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

African American Poetry: A Story Of Magazines

This project was conceived as a catch-all for African American poetry from this period. We were operating under the assumption, noted in earlier projects, that there is likely a good deal of interesting material that has fallen through the cracks of literary history. And indeed that appears to be the case! We have been especially interested in how poets of the period responded creatively to race and racism, and have encountered a rich array of offerings that include many 'deep cuts' from the archives. (A good place to start might be the tag for 'race')  

An important aspect of African American writing that has been explored by scholars recently -- but where digital collections have perhaps not kept up with research interests -- is the Black press. For many poets, African American-oriented periodicals were the first destination for poetry. Magazine publication was how Black poets found readers and developed a sense of community. 

The goal of this site is not so much to curate all of this material for readers. We are curating some of it, to be sure, to help new readers and teachers who are interested in using this material in the classroom. But in fact, the 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 researchers discover? 

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). 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 what had earlier been poetry that appealed to Du Bois' somewhat idiosyncratic tastes. 

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 biographers mention is the 1924 dinner in honor of Jessie Fauset's There is Confusion.) 

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 1928, with the advent of Harlem: A Forum of Negro Life, 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. And indeed, when Claude McKay published a groups of poems in The Liberator in 1919 and Cullen published a series in Poetry in 1925, these events represented important progress in their careers, though it's not clear that the breakthrough was anywhere near as important as the  sense of community recognition they received from African American readers. 

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). 


-Amardeep Singh, July 1922


 

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