African American Poetry (1870-1928): A Digital Anthology

African American Periodical Poetry (1900-1928)

What's here--at a glance: 
To understand how African American poetry developed and grew in the years covered by this project, it's important to engage with the primary venue through which poetry was published and read -- the Black press.

For many poets in this Anthology, African American-oriented periodicals were the first destination for poetry. Magazine publication was how Black poets found readers and developed a sense of community, and the collections we have produced for this project hopefully show some powerful emerging networks and conversations about the role of literature in civil rights activism, questions of aesthetics, and questions of language. Also, at least until the mid-1920s, publication in mainstream venues like Poetry or Vanity Fair was extremely rare for African American poets, so venues like The Crisis and Opportunity were sometimes the best and only way to get published. 

To be sure, the collections linked to above are large and a little unwieldy; they contain poetry of quite varying quality and importance to literary historians. Our aspiration is to make as much periodical poetry accessible to readers and researchers as possible with the hope that it will be helpful to different kinds of research projects and questions. One important aspect of the 'archive effect' is that putting everything together in one place can sometimes reveal alignments and patterns that might not have previously been visible. What might readers discover? What new questions can we ask? 

The Crisis and Opportunity.  Probably the two most important magazine stories are 1) the community that developed around The Crisis during the 1910s and 20s, and 2) the story of the Opportunity literary prize contests (and the dinners that were held in honor of winners); see our collection of prize-winning poems here. With The Crisis, there appears to have been a steady build-up of interest in poetry through the 1910s, leading up to the hiring of Jessie Fauset in 1919 (through 1926, when she resigned). With her work at The Crisis, Fauset brought a serious literary sensibility to the magazine and a considerable increase in quality. 

With regards to Opportunity: as biographers for writers like Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes have documented, the Opportunity dinners in 1925 and 1926 seemed to function at least in part as 'coming out parties' for emerging writers, helping to create a sense of excitement about African American poetry that hadn't previously been felt. (Another important dinner historians mention is the 1924 Harlem Civic Club dinner in honor of Jessie Fauset's There is Confusion.) 

The mid-1920s as tipping point for Black poetry. As we've continued to expand our collection of African American periodical poetry, it's become clearer and clearer that the mid- and late-1920s was a special moment of growth and recognition. First and foremost, there is a remarkable proliferation of African American general interest magazines (in addition to The Crisis, we the emergence of see OpportunityNegro World, and The Messenger as prominent venues). Secondly, we see a growth in African American literary magazines, like Fire!!! in New York in 1926, Black Opals in Philadelphia in 1927, and Saturday Evening Quill in Boston from 1928-1930.

And finally, several mainstream publications open their pages to special issues devoted to African American poetry. The most prominent of these is undoubtedly the special issue of Survey Graphic guest-edited by Alain Locke, which would become the basis for the hugely influential anthology The New Negro: an Interpretation. There were also special issues dedicated to African American poetry published by modernist little magazines like Palms (guest-edited by Countee Cullen), as well as The Carolina Magazine, which did excellent issues on African American poetry (guest-edited by Lewis Alexander). This growing engagement from the mainstream was also reflected of course in the fact that mainstream commercial publishers in New York and Boston were also publishing significant quantities of African American poetry during this time period. 

Creating Black-oriented Literary Magazines: Despite the importance of The Crisis, Opportunity, and The Messenger to the emergence of African American poetry in the early 20th century, several African American writers were frustrated by the strong bias for the social sciences and politics in those magazines. They were eager to see dedicated literary magazines emerge. That had been tried a number of times, including of course the vibrant Colored American Magazine that ran between 1900-1909. The most notable effort in the mid-1920s was probably Fire!! Devoted to the Younger Negro Artists. That magazine sadly only ran a single issue (largely because of financial constraints). Another attempt was made in with a "little magazine" called Black Opals, produced in Philadelphia, and which ran for four issues. Between 1928 and 1930, a group of Black poets writing in Boston published Saturday Evening Quill. And in 1928, Harlem: A Forum of Negro Life was published under the editorship of Wallace Thurman. 

Writing for Children: As we've delved into this project and looked at the careers of writers like Jessie Fauset, Georgia Douglas Johnson and Langston Hughes, it's become clear that writing for children was an important part of their development and an important part of the emerging literary culture of the Harlem Renaissance more broadly. Along those lines, wev'e decided to create a collection of poetry published in The Brownies' Book, a magazine published by Du Bois and Fauset in 1920-1921. (Hughes would later go on to publish a book of poetry oriented specifically to children, The Dream Keeper) [As of July 2022, this collection is in progress. Some screen captures of poems in The Brownies' Book can be found here.]

Debates and Disagreements: It may not be quite visible from the poetry alone that the different magazines represented ideological differences that were fairly stark. The Messenger was explicitly socialist, and sometimes quite critical of Du Bois and The CrisisNegro World was connected to the Marcus Garvey's UNIA, and carried a Black nationalist orientation that also diverged from from the mainstream civil rights orientation of the NAACP. Opportunity was closer in some ways to the orientation of The Crisis, but it was conceived of as more an academic journal focused on sociology, so the function of poetry in that magazine was perhaps not always clear. 

Publishing in 'Mainstream' Venues: Many of the poets who published in African American-oriented venues like the ones mentioned above also periodically published in mainstream venues.

Some breakthrough events include James Weldon Johnson's "Fifty Years," a poem commemorating the fifty year anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. Johnson's poem was published in the New York Times in 1913, and widely republished elsewhere in subsequent years. Another breakthrough moment was Claude McKay's publication of several poems in The Liberator in 1919 (McKay would go on to publish several additional poems in The Liberator between 1919-1921). Later, Countee Cullen's series in Poetry in 1925 served as a breakthrough for the young poet's career. However, it's not clear that the breakthroughs mentioned were anywhere near as important as the sense of community recognition they received from African American readers through regular publication in African American oriented venues like The Crisis and Opportunity.  

Other important publications in mainstream venues might include the special issue of Survey Graphic in March 1925 edited by Alain Locke, which became the breakthrough book, The New Negro: an Interpretationand the "Negro Number" of Palms (October 1926). 

The Carolina Magazine also did "New Negro" issues in May 1927 and May 1928, which featured many of the poets who were quite active on the scene in the mid-1920s, including Langston Hughes, Lewis Alexander, Helene Johnson, Georgia Douglas Johnson, and Mae V. Cowdery, to name just a few. The University of North Carolina has recently digitized these issues, with a description here.

--Amardeep Singh, July 2022(Updated May 2024)


 

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