The Complicated Failure of The Harlem Renaissance

About this sample

About this sample


Words: 1429 |

Pages: 3|

8 min read

Published: Oct 2, 2020

Words: 1429|Pages: 3|8 min read

Published: Oct 2, 2020


Table of contents

  1. Introduction
  2. The Birth and Aims of the Harlem Renaissance
  3. The Role of Prominent Figures
  4. Attraction and Stereotypes
  5. Conclusion


In the early 1920s, the United States was a dynamic tapestry of diverse cultures, shaped by the interactions of people from various ethnic backgrounds who had converged on American soil over the preceding century. This cultural mosaic found its quintessential expression in the bustling metropolis of Manhattan, where a distinctive phenomenon, known as the Harlem Renaissance, unfolded. Harlem, a neighborhood in Manhattan, became the epicenter of a remarkable cultural awakening, characterized by the flourishing of African American arts, music, and literature. While this Renaissance ushered in a period of enlightenment and cultural progress, it also exposed the complexities of racial integration and faced challenges that impeded its goal of seamlessly merging black culture into the broader American fabric.

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The Birth and Aims of the Harlem Renaissance

The Harlem Renaissance emerged as a beacon of hope for African Americans who had recently returned from World War I, hoping to eradicate the pervasive discrimination they had endured for generations. Notably, theatrical productions like "Shuffle Along" generated considerable attention, drawing many to Harlem as it became a subject of widespread media coverage. The pivotal moment that officially inaugurated the Harlem Renaissance was the Civic Club event, presided over by the distinguished author Alain Locke. This gathering brought together 100 prominent guests to celebrate African American writers and their contributions to American culture. Locke's perception of the unification of black individuals from various corners of the world in Manhattan as "their greatest experience" underscored the significance of this movement in fostering a sense of belonging among African Americans.

Supportive organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) played a crucial role in providing a protective platform for individuals to voice their concerns and advocate for their rights. The NAACP and publications like "The Crisis" actively combated discrimination and violence against African Americans, spotlighting these issues for a global audience. The concerted efforts of Harlem's literary luminaries like Countee Cullen and Claude McKay, who gained widespread influence, successfully shed light on the injustices faced by African Americans. However, as their fame grew exponentially, it paradoxically transformed the Harlem Renaissance into an exotic novelty in the eyes of the rest of America, rather than facilitating the organic acceptance of black culture into the mainstream.

The Role of Prominent Figures

Every significant movement is invariably characterized by prominent leaders and influential figures, and the Harlem Renaissance was no exception. For example, W.E.B. Du Bois, renowned for his stance against the assimilation of black culture, attracted a sizable following upon his relocation to New York. His presence in Harlem galvanized individuals who were eager to vocalize their beliefs and contribute to the burgeoning cultural renaissance. Notably, poet Langston Hughes, a figure whose enduring influence is felt in both history and American literature courses, expressed his profound desire to be part of Harlem's vibrant cultural scene as a young man. Hughes was enthusiastic about nurturing black culture and remained unapologetically true to his roots, regardless of public opinion. His poems, which highlighted the accomplishments and contributions of African Americans often overlooked by mainstream society, solidified his position as one of the era's most influential figures.

These remarkable figures effectively served as the public face of the Harlem Renaissance, presenting its objectives to the wider world and garnering support for its cause. Behind the scenes, individuals like Arthur Springarn made significant contributions to the movement. Springarn's creation of the Springarn Medal, which honored outstanding black individuals across various fields, had a transformative impact. Recipients of this prestigious award, including Hughes and Du Bois, were not only recognized for their achievements but also provided with substantial financial incentives, inspiring others to strive for this recognition. Prior to this initiative, the media had perpetuated a harmful stereotype, portraying black people as burdensome. The Springarn Medal and the efforts of influential figures represented a critical first step in rectifying this portrayal and demonstrating that, under the right conditions, African Americans could achieve remarkable success. However, these efforts inadvertently drew attention to the distinctiveness of black culture, making it challenging for it to seamlessly integrate into the broader fabric of American society. Some observers even reduced Harlem to a 'jungle,' and its residents were unfairly characterized as 'primitive creatures,' further complicating the objective of merging black culture invisibly into the American mainstream.

Attraction and Stereotypes

Amidst the burgeoning Harlem Renaissance, a complex dynamic emerged, with some individuals drawn to Harlem as a place of fascination and others capitalizing on its fame as if it were an amusement park. People of various racial backgrounds began flocking to Harlem, seeking respite from the prevailing puritanical attitudes of the era. Paradoxically, this increased attention led to the expulsion of black patrons from certain stores and restaurants, as proprietors aimed to cater exclusively to white clientele. Consequently, the Harlem Renaissance became increasingly reliant on white financial support, with grants, prizes, and awards pouring in from predominantly white sources. White-owned establishments took the lead in publishing and recording the remarkable works of this cultural movement.

However, not all white patrons were benevolent supporters. Figures like Carl Van Vechten perpetuated harmful stereotypes of black people, harkening back to earlier prejudiced portrayals. In their well-intentioned efforts to champion the Renaissance, some authors inadvertently cast an unintentionally hostile light on black culture, implying that it required more white appreciation. As the movement continued to rely on white patronage, it found itself beholden to the wishes and preferences of these benefactors, necessitating a shift from personal artistic expression to appeasing patrons. This shift placed the Harlem Renaissance in a precarious position, as its survival became contingent on white funding, giving patrons the power to dictate its content and direction. Despite the genuine pursuit of cultural exchange and artistic expression by those involved, the movement was placed on a pedestal and exploited for financial gain or controlled by external forces.

With the influx of white patrons came an ever-intensifying spotlight, making the Harlem Renaissance increasingly conspicuous and challenging its ability to blend seamlessly into the broader cultural landscape.

Some historians argue that white patrons played an indispensable role in fueling the Harlem Renaissance and that the movement might not have flourished without their support. While their contributions undoubtedly propelled the movement forward, it is essential to acknowledge that many white individuals of the time were astonished by the mere idea of black people engaging in literature and art. The pervasive stereotype was that black individuals had never attempted such pursuits before, despite their significant contributions to various cultural facets throughout history. Consequently, white patronage often stemmed from curiosity rather than a genuine appreciation for black culture, inadvertently perpetuating its distinctiveness.


The spotlight placed on black culture in America during the Harlem Renaissance, supported by influential figures and white patrons, had both positive and negative implications. It unquestionably advanced black culture to new heights, leaving an enduring legacy that continues to influence contemporary African American art and literature. The Harlem Renaissance succeeded in nurturing a sense of racial pride among black individuals at the time, fostering a powerful cultural awakening.

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However, it is important to recognize that the movement did not achieve all its objectives. In its quest to highlight influential figures and correct the media's portrayal of black people, it inadvertently accentuated black culture in a way that made seamless integration into mainstream American culture impossible. The Harlem Renaissance, while a significant literary and cultural movement, inadvertently failed in one of its primary goals: facilitating the harmonious merger of black culture into the broader fabric of American society. Nevertheless, its lasting impact cannot be denied, and it remains a pivotal chapter in the ongoing narrative of African American cultural and artistic expression in the United States.


  1. Hughes, L. (1926). The Negro artist and the racial mountain. The Nation, 122(3154), 169-170.
  2. Locke, A. (1925). Enter the New Negro. Survey Graphic, 37(6), 631-634.
  3. Du Bois, W. E. B. (1903). The Souls of Black Folk. Chicago, IL: A. C. McClurg & Co.
  4. Rampersad, A. (1988). The Life of Langston Hughes: Volume I, 1902-1941, I, Too, Sing America. Oxford University Press.
  5. Lewis, D. L. (2018). When Harlem Was in Vogue. The New York Times. Retrieved from
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The Complicated Failure Of The Harlem Renaissance. (2020, October 10). GradesFixer. Retrieved February 29, 2024, from
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