How The Harlem Renaissance Woke Up America

by F Yeah History



The Harlem Renaissance was a game changer, as a much a cultural awakening for the African American community as for the United States as a whole: Thrusting black voices into pop culture, creating a new crop of black artists and cultural icons, and, most importantly, fostering a pride that hadn’t been allowed to exist before.

negroamerican 16161A 1928 copy of Negro American Magazine, featuring civil rights campaigner Erma Seweatt

The first generation of people born free had a fight on their hands. Removed from the shackles of slavery, they were still oppressed and persecuted in their own country. So, it shouldn’t come as a huge shock that throughout the 1920s and ’30s, many chose to leave the Southern states and instead head for Northern cities like Chicago and New York, where things were a whole lot more progressive.

Faced with these new bright lights, they didn’t back down, forming communities and using art, literature, theatre and music to express themselves, their history and their future.


One of the most acclaimed artists to come from the Harlem Renaissance is the one and only Billie Holiday. 

billieholiday d894a

Billie came up during the Renaissance and it was here she grew her voice. Famed for touching upon subjects other singers shied away from, perhaps her most iconic song is “Strange Fruit.” 

Recorded in the late 1930s, “Strange Fruit” deals with lynching. Blunt and unflinching, it soon became a protest song.

Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root

Black body swinging in the Southern breeze

Though Billie feared repercussions for performing the song, she felt compelled to continue singing. After all, it was the the truth, not just for her, but for everyone in America. “Strange Fruit” became a stalwart Billie Holiday number for her — yet her record company refused to print it. 

strange fruit

Remember, this was the 1930s. The Civil Rights movement was just a seed. Such public protests were unheard of and tended to end with, well, lynching. But “Strange Fruit” couldn’t be contained, eventually being released as a single by Comodor.

“Strange Fruit” remains a protest strong and a vital reminder of this dark time in America’s history. But it’s still banned by some.

When English singer Rebecca Fergerson was asked to perform at Donald Trump’s inauguration, she agreed…if she could sing “Strange Fruit.” You can guess what Trump said.

peep showHe said no (because he is a wanker)


In an era when “one black per bill” was the theatrical norm, the musical Shuffle Along high-kicked in and smashed every existing idea of what African Americans could contribute to theatre to shittery and back.

shuffle along chorus 42d3bThe chorus of “Shuffle Along” taking a break from ass-kicking

Now, I know musical theatre doesn’t seem like the tool with which groundbreaking cultural change occurs.

Much rainbow, such social changeMuch rainbow, such social change

But forget what you think you know. Shuffle Along contains absolutely no technicolor dreamcoats, no needy scarred blokes living below opera houses, and no jazz hands (okay fine — maybe some jazz hands).

Produced and written by an all-black team and starring a black cast, Shuffle Along shook shit up when it made its debut on the early 1920s, with many of the cast enjoying their Broadway debut (including the incredible Josephine Baker!). The musical revolved around a mayoral election (of course!), but the politics wasn’t confined to the stage. 

shuffle along 2 94b2d

Shuffle Along took off, engaging with theatergoers from all backgrounds. It proved to theater bigwigs that even with a cast and creative team who comprised of waaay more than “one black,” the public didn’t care; they wanted to pay to see the show. In fact, they wanted to see more shows led by African American casts and creatives!

Bigger than that (and it’s a pretty big biggy), the huge popularity of Shuffle Along led to the 1920s desegregation of theaters. For the first time, black theatergoers didn’t have to watch from way up in the gods; at Shuffle Along, they could sit up at the front.

yaySee, isn’t musical theater great!


For all the groundbreaking being done uptown, racism still existed in Harlem, as it did across America. One such hotbed was popular night club The Cotton Club.

cotton club dancers b7c50Okay, it looks fun…but trust me, it’s not!

As its name suggests, the Cotton Club wasn’t a haven for any form of equality, with the clubs owner, gangster Owen “the Killer” Madden wanting his club to ooze “stylish plantation” and insisting on only playing “jungle music” for his all-white patrons.

killer df5baSurprising that someone with the middle name “killer” is also a cock

But there was light! For all the Cotton Club’s racism, its all-African American workforce was tenacious and somehow managed to turn the club’s stage into one of modern jazz’s early breeding grounds.

Acclaimed musical pioneer Duke Ellington served as the Cotton Club’s band leader during the late twenties. There, he formed one of history’s greatest jazz orchestras, and soon their music took over Americas radio stations.

dukeellington bc977Duke Ellington

After Duke left for far greener (and less racist) pastures, a new bandleader was appointed — the equally groundbreaking Cab Calloway.


Cab brought drama and flair to the club’s music, in addition to call and repeat scatting that can be seen in still-iconic tracks like “Minnie the Moocher.”

danceNow those…those are moves.

Yet despite the acclaimed music on stage, the Cotton Club remained determinedly segregated. So it’s perhaps no bad thing that it was forced to close during the Harlem Race Riotof 1935.


The 1935 Harlem Race Riot effectively ended the Harlem Renaissance. Much like the Cotton Club, Harlem was a hive of contradictions. While its art celebrated the community and was applauded at the highest levels, many of Harlem’s occupants were essentially living in slums. Things were uneasy. And after rumours ran rife that a young Puerto Rican teen had been beaten to death for shoplifting, the riot was sparked.

harlem race riot 1935 39fa7Police arrest a man during the 1935 riot

The Renaissance and its art left its impact, though. It laid a groundwork of pride and built a clear community voice that would be developed when the Civil Rights movement started to emerge following WWII.

The music, theater, and talent of this era would become forever synonymous of black culture. While WWII waged on and civil rights waited, the Harlem Renaissance artists work served as a lingering reminder of everything that could be — and one day would be — achieved.

This post originally appeared on and is reprinted here with permission. Top photo: Billie Holiday 

More from BUST

Gladys Bentley Was The Gender Nonconforming, Lesbian Superstar Of The Harlem Renaissance

Josephine Baker: Secret Agent Woman

25 Zora Neale Hurston Quotes And Photos To Celebrate Creativity And Perseverance


You may also like

Get the print magazine.

The best of BUST in your inbox!

Subscribe to Our Weekly Newsletter

About Us

Founded in 1993, BUST is the inclusive feminist lifestyle trailblazer offering a unique mix of humor, female-focused entertainment, uncensored personal stories, and candid reporting that tells the truth about women’s lives.

©2023 Street Media LLC.  All Right Reserved.