In the 1920s, the great migration of blacks from the rural South to the urban North sparked an African–American cultural renaissance that took its name from the New York City neighborhood of Harlem but became a widespread movement in cities throughout the North and West. Also known as the Black Renaissance or the New Negro Movement, the Harlem Renaissance marked the first time that mainstream publishers and critics turned their attention seriously to African–American literature, music, art and politics. Blues singer Bessie Smith, pianist Jelly Roll Morton, bandleader Louis Armstrong, composer Duke Ellington, dancer Josephine Baker, and actor Paul Robeson were among the leading entertainment talents of the Harlem Renaissance, while Paul Laurence Dunbar, James Weldon Johnson, Claude McKay, Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston were some of its most eloquent writers. There was a flip side to this greater exposure, however: Emerging black writers relied heavily on white–owned publications and publishing houses, while in Harlem’s most famous cabaret, the Cotton Club, the preeminent black entertainers of the day played to exclusively white audiences. In 1926, a controversial bestseller about Harlem life by the white novelist Carl von Vechten exemplified the attitude of many white urban sophisticates, who looked to black culture as a window into a more “primitive” and “vital” way of life. W.E.B. Du Bois, for one, railed against Van Vechten’s novel and criticized works by black writers, such as McKay’s novel Home to Harlem, that he saw as reinforcing negative stereotypes of blacks. With the onset of the Great Depression, as organizations like the NAACP and the National Urban League switched their focus to the economic and political problems facing blacks, the Harlem Renaissance drew to a close. Its influence had stretched around the world, opening the doors of mainstream culture to black artists and writers.
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