The early years of The Cotton Club featured the great bandleader Duke Ellington, whose jazz bands performed for club audiences six nights a week. Over time Ellington would parley his musical achievement into various classical recordings, solidifying Ellington’s reputation as one of the greatest jazz musicians and entertainers ever.
Following in his footsteps was the dynamic Cab Calloway, whose musical style led to a meteoric rise in his popularity. His rhythmic flair synched to crowd interaction, went something like this “Hi‐di‐hi‐hi‐di‐EYE, to which the crowd would sing back: “Oh‐Di‐Oh‐Di‐Ohhh!“2
These two musical talents set the bar for later performers being invited to the club’s stage, like the incomparable Ella Fitzgerald, who saw her star born at the tender age of 17 after being spotted in a talent show at the Apollo Theater in Harlem.
Alain LeRoy Locke, a Harvard‐educated writer, intellectual, and critic, is widely heralded as the “Father of the Harlem Renaissance.” He described this period as a “spiritual coming of age” where Black Americans transformed their deep “social disillusionment into race pride.” 3
“Negro life is seizing its first chances for group expression and self‐determination.”
Locke rejected the then popular notion of cultural separatism, believing that that it was possible for an intersection to be forged between black cultural experience and Euro‐American aesthetic forms. It is here where the renaissance of collective of artists, writers, musicians, and other creatives integrated Negro folk heritage and history into the broader movement for racial equality.
Another major figure in the renaissance movement, and one possessing libertarian proclivities, was the acclaimed writer, folklorist, and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston. She was heavily influenced by the experience of growing up in Eatonville, Florida, a self‐governing, all‐black town where her father was a four‐term mayor.
In a 2008 piece entitled “Isabel Paterson, Rose Wilder Lane, and Zora Neale Hurston on War, Race, the State, and Liberty,” published in the Independent Review, Hurston espoused the view that liberty and entrepreneurship are necessary precursors for a diverse, vibrant, and prosperous society.
She also believed that there was a linkage between one’s personal self‐worth and political freedom. In her 1939 novel, she wrote:
“No man may make another free. Freedom was something internal…. All you could do was give the opportunity for freedom and the man himself must make his own emancipation.”
“Freedom to think for oneself — “Everybody has some special road of thought along which they travel when they are alone to themselves. And his road of thought is what makes every man what he is.” 4
As the 1920s began to come to a close, so did the Harlem Renaissance. The Stock Market Crash of 1929 and the subsequent Great Depression had a chilling effect on the movement due to declining financial support from charitable organizations and private benefactors. It also led to the shuttering of businesses and entertainment venues that had served as the bedrock for this period of enormous cultural advancement.
Although the apogee of the Harlem Renaissance passed a century ago, its impact on everything from the civil rights movement to modern arts and culture continues to reverberate throughout the American landscape. The era highlighted black artistic creativity, inspiring future generations of artists and intellectuals.
Moreover, it radically reshaped the narrative around how people of other races viewed Black Americans and their historical experience. And perhaps most importantly, Black Americans were infused with a new sense of pride and self‐determinism, the legacy of which is reflected today in artistic support for the racial justice movement.
Libertarians can learn much from the Harlem Renaissance. First, freedom of movement and the right of exit allowed Black migrants to escape government‐backed repression in the South. In the freer Northern states, they relied on free enterprise, freedom of choice, and voluntary association to win for themselves a greater degree of social and political independence. In so doing, they affirmed the beliefs of renaissance trailblazers like Alain Locke, Langston Hughes, and Zora Hurston that Black Americans could, via artistic and creative expression, transcend a consciousness imprinted on them by generations of inequality and discrimination.
1. Wilkerson, Isabel, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, Random House: Vintage Publishers, 2010