Who were its key writers?
Although the Harlem Renaissance represents a unique revolution in the history of American literature, there were a number of African American writers who came to prominence before the movement began. Jupiter Hammon is considered the first published African American writer in America, and Phillis Wheatley is credited with being the first African American female to be published. Likewise, the abolitionist writings of authors such as Frances Hparper and Frederick Douglas were also widely read and published.
However, W. E. B. Du Bois could be considered a forerunner of the Harlem Renaissance. In his highly influential book The Souls of Black Folk , published in 1903, Du Bois expresses an artistic and political vision of equality for African Americans which inspired artists in the early twentieth century and later the early Civil Rights movement. Read and listen to two excerpts from The Souls of Black Folk entitled“The Forethought” and “Of Our Spiritual Strivings,” paying particular attention to his recollection of African American history and the importance he places on folk musical traditions as a record of African American’s struggle for freedom.
Music played a particularly prominent role in the development of the Harlem Renaissance. The work of musicians and composers such as Duke Ellington, Paul Robeson, and Ella Fitzgerald, among others, grew in popularity among white and black audiences during the Harlem Renaissance. Like Du Bois, many of the movement’s writers drew explicitly upon the folk traditions of spirituals, blues music, and work songs to create a unique literary language that reflected some aspects of the everyday speech of African Americans. (In this module, you will read two musically inspired works by the writer James Weldon Johnson, “O Black and Unknown Bards” and “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” )
For the purposes of this course, it is not possible to provide a comprehensive overview of the numerous influential artists and writers associated with the Harlem Renaissance. An anthology published in 1925 entitled The New Negro helped to solidify the group of writers typically associated with the movement. The book included work by writers such as Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Claude McKay, Jean Toomer, and Eric Walrond. (In this module, you will read the essay, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” and the poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” by Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen’s poem “I Have a Rendezvous with Life,” and the play “Lawing and Jawing” by Zora Neale Hurston.)
The New Negro was edited by Alain Locke, and it included his title essay “Enter the New Negro” in which he describes the creative and social attitudes of the modern African American as being more assertive and openly critical of racial prejudice and injustice. Contrasting the “New Negro” to the “Old Negro” of the past, Locke suggests that the ideal African American citizen is one who “lays aside the status of beneficiary and ward for that of a collaborator and participant in American civilization. The great social gain in this is the releasing of our talented group from the arid fields of controversy and debate to the productive fields of creative expression.” This participation was, however, contingent on being granted equal legal and political status to white Americans. In contrast to Du Bois, who believed the African American art ought to contribute to the social and political liberation of black people, Locke believed that African American art should demonstrate the uniqueness of the artist in order to demonstrate his or her undeniable humanity. (1)