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Harlem Renaissance Poetry

The Harlem Renaissance is a period in American history where the influence of African-Americans in politics, literature, music, culture and society grew and became a part of the mainstream. The period has its roots in the early 1900’s when a migration of middle class African-Americans to a newly built suburb called Harlem in New York City caused a stir. It was 1904, in fact, when several families relocated from a section of New York City called “Black Bohemia” and homesteaded themselves to Harlem. Others followed.

In 1910, a church group and several African-American realtors bought up a large section of 135th Street and Fifth Avenue. Southern blacks, looking for paid labor, moved north to join the throng. Also during that time a new political movement emerged from the grass roots of the African-American community that started championing civil rights for blacks. This led to a rich paradigm shift in culture, education and political thought within the African-American community.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People got its start in 1909 and black sociologist W.E.B. DuBois, who was also a noted historian, started speaking out against the white establishment for its institutionalized racism and encouraged African-Americans to educate themselves and participate in politics and mainstream culture. Out of this movement arose a number of literary artists and musicians who managed to move into mainstream American culture and who still have wide influence in all circles of American society.

Jazz and blues were popular in Harlem as a result of the migration from the South. Paul Lawrence Dunbar had accomplished national acclaim as a black writer before the turn of the century and was a huge influence on later African-American literary artists. World War I saw the recognition of Claude McKay as a poet and writer and James Weldon Johnson as a black fiction writer.

Harlem Goes Mainstream

In the 1920’s, McKay’s book of poetry Harlem Shadows (1922) became one of the first works by African-American authors to achieve national acclaim with a reputable mainstream publisher. Jean Toomer followed in 1923 with the publication of Cane, an experimental novel that combined poetry and prose to tell the story of African-Americans in the rural South and urban North. Politically, Jamaican Marcus Garvey kicked off the black nationalist movement worldwide.

With these personalities and events as precursors, the Harlem Renaissance got its real boost of steam between 1924 and 1926. In March 1924, the National Urban League hosted a dinner to honor the growing literary talent in the African-American community. This led to a popular literary magazine, Survey Graphic, producing a Harlem issue in March 1925. Black philosopher and literary scholar Alain Locke edited the issue. Locke later expanded the issue into an anthology titled The New Negro.

Nigger Heaven In 1926, a white novelist, Carl Van Vechten, published a book on Harlem life titled Nigger Heaven. The book offended some members of the black community but it was influential in developing a wider interest in African-American literature among blacks and whites and drew people from all over to experience Harlem’s burgeoning nightlife.

Also in 1926, a group of black writers started their own literary journal called Fire!. Such long lasting influences as Langston Hughes, Wallace Thurman and Zora Neale Hurston saw their names in print in this journal and the Harlem Renaissance was well on its way.

Noteworthy poets of the Harlem Renaissance include:

Langston Hughes
Jessie Fauset
Countee Cullen
Claude McKay
James Weldon Johnson
Arna Bontemps

Helene Johnson female Harlem Renaissance poet For an excellent web site that features female African-American poets and writers of the Harlem Renaissance go to Female Harlem Renaissance Poets.

The Legacy Of The Harlem Renaissance

So what can we learn from the poets of the Harlem Renaissance? A great deal if we take the time to study. Hughes wrote in a free style that borrowed the rhythms of blues and jazz, which he considered the music that expressed the soul of black people. To read some of his poetry, click the link above and enjoy the feast.

Fauset was perhaps the most prolific female writer of the Harlem Renaissance. Her poetry can be read by clicking on the link bearing her name.

Cullen, raised primarily in a white neighborhood, was a bit different than the other writers of the Harlem Renaissance, but his influence is no less important. His poetry is available by clicking his name.

McKay migrated from Jamaica only to be confronted with racism when he hit American shores. His poetry is rich with description on the racist experience and can be read by clicking the link above.

Johnson was the first African-American accepted to the Florida bar. With a long public life, he is well known for having penned “Lift Every Voice And Sing,” which has long been considered the “Negro National Anthem.” His poetry is available at the link carrying his name above.

Bontemps, another influential writer of the Harlem Renaissance, now has a museum in Louisiana named in his honor.

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