An Exploration of Urban Artistic Culture and African American Experience
Throughout the 1900s, America experienced an exponential growth in city development. Amy Absher has described how “the city was the industrial giant that was central to everything, from culture to economics”, so unsurprisingly many of the new cultural developments had a uniquely urban feel. Any recollections of twentieth-century American city living tends to bring back hums of the sweet notes of jazz, ideas of regular cinema trips and visions of new clubbing grooves.
One fascinating nuance of this time is the notable shaping that African American citizens contributed to within these growing metropolitan hubs, as new behaviours begun to emerge during the age of urban development.
It is impossible to ignore the importance of spots such as Harlem (New York) and Bronzeville (Chicago) when exploring African American influences on city culture. These areas have been described by Robert Boyd as “Black Metropolises”, with Harlem aiding black entry into the arts and Bronzeville likewise doing so for entrepreneurship opportunities. These defined neighbourhoods were “the epicentres [for] an explosion of creative activity”.
Harlem, in particular, was an effect of ‘The Great Migration’. This was a process whereby rural, southern, black citizens of America migrated to the northern cities from 1916 onwards. The influx of African Americans drove down property prices so local white Americans moved out of these areas, which led to the creation of these distinct urban localities, that were increasingly defined by the race of their residents.
Despite this, Harlem attracted a remarkable concentration of intellect and talent within its population, serving to grow it into the symbolic capital of a cultural awakening. It was home to one of the most significant crossovers of urban and racial artistic expressions during this time: The Harlem Renaissance.
This dynamic movement took form between roughly 1919–1929. It involved “inventing and reimagining art and cultural practices” — it was shaping what it meant to be black in modern America. The Harlem Renaissance was a vibrant psychology, which was was mainly centred around the creative arts and new intellectual movements. This innovative decade birthed famous household names, such as Duke Ellington, Langston Hughes and Roland Hayes.
The outpouring resulted from more than just the after effects of the Great Migration. It was also a product of dramatically rising levels of literacy, the formation of national organisations dedicated to pressing African American civil rights, an uplifting of race pride and the opening of socioeconomic opportunities. A culmination of all of these movements allowed Harlem and its urban Renaissance to thrive.
Some of the cultural expressions, such as literature, may not seem purely “urban” at first. However, once we start to understand the central role that the location of Harlem had as the breeding ground for this spurt, we can see how these art forms stemmed from the developing issues and attitudes towards metropolitan life. A lot of what the Renaissance authors were articulating in their writing were topics that had arisen from their struggles of city dwelling. Thus, the Harlem Renaissance’s outburst of African American literary culture simultaneously became a reflection of the nation’s urban society.
By looking at sources such as Campbell’s Nightclub Map of Harlem (1932), the relationship between Harlem’s newly developing subculture and broader race relations is clear. The map illustrates almost exclusively black citizens enjoying the current urban activities, such as clubbing, theatre going and even alludes to the option of them visiting one of the 500 speakeasies there, in defiance of the current prohibition. The map displays the energy and diversity of black culture in this concentrated urban area, despite Harlem being described by some such as Cary Wintz as “an overcrowded ghetto”.
Harlem (and New York in general) was perhaps most famous for creating the major nightclubs like ‘The Cotton Club’ in twentieth century America. Yet, by the 1920s, their prevalance had indeed spread to other major metropolises too. Although clubbing culture by the end of the century was not necessarily “race-based” in this same way, it is indisputable that strongly racialised areas like Harlem definitely popularised this new element of urban living. Without African American influences at this time, clubbing culture may not have formed into the same phenomenon it is today.
To what extent can we truly say that race was a determining factor for the Renaissance’s cultural additions?
George Schulyer has argued, somewhat simplistically, that this period’s black art and literature was in fact identical to that of their white American counterparts, suggesting that the progressive sway of Harlem and black urban communities was minimal. They supposedly offered nothing unparalleled or unique.
However, Hughes has famously refuted this. For example, he instead stressed the special qualities of black literature, whilst likewise acknowledging that maybe the urban artistic tendencies of the black middle class did tend to more closely mirror their white counterparts. He has offered a more dynamic and valid explanation for the influence of African Americanism, recognising the interaction between both race and other socio-economic factors like class upon urban cultural expressions.
Either way, it is equally important not to generalise the relatively small area of Harlem and the era of the 1920s as being representative for the extent of black influence upon all of urban America’s expressions. What the Harlem Renaissance does still offer is a prominent example of the interplay between being an African American citizen and embodiments of city life in the twentieth century. The Renaissance illuminates how, within urban society, new art mediums and localities like Harlem allowed racial subsections of culture to flourish.
A major bonus of modern city living was the increasing availability of leisure activities. Besides the emergence of clubbing, race affected many other areas of city entertainment too. For example, the cinema industry boomed in America during the twentieth century, especially with the development of sound movies’ popularity over the 1920s-30s. The role that race had, in forming a distinct culture here, was two-fold. Firstly, even the experience of attending American cinemas (and other public spaces) was impacted by ethnicity because for much of the 1900s they were segregated. People’s encounter of the medium was immediately divided.
Secondly, racial heritages impacted the expressions of the actual films themselves within the cinemas too. From 1912 onwards, African American producers started being able to properly create films. Paula Massood has explained how many of these black-produced movies tended to be city-based films, depicting their own experiences of life in urban America. Their urban accounts, related to their race, were reflected in the films. Simultaneously, these portrayals became a large part of the very urban culture that they depicted. It was all very “meta”.
This cultural dialogue would be incomplete if it were not to devote specific attention to the importance of music. Irrespective of racial elements, William Sites has claimed that there were “important connections between urban culture and musical innovation” generally in American cities. The cities produced many new musical and social practices but these also crucially reinforced certain social identities.
Perhaps one of the most famous genres that comes to mind, when harking back to twentieth-century black artists’ influences, is Jazz. This distinctive subculture originally began earlier on, in late nineteenth-century New Orleans, but it was popularised in the major northern cities from the 1920s. Although some commentators such as George Schuyler did not believe that this art form had an essential racial core (similarly to his other views on many “black” art forms) his argument lacks a deeper understanding of the subtle indicators that do suggest otherwise.
For example, within metropolitan spheres, another blossoming part of modern culture was theatre-going. Burton Perreti has explained how some theatres “gradually replaced ragtime standards with Jazz in black areas” only, demonstrating a specific connection between these two aspects of city life. This musical style was more popular amongst distinct racial groups, namely African Americans. Jazz was not an isolated example of stereotypically racialized music in urban America. Other African American-led forms included Motown in the 60s, plus Hip Hop in the latter half of the century too. Undeniably, African Americanism certainly helped to develop these defined cultural strands since, as earlier explained by Sites, they formed a fundamental part of their wider racial identity.
Of course, reducing any chunk of society down to one influence, such as race, is problematic. In twentieth-century America, similarly to any other nation or period, economics markedly shaped urban culture too.
In 1929, America was hit by The Great Depression. This downturn impacted all artists’ and writers’ abilities to produce work, not just those who were African American, as Darryl Dickson-Carr has noted. The depression indeed caused “jarringly significant shifts” in African American writing but these changes occurred for most other urban writers too. However, race can combine here to reveal another layer to the story. Darryl Dickson-Carr has acknowledged that black unemployment during this time, for both the artistic industries and any others, was three times higher than the national average. This implied correlation between wider economic disadvantage and black Americans is hardly new nor surprising information.
In fact, Craig Werner and Sandra Shannon have proposed that although Harlem was “a laboratory where cultural traditions forged”, they say that this was largely in response to “slavery and economic brutality”. Harlem, a heritage site for many American urban cultural behaviours, was a product of both its racial past and the economic conditions of the time. History continued (as it still does now) to overshadow so much about black experience in the U.S, while the reconstruction after the Civil War and the impact of policies of segregation in the South also shaped black consciousness and identity profoundly. The long-lasting connections between race and economic cicumstances were often mutually reinforcing.
Although racial components have never and will never act in isolation, America’s current thriving urban scene still owes a lot to the artistic endeavours of the African American communities of the twentieth-century. Understanding the remarkable Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s provides us with a rich and fruitful lens, through which we can find the explanations behind the distinct racial experiences of city life and how this was then reflected within its creative circles.
It is undeniable that race and the city have often been inextricably linked — a phenomenon that we still see (and should celebrate) in American urban culture today.