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

African American Poetry: Anthologies of the 1920s

There were several important anthologies of African American poetry published between 1920 and 1927; they were a key part of the development of the Harlem Renaissance movement, and helped to dramatically raise the visibility of Black authors more generally. At present, we have created digital versions of four of these anthologies (the fifth, Caroling Dusk, will go out of copyright in 2023, and we expect to present a version of it then). 

Alongside periodicals, anthologies served as an extremely important means of recording and amplifying the cultural capital accrued by Black writers in the 1920s. The key event according to literary historians might be the publication of Alain Locke's New Negro in 1925, widely cited as the real launching point for the Harlem Renaissance. The New Negro helped solidify the reputations of young poets like Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen, and helped introduce emerging writers like Zora Neale Hurston. 

However, by comparing the selections in The New Negro to earlier collections, we can see how idiosyncratic and limited Locke's choices were. For one thing, he drastically underplayed the importance of poets who were women in his account of Black poetry of the 1920s: Georgia Douglas Johnson has a very limited presence. Jessie Fauset is only present in the anthology as the author of an essay; her creative contributions are absent. Anne Spencer, Angelina Grimke, and Gwendolyn Bennett each have a poem included, but prolific and talented writers like Carrie Williams Clifford, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Effie Lee Newsome, Clara Ann Thompson, and Olivia Ward Bush-Bnaks are all entirely excluded. Locke also underplayed the tradition of race-conscious poetry by writers like Lucian B. Watkins, Leslie Pinckney Hill, James D. Corrothers, and many others. The anthologies by Johnson and Kerlin, both limited in their own ways, do paint a more inclusive picture of the poetry of the period. 

Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Ed. The Dunbar Speaker and Entertainer (1920). This anthology was marketed to "youthful" readers, and contained a mix of poetry, prose, and extracts from dramatic works. It contains a considerable amount of material by Paul Laurence Dunbar and Alice Dunbar-Nelson herself, but also race-conscious poetry by writers like Joseph H. Cotter, Jr., Walter Everette Hawkins, and James Weldon Johnson. The preface was by Leslie Pinckney Hill. The volume was published in Illinois, and it is unclear to us how widely it was distributed. 

The Upward Path: A Reader for Colored Children (1920). Edited by Myron T. Pritchard and Mary Beth Ovington, with an Introduction by Robert R. Moton of the Tuskegee Institute. This is another collection oriented towards young readers. Mary Beth Ovington was a white woman who was also a co-founder of the NAACP; in 1920, she served as Chairman of the Board of the organization. Robert R. Moton took over as the principal of the Tuskegee Institute after Booker T. Washington's death in 1915. This anthology was published in New York, and it's unclear how widely it circulated.

James Weldon Johnson, Ed. Book of American Negro Poetry (1922). A breakthrough anthology assembled by an established poet, novelist, and then secretary of the NAACP.  Johnson printed a revised version of the Books of American Negro Poetry in 1931.

Robert T. Kerlin, Negro Poets and their Poems (1923). An enthusiastic anthology with critical commentary by a white academic with strong civil rights credentials. (Kerlin was fired from his academic post after criticizing the treatment of Black folks in the Elaine Massacre) 

Newman I. White, Ed. An Anthology of Verse by American Negroes (1924). A largely academic anthology produced by a team of white editors. The anthology was not widely cited at the time and probably less influential than Johnson and Kerlin's projects. 

Alain Locke, Ed. The New Negro: an Interpretation (1925). Far and away the most influential anthology of the period, Locke's anthology contained many miscellaneous historical and sociological essays alongside works of poetry, fiction, and drama by Black writers. Scholars have questioned the inclusion of so many white critics and patrons (such as Albert Barnes) in the anthology, and have also criticized the marginalization of women. 

Fire!! Devoted to the Younger Negro Artists (1926). Intended as the first issue of a journal, Fire!! immediately ran into financial difficulties and only printed a single issue. But its strong assertion of generational turnover and its emphasis on literary aesthetics made it unique. 

Caroling Dusk: An Anthology of Verse by Black Poets of the Twenties (1927)


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