Many of us have heard of The Harlem Renaissance, the literary, musical, and artistic movement that exploded during the 1920s in Harlem New York. Also known as The New Negro Renaissance, the New Negro Movement, the Negro Renaissance, and the Jazz Age, the Great Migration of blacks from the south to northern cities like New York produced a national movement centered around black culture and tradition.
Music, poetry, literature, art, and theatre was brought to the mainstream from a black perspective in a huge way. Magazines such as The Crisis (the NAACP monthly journal) and Opportunity (the monthly publication of the Urban League) employed Harlem Renaissance writers on their editorial staff, published their poetry and short stories, and promoted African American literature through articles, reviews, and annual literary prizes. Names like Alain Locke, Langston Hughes, and Zora Neale Hurston come to mind.
However, though termed Harlem Renaissance, the time was much more complex than Harlem itself (which in many ways can make it hard to define). While standing as the anchor for the movement, Harlem was just one piece of a much larger puzzle. Across the United States and the Caribbean, The Renaissance was taking place. In fact, only some of the writers, musicians, and artists were native to Harlem itself. The Renaissance did not just happen in Harlem but a Black Metropolis was brewing in other big cities as well, such as Chicago.
As the Harlem Renaissance was winding down, The Chicago Black Renaissance was getting started, or rather, continuing. Creativity and activism was blooming from the great number of blacks coming up from the south to escape Jim Crow and The Great Depression. While it’s true many blacks did not suffer as much during the depression due that many of us were already struggling (having been depressed since we got here) there were some who came to Chicago from southern states like Mississippi and secured well paying jobs that were no longer available. While at first blacks could work at factories, meat packing places, and steel mills, the great depression shut this down.
Blacks were also dealing with extremely poor living conditions and fighting housing discrimination. As more and more blacks moved to Chicago the city was also still getting a large immigrant population pouring in from Europe so there was always competition for jobs and since segregation was in full effect, many blacks found themselves at a loss. However, there is great beauty that often springs from the depths of struggle and The Black Mecca of Chicago’s South Side was quite literally a diamond in the rough.
The black belt of Chicago’s South Side, as it was called, was the location for such diamonds. Jazz, Blues, and Literature flourished as an outlet for blacks to voice their discontent not only about the city but also the whole of the black experience in America in general, and when Gwendolyn Brooks passed a pool hall in a Chicago neighborhood and took notice of a group of young men standing around, “We Real Cool” (a poem that speaks from the point of view of these seven young men, see my analysis of the poem here) was born. Chicago exploded in culture from the 1930s through the 1950s and the south side remains the most cultured part of city today.
Music, art, literature, and journalism were all part of The Chicago Renaissance. Though never deemed “Chicago Renaissance” officially, there are many who contributed to the movement whose names we’ve grown to know. The writers: Richard Wright (born in Mississippi but moved to Chicago in 1927), Frank Yerby, Margaret Walker, Willard Motley, John H. Johnson (publisher of Ebony), St. Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton (who later co-authored Black Metropolis), Gwendolyn Brooks, Arna Bontemps, and Lorraine Hansberry; entertainers Nat King Cole, Ray Nance and Oscar Brown, Jr.; dancers Katherine Dunham and Talley Beatty; photographer Gordon Parks, and the artists Elizabeth Catlett and Hughie Lee Smith.
Yecheilyah Ysrayl is the YA, Historical Fiction author of eight books, most notably The Stella Trilogy. She is currently working on her next book series “The Nora White Story” about a young black woman who dreams of taking part in The Harlem Renaissance movement and her parents struggle to accept their traumatic past in the Jim Crow south. “Renaissance: The Nora White Story -Book One” is due for release summer, 2017. For updates on this project, sneak peek of chapters and the pending book cover release for this project, be sure to follow this blog and to subscribe to Yecheilyah’s email list HERE.