The Harlem Renaissance: A New Identity for African-Americans

Paper Info
Page count 7
Word count 2619
Read time 10 min
Topic History
Type Essay
Language 🇺🇸 US

The meaning of being black in America has come a long way since the inception of this country. Over the past centuries, African Americans have encountered diverse challenges that have affected their positions in society. For instance, the majority of them were treated as slaves or private property. After the abolishment of this human malpractice, they remained undermined or treated as less privileged members of society. Despite their tragic racial experience endured from enslaved grandparents to segregated Southern rural populations, black Americans had a powerful cultural message to deliver to America and the rest of the world (DuBois, 1903). The Harlem Renaissance movement was not only a turning point to the ongoing identity issue black Americans faced since the early days of slavery, but also a golden age for American literature and the Civil Rights movement.

Forcibly brought to America during the historical transatlantic trade in the 1600s, enslaved African Americans lost their real identity. As private properties for approximately 300 years, African Americans were used just for economic building and were denied the most rudimentary of human rights (Phillipson, R., 2006). They spent their entire lives working on plantations, dehumanized, and broken in both their bodies, souls, and spirits. The concept of white supremacy created a complex scenario for these individuals. Those in power seized the opportunity to mistreat and promote the notions of stereotype and prejudice in different regions across the United States (Horton Y., et al., 1999; Bernier C., 2013). As a result of this long-term degradation and harsh physical and emotional abuses, black Americans developed low self-esteem and their creativity was repressed, this profile is commonly referred to as the Old Negro identity (African American Registry, 2019, Phillipson, 2006 ).

The abolition of slavery by the Emancipation Law of 1865 was just the beginning of another identity quest for black Americans. More than half a century would pass before they fully reach that goal. Poverty, violence, and segregation were the immediate obstacles faced by black Americans in the early post-slavery era (Du Bois, 1903). Newly freed Southern black Americans were overwhelmingly illiterate, rural with limited skills and no means to support their families. Their miserable conditions would force them to migrate to the Northern cities, where job opportunities were opening. After the end of the First World War, the 1920s presented new ideas and decisions that encouraged more black people to migrate from the South to some of the established urban regions and cities in the North. With the convergence of African Americans from different backgrounds and regions in this country, the Harlem Renaissance Movement became a reality during that period (Levine, 2017; African American Registry, 2019). Consequently, Harlem would take the position of the new “Mecca” for many black individuals from different parts of the globe.

Although very diversified, the Harlem populations were bonded by their shared history and experiences of slavery and emancipation, and above all, the willpower to establish a new way of thinking and culture that defined them as free members of the U.S. society. This black community benefited from the valuable gifts associated with both the educated and unskilled individuals. Such resources and ideologies were what the members of the American society required to transform the negative stereotyped image to a positive New Negro identity (Morgan, 1997). Rather than being just a literary movement, the leaders behind this famous movement wanted to succeed in re-conceptualizing blackness through the promotion of diverse cultural campaigns, including public debates, musical, theatrical, and visual arts that laid the groundwork for future success in black consciousness and literature (Hutchinson, 1995).This effective strategy resulted in the reconnection and recognition of all African Americans as individuals who had an outstanding identity (Goya, 2014).

While contributors in this movement came from an extremely diverse group, they were willing to uplift more African Americans by providing them with a new opportunity to take control of their image with a new spirit of building self-respect, self-dependence as well as greater self-expression (Morgan, 1997). Among the most remarkable writers who influenced the dynamics of this movement included W.E.B. Du Bois, Zora Neale Hurston, and Langston Hughes (Morgan, 1997).

One of the leading and prominent authors and poets of the time, Langston Hughes, was influential in presenting evidence-based ideas and concepts to support the movement since many people were able to resonate and think deeply about the presented ideas. Consequently, they considered new ways of focusing on the concepts and insights of their experiences. They were willing to consult most of Hughes’ poems, publications, books, and articles. His contributions to the renaissance revolved around the exposition and analysis of some of the pains, sufferings, and prejudices many African Americans had gone through or experienced over the years. In the famous poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”, Hughes managed to describe the lives of African people and how they experiences changed after leaving their native countries or regions. The symbolism he achieves through the use of rivers tries to depict these people’s pride, culture, strength, heritage, and even nature of their origin (African American Literature Book Club, 2019a). The reader of such a poem learns more about how every black person remains attached to the norms and attributes of ancient rivers in the African continent (Levine, 2017, p 835). This kind of portrayal reveals that Hughes remains passionate about his skin color, place of origin, culture, and even racial background.

In most of Hughes’s poems, the reader realizes that he demanded or required more people to appreciate the cultural contributions African Americans had made to the country and to avoid cases of disfranchisement (Levine, 2017, p. 1). Zora Neale Hurston and Hughes applied their competencies to rely on the power of literature to capture the culture and traditions of African Americans. He relied on powerful forms and tools to deliver the intended messages to the greatest number of followers. Some of the leading examples include children’s rhymes, blue songs, and even fables. Relying on his experiences and observations in Harlem, he was able to reconsider the African American tradition and apply it to reshape political and literature developments among the members of his community.

Another objective that stands out from Hughes’ work is that he wanted to describe and expose the significant differences between the cultures of African Americans and the majority whites in the country. His famous “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” manifesto became a powerful tool for guiding and requesting other fellow African American novelists and poets to stop focusing on the white mainstream culture. According to Hughes (1926), such a malpractice could be studied and analyzed as the primary obstacle that was affecting the goals and achievements of Negroes (p. 1). Using his abilities, this scholar succeeded in writing about life in contemporary America as an African American. This exposition would eventually become his defining achievement as a true American. In 1936, Hughes went further to publish another poem with this title: “Let America Be America Again”. In this work, he succeeded in analyzing and criticized the wider American society for ignoring the experiences and plight of many disadvantages of the members of the lower class. He went further to describe his assertion and disillusionment about America. He believed that it was not a land of opportunity and freedom for many people. This portrayal supports the argument that many leaders were promoting or marketing America globally as a country of opportunities while disregarding the fate and disadvantages of the greatest number of African Americans and other minority racial groups (Phillipson, 2009).

Many historians and scholars identify W.E.B Du Bois as another outstanding leader whose contributions and efforts led to the success of the Harlem Renaissance. He was a prolific writer, a great scholar, an activist, and a committed civil rights leader (DuBoisopedia, 2013). His initiatives and efforts made him another notable father of such a movement. Some of his outstanding contributions during the period included poems and expository essays. He also managed to get the position of an editor for the The Crisis. Such an outlet was focusing on the issues and developments regarding the experiences of African American writers. According to Du Bois, there was a need for the black race to think deeper in an effort to contribute to civilization. The suffering and pain members of this community had gone through were critical towards supporting their contribution to the concept of materialism. He went further to assert that Africans were God’s people endowed with unique gifts and abilities (Souls 11- 12). Du Bois used The Crisis as one of the best platforms to attract attention of many followers and encourage them to focus on the idea of racial empowerment. Consequently, The Crisis would become one of the most successful publications during the time that showcased the literature ambitions and creativity of this abandoned race. DuBois’s famous phrases became essential guidelines that continued to encourage more people to consider the importance of allowing African Americans to have access to high-quality higher education. A good example is the “Talented Tenth”. The subsequent notion was that classical education was necessary if more members of the black race were to achieve their maximum potential and emerge successful (DuBoisopedia, 2013, p. 1). His experiences and achievements became a testimony to different followers since he was the first African American to get a doctorate from Harvard University. He believed that education was essential and capable of taking more people closer to their goals. Through his actions and ideas, W. E. B. DuBois coined the phrase “double-consciousness” to describe the true spirit and ideology for guiding the New Negro Movement. He interpreted the concept to indicate that African Americans had an identity with various facets (DuBoisopedia, 2013, p. 1). In the work “The Souls of Black Folk”, Du Bois presented fourteen essays that would eventually be studied as the true meaning of African American struggle in the period. In such writings, Du Bois relied on his pains and experiences as a member of this underprivileged society to express his opinions and expectations. Consequently, Du Bois’ efforts set the right stage for dictating the future of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Such gains and works explain why Du Bois was able to take the idea of African American civilization to the next level (Goyal Y., 2014).

Similarly, Zora Neale Hurston remains another prolific writer and contributor whose efforts redefined the course of the renaissance. Her decision to consider the plight and experiences of more women in some of her novels redefined the idea of blackness. She considered the existing racial prejudices and stereotypes as malpractices that were capable of affecting the lives of many people. Her feminine ideologies encouraged more individuals to consider the importance of empowerment. Hurston’s gains and writings encouraged more men to start thinking of new ways to address the needs of women. In her stories, she viewed some of the males in the society as oppressive and despotic. Her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, succeeded in narrating the story and life of Janie who decides to seek spiritual empowerment and enlightenment in order to become independent (African American Literature Book Club, 2019b). With such ideas and explanations, many African Americans acquired new concepts and inspirations to be involved in the famous Civil Rights Movement. Many scholars and historians believe that Hurston will always be remembered as a great author and an activist who supported her race.

From the above analysis, it is evident that some of the identified authors and leaders involved in the Harlem Renaissance movement presented ideas that had the potential to unify and support the aims of the American culture. Such works encouraged future readers to consider new ways of transforming the cultural traditions recorded in the United States during the time and in the future. The issues surrounding the Harlem Renaissance encouraged more African Americans in the United States to pursue the spirit of self-determination and engage in political activism in order to get closer to their goals. These aspects explain why such a movement redefined American history forever. More African Americans were encouraged to fight and consider new ways of becoming relevant, equal, and successful members of the society (Goyal, 2014).

Throughout this movement, many members of this community felt more empowered than ever before. They considered new ways of restoring their cultural attributes and pride. The Harlem Renaissance, therefore, made it possible for more African Americans to articulate and learn new ways of expressing their ideas and political expectations. It is evident that majority of the black American thinkers, activists, artists, and writers relied on their talents to push for equality and move the existing ideas towards civil rights realization. The experienced wave triggered the establishment of organizations that were capable of supporting and uplifting many African Americans. A good example is the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) that played a crucial role in supporting the fight against discrimination, fostering political and educational equality, and presenting economic opportunities to more black people. Du Bois was the person behind its establishment in an attempt to challenge the issues many African Americans had to go through. Today, the NAACP magazine remains instrumental in supporting the fight against all forms of racial equality in this country.

The Harlem Renaissance went further to present a new vision to the world and encouraging more people to promote ideals of empowerment and equality. Although it succeeded in unifying the wider black community in this country, it went further to promote the feeling of self-worth and empowerment. Consequently, the period became the birth of a superior or recognizable culture. These achievements set the stage for a better experience that would become the African culture golden age. Many historians have gone further to explain how the Civil Rights Movement recorded in the 1960s supported the ideas of the Renaissance movement and its founders (Goya, 2014). These gains and achievements explain why art is one of the best tools for improving people’s lives and taking them closer to their ambitions or goals (National Museum of African American History and Culture, 2018, p. 1).

History reveals that Harlem Renaissance failed to continue due to the challenges and economic obstacles associated with the infamous Great Depression. However, the impact of such a movement remains indelible and worth analyzing. Many black people relied on it to focus on a better life, experience, and culture that would take them closer to their ambitions (Brien, 2016; Ruther, 2014; Goya, 2014). This historical development made it possible for more people to overcome the shackles of enslavement to achieve various gains in politics and education. Additionally, the renaissance became a source of inspiration for future African Americans to take art seriously and apply it to make meaningful bargains. This form of African American self-portrayal influenced the entire world to address the established stereotypes, apathies, and predicaments associated with the Jim Crow laws of the South (Phillipson, 2006). Through such an experience and portrayal, the global community was able to start viewing the African American community differently.

Sadly, despite these significant efforts and progress made to create a racially harmonious America, the issue of negative stereotyping remains central to the struggle of the African American community and shows no signs of resolution any time soon. This situation is currently visible by the widespread police shootings of black Americans, the persistence of racially motivated hate crimes, the reemergence of the White supremacist movement, and the nationwide protests by the Black Live Matters movement. These longstanding issues, along with the recent torturing and killing of George Floyd, a young African American, by four white police officers in Minneapolis, suggest that black Americans still have a long way to go on the road to true racial equality.


Academy of American Poets. (2019). Langston Hughes. Web.

African American Literature Book Club. (2019a). In this speech, du Bois criticizes capitalism. Circa 1907 W.E.B. Du Boise Library, University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Web.

African American Literature Book Club. (2019b). Zora Neale Hurston. Web.

African American Registry. (2019). The Harlem renaissance emerges. Web.

Brien, Z. (2019). Langston Hughes: The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain 1926. Web.

Du Bois, W. E. B. (1903). The souls of black folks. New York: Dover Publications. Web.

Lewis, F. (2019). Biography of W.E.B DuBois, activist, and scholar. Web.

Levine, R. S., (2017). The Norton Anthology of American literature, 9th ed. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.

Goyal, Y.. (2014). Black Nationalist Hokum: George Schuyler’s transnational critique. African American Review, 47(1), 21–36.

Horton Y; Price R; & Brown E. “Portrayal of Minorities in the Film, Media and Entertainment Hutchinson, George “ The Harlem Renaissance in Black and White” The Belknap Press, 1997,

Morgan, Gordon D. “Fisk University and the Intellectual Origins of the Harlem Renaissance.” Western Journal of Black Studies, vol. 21, no. 3, 1997, pp. 214–218.

National Museum of African American History & Culture. (2018). A new African American identity: The Harlem Renaissance. Web.

Phillipson, Robert. “The Harlem Renaissance as Postcolonial Phenomenon.” African American Review, vol. 40, no. 1, 2006, pp. 145–160.

Rutter, Emily R. “‘Belch the Pity! / Straddle the City!’: Helene Johnson’s Late Poetry and the Rhetoric of Empowerment.” African American Review, vol. 47, no. 4, 2014, pp. 495–509.

Staple, Jennifer. “Zora Neale Hurston’s Construction of Authenticity Through Ethnographic Innovation.” Western Journal of Black Studies, vol. 30, no. 1, 2006, pp. 62–68.

The Harlem Renaissance (2020) U.S. History Online Textbook. Web.

Cite this paper


NerdyHound. (2022, May 22). The Harlem Renaissance: A New Identity for African-Americans. Retrieved from


NerdyHound. (2022, May 22). The Harlem Renaissance: A New Identity for African-Americans.

Work Cited

"The Harlem Renaissance: A New Identity for African-Americans." NerdyHound, 22 May 2022,


NerdyHound. (2022) 'The Harlem Renaissance: A New Identity for African-Americans'. 22 May.


NerdyHound. 2022. "The Harlem Renaissance: A New Identity for African-Americans." May 22, 2022.

1. NerdyHound. "The Harlem Renaissance: A New Identity for African-Americans." May 22, 2022.


NerdyHound. "The Harlem Renaissance: A New Identity for African-Americans." May 22, 2022.


NerdyHound. 2022. "The Harlem Renaissance: A New Identity for African-Americans." May 22, 2022.

1. NerdyHound. "The Harlem Renaissance: A New Identity for African-Americans." May 22, 2022.


NerdyHound. "The Harlem Renaissance: A New Identity for African-Americans." May 22, 2022.