Black Poetry Before the Harlem Renaissance: Overview and Timeline
However, well before the 1920s the field of African American poetry was already very vibrant. There are three major threads we will briefly outline here: 1) the marked influence of Paul Laurence Dunbar beginning in the 1890s; 2) the influence of Colored American Magazine in the early 1900s; and 3) the advent of poetry published in The Crisis, beginning in 1910. The goal of this page is to provide readers with a few starting points for poetry from this period that point to the extensive array of resources collected at this site.
1. Paul Laurence Dunbar
For the purposes of this site, the most salient starting point might be the writing of Paul Laurence Dunbar, a poet who emerged in the 1890s, and who became highly influential, both for other African American writers, and for mainstream / white audiences. His career was brief but extremely bright; Dunbar published twelve collections of original poetry in a career that lasted less than fifteen years.
Dunbar's most influential poem, "We Wear the Mask" (1895) thematizes the ambivalence he might have felt as a performer who had achieved significant success and name-recognition among white audiences while remaining subject to institutional racism. At the same time, Dunbar appears to have been widely beloved by Black readers as well as contemporary Black poets; this site has a small collection of tribute poems written by Black poets to Dunbar attesting to their admiration for him.
Dunbar was often derided as a purveyor of "dialect verse." And indeed, one of the marks of a generational shift William Stanley Braithwaite noted in 1919 was the sense that the younger generation -- the generation that would become the core of the Harlem Renaissance -- was moving away from its reliance on dialect, and instead exploring forms of race-conscious writing that operated quite differently.
2. Colored American Magazine
Colored American Magazine was published between 1900-1909, and published a considerable amount of poetry by writers like William Stanley Braithwaite, James D. Corrothers, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and Timothy Thomas Fortune. There is an excellent digital archive of Colored American Magazine here, and we have not attempted to duplicate the materials found there on this site. The specific index of contributors is here.
3. The advent of poetry in The Crisis
The Crisis began publication as the official monthly magazine for the newly-formed NAACP in 1910 under the editorship of W.E. B. Du Bois. By 1911, it was publishing poetry regularly, with 1 or more poem appearing in every issue. Under Du Bois, the decision process does not appear to have been highly selective, and poems of very different styles and voices were published. Writers like Georgia Douglas Johnson, Carrie Williams Clifford, Leslie Pinckney Hill, and Lucian B. Watkins were regular contributors. With a circulation of 100,000 at its peak, the magazine proved to be an extremely effective way for emerging writers to find an audience.
In 1919, Jessie Fauset took over as literary editor at The Crisis, and helped to usher in a new generation of contributors, including several writers who would be mainstays of the Harlem Renaissance. See our complete collection of poetry published in The Crisis here.
By the late 1910s and early 1920s, other magazines were also emerging. The UNIA's Negro World had a popular "Poetry for the People" section between 1919-1921, and Opportunity: a Journal of Negro Life emerged in 1923. Moreover, by the early 1920s it was becoming more common for Black writers like Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, and Langston Hughes to publish their poetry in mainstream magazines like Bookman and Seven Arts.
Timeline of African American Poetry Before the Harlem Renaissance (1870-1920)
1873: Adah Isaacs Menken*, Infelicia (Editor's note: There is some debate about the ancestry of Adah Isaacs Menken. Her parents may have been mixed-race Louisiana creoles. See her Wikipedia entry)
1877: Alberry A Whitman, Not a Man, Yet a Man
1890: Josephine Heard, Morning Glories
1893: Paul Laurence Dunbar, Oak and Ivy (self-published in Ohio)
1895: Paul Laurence Dunbar, Majors and Minors. Reviewed by William Dean Howells, who praises his "dialect verse"
1895, Eloise A Bibb, Poems
1895: George Marion McClellan, Poems
1895: Daniel Webster Davis, Idle Moments: Containing Emancipation and Other Poems
1896: Frances E.W. Harper, Poems
1896: Paul Laurence Dunbar, Lyrics of Lowly Life (preface by William Dean Howells)
1897: Mary Weston Fordham, Magnolia Leaves (Preface by Booker T. Washington)
1899: Olivia Ward Bush-Banks, Original Poems (1899)
1900: Colored American Magazine begins publication
1902: Paul Laurence Dunbar, Lyrics of Love and Laughter
1904: Paul Laurence Dunbar, Lyrics of the Hearthside
1904: Paul Laurence Dunbar, "Lyrics of the Hearthside"
1904: William Stanley Braithwaite, "Lyrics of Love and Life"
1905: Paul Laurence Dunbar, Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadow
1905: Benjamin Griffith Brawley, "The Problem And Other Poems"
1905: Timothy Thomas Fortune, "Dreams of Life: Miscellaneous Poems"
1906: Paul Laurence Dunbar dies
1907: Lucian B. Watkins, Voices of Solitude
1908: William Stanley Braithwaite, House of Falling Leaves
1908: Clara Ann Thompson, Songs from the Wayside
1908: Charles Frederick White, Plea of the Negro Soldier: and a Hundred Other Poems
1909: Founding of the NAACP
1909: Walter Everette Hawkins, "Chords and Discords"
1910: Maggie Pogue Johnson, "Virginia Dreams"
1910: H. Cordelia Ray, "Poems"
1910: The Crisis begins publication
1913: Fenton Johnson, "A Little Dreaming"
1914: Olivia Ward Bush-Banks, "Driftwood"
1915: Fenton Johnson, "Visions of the Dusk"
1917: James Weldon Johnson, Fifty Years and other Poems
1918: Georgia Douglas Johnson, "The Heart of a Woman" (with a preface by William Stanley Braithwaite)
1918: Waverley Turner Carmichael, "From the Heart of a Folk"
1919: Claude McKay publishes several poems in The Liberator, including "If We Must Die"
1920: Sarah Lee Brown Fleming, "Clouds and Sunshine"
1920: Claude McKay, Spring in New Hampshire (published in the UK)
1921 Leslie Pinckney Hill, "Wings of Oppression"