The right to make my dreams come true
I ask, nay, I demand of life,
Nor shall fate's deadly contraband
Impede my steps, nor countermand.
Too long my heart against the ground
Has beat the dusty years around,
And now, at length, I rise, I wake!
And stride into the morning break!
Georgia Douglas Johnson, 1922
It was the early twentieth century, and the world had already changed tremendously compared to the world of their parents and grandparents.
Slavery had ended in America more than half a century earlier. While African Americans still faced tremendous economic and social obstacles in both the northern and southern states, there were more opportunities than there had been.
After the Civil War (and beginning slightly before, especially in the North), education for black Americans -- and black and white women -- had become more common. Many were not able to attend or complete school, but a substantial few were able not only to attend and complete elementary or secondary school, but college. Professional education opened up to blacks and women. Some black men became professionals: physicians, lawyers, teachers, businessmen. Some black women also found professional careers as teachers, librarians. These families in turn saw to the education of their daughters.
Some saw the returning black soldiers from World War I as an opening of opportunity for African Americans. Black men had contributed to the victory, too. Surely America would now welcome these black men into full citizenship.
Black Americans were moving out of the rural South, and into the cities and towns of the industrial North. They brought "black culture" with them: music with African roots and story-telling. The general culture began adopting as its own elements of that black culture: this was the Jazz Age!
Hope was rising -- though discrimination, prejudice and closed doors on account of race and sex were by no means eliminated. But there were new opportunities. It seemed more worthwhile to challenge those injustices: perhaps the injustices could be eliminated, or at least made less.
In this environment, a flowering of music, fiction, poetry and art in African American intellectual circles came to be called the Harlem Renaissance. A Renaissance, like the European Renaissance, in which moving forward while going back to roots generated tremendous creativity and action. Harlem, because one of the centers was the neighborhood of New York City called Harlem, by this time predominantly peopled by African Americans, more of whom were daily arriving from the South.
It was not just in New York -- though New York City and Harlem remained at the center of the more experimental aspects of the movement. Washington, DC, Philadelphia, and to a lesser extent Chicago were other northern US cities with large established black communities with enough educated members to "dream in color" too.
The NAACP, founded by white and black Americans to further the rights of "colored people," established its journal they called Crisis, edited by W. E. B. Du Bois. Crisis took on the political issues of the day affecting black citizens. And Crisis also published fiction and poetry, with Jessie Fauset as the literary editor.
The Urban League, another organization working to serve city communities, published Opportunity. Less explicitly political and more consciously cultural, Opportunity was published by Charles Johnson; Ethel Ray Nance served as his secretary.
The political side of Crisis was complemented by the conscious striving for a black intellectual culture: poetry, fiction, art that reflected the new race consciousness of "The New Negro." Exploring the human condition as African Americans experienced it: love, hope, death, racial injustice, dreams.