The Harlem Renaissance

Sarah BoydBlog, Lindy History Month

Aaron Douglas. The Prodigal Son. 1927

To fully appreciate swing in all its glory, as an art form, as an experience, as an expression, is to immerse yourself in its rich heritage. If you pull the thread of the swing heritage tapestry in an attempt to uncover the foundations of your dance, you eventually unravel beyond the stitches of dance evolution, beyond those of jazz evolution, and arrive at the cultural zeitgeist that brought these art forms to bear: the Harlem Renaissance. And so, for the first part of our Lindy History Month blog series, we are teleporting back in time to the birthplace of Lindy Hop in 1920s New York City to set the scene for this zeitgeist so that you may step into the world where the sounds and motions of swing were born.

One of the richest creative eras in American history, the Harlem Renaissance was the African-American intellectual movement that emerged in New York City after World War I in 1917 and lasted until the 1930s. In addition to the great jazz musicians that we have become familiar with on the dance floor, this movement ushered in a generation of black writers, philosophers, and artists whose work projected African-American heritage, experience, and perspectives to the world in an unprecedented way.

A more than two-hundred-year history of slavery in the U.S. had meant a stifling of the African- American voice in all sectors of society. In the late dawn of abolition, with social, political and economic racial inequality still legislated in the form of Jim Crow laws and societal norms, the Harlem Renaissance represented an overdue explosion of expression from black Americans. It was a time when black artists were telling their stories, bringing wholly unique techniques and styles to their respective media, and in the process creating one of the greatest portfolios of American art that is more relevant today than ever.

As one of the largest destinations for African Americans fleeing the South during the Great Migration, the Harlem neighbourhood in NYC became the epicenter of this movement. It housed the theatres, jazz clubs, and literary magazines that fed the movement.

E. Simms Campbell. A Nigh Club Map of Harlem. 1932.

The renowned Savoy Ballroom, home to the greatest jazz bands of the day and the stomping grounds of the original Lindy Hoppers (including, of course, one Frankie Manning), was one such institution. More on Frankie Manning and The Savoy in future posts, but in the meantime, check out Kareem Abdul Jabar’s telling of the Savoy’s place in Harlem society.

As we will get to in those posts, The Savoy as an entertainment venue was as much a symbol of the politics of the day as any other. Indeed, it’s impossible to separate the art of the era from the very real issues of inequality that were fundamental to the experiences of black artists. These issues are embedded in the artwork, at times quite literally, and other times in essence—inspiration for some of the most moving literature, art, music, and dance that we continue to enjoy today.

The collective of artists, ideas, and art that contributed to the movement is expansive and more than we can hope to cover here. Yale’s Gather Out of Star-Dust exhibition gives a fantastic overview of the interconnected poetry, painting, music, and performance of the era with some amazing artifacts. A few shout-outs we can give here for your consideration are:

  • Langston Hughes. The Weary Blues. 1925.

    The artwork of painter Aaron Douglas, whose signature use of two-dimensional, layered, geometric silhouettes featured largely as artwork for literary publications of such writers as Langston Hughes, and has been extremely influential in modern art. Have a look at some of his work and you will surely recognize the styling that he pioneered, especially as it has been applied to depictions of dancing.

  • Langston Hughes was one of the many prolific poets of the time. His poem “The Weary Blues” from the eponymous book gives us a look behind the music we love. Hughes apparently performed this work with a jazz band.
  • Zora Neale Hurston was most renowned for her masterpiece Their Eyes Were Watching God. Her essay “How It Feels to Be Colored Me” strikes a similar chord and is particularly worth a read for its depiction of her experience of jazz music.

We have barely scratched the surface, but hopefully we have given you some context for the jazz, dance, and people behind swing that we will be exploring in more depth throughout the rest of our blog series.  Look forward to a follow up post at the end of the month on the significance and themes of Harlem Renaissance artwork, and its bearing on swing and jazz.