Black Authors : Spotlight on The Harlem Renaissance

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Watch Her Flow
Mar 22, 2004
Where the Niger meets the Nile
Beginning roughly 1917 a cultural explosion burst out of Harlem, New York. It was called The New Negro Movement. Yes, we 21st century African Americans disdain the term “Negro,” but that is what they called themselves, and these cultural geniuses were the sovereign lords of their own progressive vision.

Why is this important to us today? Why is any people’s history important to them? If we forget the ancestors from whom we came, we will be like trees without roots, tossed to and fro by the definitions that others ascribe to us. When we let others tell us who we are and how we came to be where we are, what they tell us will always be for their benefit and never for our own benefit. So we must know that there is more to us than slaves, thugs and ballplayers. We must write our own story. And to do that, we must know that writing is something that we do. Writing is not something we copied off of Massa, but it is a natural expression of who we are.

Today, we will look at a group of men and women and examine the creative synergy they created when they decided to take up their pens. This is not meant to be an exhaustive study. It is an overviews, meant to introduce young writers to a handful of those who stood at the vanguard of the traditions and heritage in which we write. My hope is that after reading this, the reader/writer will feel spurred to further study by in depth biographers, such as Arnold Rampersand.

Who was the New Negro?

The Harlem Renaissance began almost thirty years after the end of the so-called “Radical Reconstruction.” For about twelve years after the end of the Civil War, former slaves where able to breathe relatively freely. While many continued to languish in poverty and the squalid conditions of share-cropping, a significant segment, which W.E.B. Du Bois identified as the ”talented tenth,” flourished in various areas of life. They bought land. They were elected to public office. They started businesses. They built schools. They patented the inventions of their own hands. They progressed in ways that scared the hell out of southern Whites. These Whites went to Washington and told then president Rutherford Hayes that if he did not do something, the Blacks would “own the south.” So he signed what came to be known as the Compromise of 1879 and a reign of terror began. The Ku Klux Klan was born. Jim Crow laws were enacted. Blacks who owned land and businesses were lynched.

So it would seem that African Americans lost all the things they had gained in those twelve years. They were back to square one. That’s where the New Negro stepped in. Tired of moving backwards and sideways, these men and woman decided to use their gift with words to move forward. The renaissance also included musicians, painters and other artists, but for the purpose of this paper, we will focus on the writers.

Writers of the Harlem Renaissance

Alain Locke
(September 13 1885-June 9, 1954)
At age 22, Locke became the first African American Rhodes Scholar. This writer, philosopher and educator was the mastermind behind the Harlem Renaissance, and his book, The New Negro: Voices of the Harlem Renaissance, gave the movement its original name. It may be safe to say that without Alain Locke there would have been no Harlem Renaissance. At least, there may not have been such a strong confluence among the Black writers of that period. The period lasted until roughly 1934, when the Great Depression forced the writers and their philanthropic patrons to focus on mere survival. Locke was one of those patrons.

Georgia Douglas Johnson
(September 10 1880-May 14, 1966)
This poet and song writer held weekly “salons” for prominent figures in the Harlem Renaissance. In her house—called the “House“—politics and personal opinions flowed freely among the New Negroes. Doubtless, these conversations served as inspirations for more than a few of the literary creations of the participants.

In 2009, Johnson was inducted into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame.

Langston Hughes
(February 1, 1902-May 22. 1967)
Though best known for his poetry and Jesse B. Semple stories, Hughes was among the grassroots creators of the literary form known as jazz poetry. Like the Hiphoppers of today, they were doing it back then too. In 1925, Hughes worked as the personal assistant of historian Carter G. Woodson at the Association for the Study of African American Life and History. One of Hughes best known poems is “A Dream Deferred:”

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore--
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over--
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

Angelina Weld Grimké
(February 27, 1880-June 10, 1958)
Grimké was a pioneer of creative protest. Long before the famed marches on Washington, she penned Rachel, a play that protests lynching and other forms of racial violence. One of her most memorable poems was “The Eyes of My Regret:”

Always at dusk, the same tearless experience,
The same dragging of feet up the same well-worn path
To the same well-worn rock;
The same crimson or gold dropping away of the sun
The same tints, – rose, saffron, violet, lavender, grey
Meeting, mingling, mixing mistily;
Before me the same blue black cedar rising jaggedly to
a point;
Over it, the same slow unlidding of twin stars,
Two eyes, unfathomable, soul-searing,
Watching, watching, watching me;
The same two eyes that draw me forth, against my will
dusk after dusk;
The same two eyes that keep me sitting late into the
night, chin on knees
Keep me there lonely, rigid, tearless, numbly
miserable –
The eyes of my Regret.

Clause McKay
(September 15, 1889-May 22, 1948)
Scholar Molefi Kete Asante included McKay in his 2002 list of 100 Greatest African Americans. Born in Jamaica, McKay was a prolific writer whose influence continues for generations.

64 years after his physical demise, the genius of McKay resurfaced to haunt the literary and intellectual world. In 2009, Jean-Christophe Cloutier uncovered the manuscript of a satire set in 1936. Amiable With Big Teeth: A Novel of the Love Affair Between the Communists and the Poor Black Sheep of Harlem was buried in the Samuel Roth Papers, an archive at Columbia University, and in 2012, with the help of professor Brent Hayes Edwards, Cloutier authenticated that McKay did write this manuscript in 1941. With a title like that, one can only imagine at its contents.

Nella Larson
(April 13. 1891-March 30, 1964)
Larson was not as prolific a writer as other luminaries in the Harlem Renaissance. But she received much critical acclaim for her two novels, Quicksand and Passing. Interest in her work renewed during the late 20th century, when her interracial themes resonated with the then angst over racial identity.

Jean Toomer
(December 26, 1884-March 30 1967)
Toomer was a major player in the Harlem Renaissance. His first and most critically acclaimed work, Cane, was considered to be important not only to the Harlem Renaissance but also to that segment of American society known as the Lost Generation—described in Ernest Hemingway’s novel, The Sun Also Rises as the generation that served in World War 1.

The Great Depression during the 1930s made it difficult for writers to get published, but Toomer did not stop writing. He remained as prolific as ever and his unpublished manuscripts are now held in the Beinecke Library at Yale University. One might ask, why Yale and not one of the many Historically Black Universities and Colleges.

Anne Spencer
(February 6, 1882-July 27, 1975)
Her work was included in the Norton Anthology of Literature by Women and the Norton Anthology of American Poets. Her life of 93 years spanned centuries and eras, allowing her to host everyone from George Washington Carver to Thurgood Marshall, from W.E.B. Du Bois to Martin Luther King, Jr. Her home in Lynchburg, VA, where she lived for 72 years, is now a museum that commemorates her contribution to literature.

Arna Bontemps
(October 13, 1902-June 4, 1973)
As Head Librarian at Fisk University for over 25 years, Bontemps put together such works as the Langston Hughes Renaissance Collection and other archives of African-American literature and culture.

Bontemps was a novelist and a playwright. He was one of the few African-American writers who put together an anthology of the stories of the slaves titled Great Slave Narratives.

Zora Neale Hurston
(January 7, 1891-January 28, 1960)
Although the Great Depression of the 1930s dried up much of the philanthropic spirit that financed the artistic endeavors of the Harlem Renaissance, Hurston published her most well known work, Their Eyes Were Watching God, in 1937. Anthropologist and folklorist, she published Mules and Men in 1935 as the culmination of four years of anthropological research in the southern states. In 1938, Hurston published the results of her travels in Jamaica and Haiti, Tell My Horse.

Hurston was very much a major figure of the Harlem Renaissance. She had works published in Alain Locke’s anthology, The New Negro. In 1920, she got together with Langston Hughes and Wallace Thurman to form a group called the Niggerett. They published a literary magazine called Fire!!

Wallace Thurman
(August 16, 1902-December 22, 1934)
The magazine, Fire!! was aimed towards younger Blacks. In this joint venture with Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes, Thurman criticized the old guard Black leaders such as W.E.B. Du Bois for their efforts to integrate with Whites and use art to prove their worthiness to Whites by White standards. Yet, even the “New Negro” wasn’t ready to embrace such a radical stance, and the magazine folded after one issue.

In his most notable novel, The Blacker the Berry, Thurman addresses that age-old boogieman of color discrimination within the Black community.

James Weldon Johnson
(June 17, 1871-June 26, 1938)
Born during that most progressive period called Radical Reconstruction, Johnson saw first hand what African Americans can do when not encumbered by White racism. He is most well known as the composer of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which came to be known as the Black National Anthem.

True to his African heritage, Johnson was the master of all trades. He was a professor at New York University and then at Fisk. He served as diplomat in both Venezuela and Nicaragua. Poet, songwriter, novelist, playwright, civil rights activist, lawyer—he did it all.

Lift every voice and sing
Til Earth and Heaven ring
Ring with the harmony of liberty
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the listening skies
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea

Sing a song
Full of the faith that the dark past has taught us
Sing a song
Full of the hope that the present has brought us

Facing the rising sun
Of our new day begun
Let us march on
Til victory is won

Countee Cullen
(May 30, 1903-January 9, 1946 )
Long before James Brown urged African Americans to “Say it loud. I‘m Black and I‘m proud,” Countee Cullen wrote Color, a collection of poems that celebrates the beauty of Blackness. He was a prolific writer of poems, essays and even a play, but this collection stood out as a bright star in the celestial atmosphere of the Harlem Renaissance. From Color we have the poem “Incident.”

Once riding in old Baltimore,
Heart-filled, head-filled with glee,
I saw a Baltimorean
Keep looking straight at me.

Now I was eight and very small,
And he was no whit bigger,
And so I smiled, but he poked out
His tongue, and called me, '******.'

I saw the whole of Baltimore
From May until December;
Of all the things that happened there
That's all that I remember.

As African Americans, and as Africans period, we have always used some form of art—writing, music, dance, drama, painting, sculpture—to express the depth of our despair and the height of our euphoria. The pen, they say, is mightier than the sword. That is only true when people respect what is written. The writers of the Harlem Renaissance are respected because of their honesty. They had White patrons who financed their travels here and there and White publishers who accepted their work. Yet, they never sold out to what they thought others wanted them to write. With such a heritage, can we do anything less in the 21st century?

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