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The Beginnings of the Harlem Renaissance: Overview and Timeline of Key Events
The aesthetic movement we now know as the Harlem Renaissance (roughly, 1922-1930) was known a little differently at the time. Many critics and participants in the 1920s itself referred to the period as the "New Negro" Renaissance, and that phrasing is encapsulated by the anthology edited by Alain Locke, The New Negro: an Interpretation. (See our note on Historical language.)Since the 1970s, the period has largely been known as the Harlem Renaissance, as seen in the title of Arna Bontemps' memoir, The Harlem Renaissance Remembered (1972) and Nathan Huggins' influential literary history, Harlem Renaissance (1971).
The period is best known as an era when a critical mass of writers, musicians, visual artists, and performers converged in New York City, and began producing revolutionary American art and literature. This was the beginning of jazz and the blues, and both aesthetics were hugely influential in the Harlem Renaissance, as were other elements of African American folk culture. In terms of literature specifically, the Harlem Renaissance was the first era where mainstream publishers began to print literature -- novels, poetry, and drama -- by African American writers in significant numbers.
Historically, the Harlem Renaissance was made possible by the growth of large Black communities in northern cities as a result of the "Great Migration" (a phenomenon described in poems like Georgia Douglas Johnson's "The Hegira" and Lucy Ariel Williams' "Northboun'"). Another key element was likely the growth of Black colleges and universities, which had, by the 1920s, been educating a growing, highly literate Black middle class (see our HBCU tag). Many of the pioneering figures of the Harlem Renaissance either studied at or taught at Black colleges and universities, including W.E.B. Du Bois, Zora Neale Hurston, Alain Locke, Charles S. Johnson, Langston Hughes, and William Stanley Braithwaite.
Importantly, the advent of a literary renaissance for Black writers in the 1920s was not accompanied by significant progress for civil rights for the African American community. Indeed, Jim Crow segregation remained intact in the south, lynchings remained common in southern towns and cities, and no signficant new civil rights litigation was passed during the period. Anti-lynching legislation was introduced (see Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill), with support from the NAACP, but ultimately failed. Also, years such as 1919 were marked by significant racialized violence (the "Red Summer"), including violence against returning World War I veterans. That said, magazines like The Crisis and Opportunity were deeply committed to advocating for civil rights for the African American community, and did find some success with the 1923 acquittal of twelve Black men originally sentenced to death followiing the Elaine massacre.
Here are a few key events leading up to the Harlem Renaissance:
October 1919: Jessie Fauset becomes literary editor of The Crisis, relocating from Washington, DC to New York City. Over the next few years, Fauset's influence leads to the growth of a more high-brow sensibility in the poetry published in the magazine. See our extensive collection of poems published in The Crisis here.
1920: Publication of W.E.B. Du Bois' Darkwater: Voices Within the Veil. Perhaps Du Bois' second most influential work theorizing the nature of race and racism in American life (after The Souls of Black Folk), the volume also contained a number of Du Bois' poems.
1920: Publication of Fenton Johnson's Tales of Darkest America, in Chicago, Illinois. The collection contained short stories previously published in Johnson's magazine, The Favorite Magazine.
1921: Shuffle Along, the first major musical with an all-Black cast premiers on Broadway, and is a success with both Black and white audience. While the story and acting style would likely have some elements that would be problematic with audiences today, it's seen as a breakthrough by Black writers during the period; for example, Langston Hughes cites Shuffle Along as a major event in his autobiography, The Big Sea. (More on Shuffle Along here)
June 1921: Langston Hughes published his first adult-oriented poem in a national magazine, in The Crisis, "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" (Note: Hughes also had a few earlier publications for children in The Brownies' Book)
April 1922: Publication of Claude McKay's Harlem Shadows. Appreciative reviews appear in New York Times Books Review (May 14,1922), Negro World (May 26, 1922), New York Age (May 20, 1922), Bookman (July 1922), and New York Evening Post (October 1922).
June 1922: Publication of James Weldon Johnson's landmark anthology, The Book of American Negro Poetry. The anthology contains poems by poets important in the 1900s and 1910s, including Paul Laurence Dunbar, William Stanley Braithwaite, and James D. Corrothers, but also poets who would bridge into the new generation, including Georgia Douglas Johnson, Anne Spencer, Jessie Fauset, and Claude McKay.
August 1922: Publication of Georgia Douglas Johnson's Bronze, with a preface by W.E.B. Du Bois.
1923: Publication of Robert Kerlin's Negro Poets and their Poems, an enthusiastic work of criticism and appreciation by a white literary critic. Contains brief accounts of poets of the earlier generation, as well as an introduction to the younger generation (Langston Hughes, Andrea Razafkeriefo, Jessie Fauset, Anne Spencer, etc.). This is the first major collection that contains poetry by Langston Hughes.
January 1923: Advent of Opportunity: a Journal of Negro Life, edited by Charles S. Johnson. See our collection of poems published in Opportunity here. The journal is primarily an academic journal, though poetry starts appearing in April 1923 (Leslie Pinckney Hill's "Voyaging" and Countee Cullen's "The Dance of Love" both appear in that issue).
January 1923: The Messenger, founded as a Black socialist magazine, becomes more engaged with African American poetry, and becomes another important venue where emerging writers can publish their work. (See our collection here)
March 1924: Jessie Fauset publishes her first novel, There is Confusion, a novel about a middle-class Black family in Philadelphia. See more about Fauset on Jessie Fauset: Author page.
1924: Walter F. White publishes The Fire in the Flint, a novel about a Black doctor and World War I veteran who returns to Georgia after the war to set up a practice.
May 1925: Literary prize for Opportunity: a Journal of Negro Life announced. Langston Hughes' "The Weary Blues" (the poem) wins first prize. Countee Cullen's "To One Who Said Me Nay" awarded second prize. Helene Johnson's "Trees at Night" receives Honorable Mention.
December 1925: Publication of Alain Locke's edited collection, The New Negro: an Interpretation. (A shorter version of the anthology appeared as a special issue of the journal Survey Graphic in March, 1925.) Contains poems by Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, Jean Toomer, Langston Hughes, Arna Bontemps, Anne Spencer, Angelina Grimke, and Georgia Douglas Johnson. Also short fiction and critical essays.
January 1926: Publication of Langston Hughes first book of poetry, The Weary Blues
October 1926: "Negro Number" of the predominantly white literary magazine Palms. Contains poetry by Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, Helene Johnson, and others. More about Palms here
November 1926: Publication of Wallace Thurman's Fire!! A Quarterly Devoted to the Younger Negro Artists
1926: Jessie Fauset leaves The Crisis.
1927: After 1926, the Harlem Renaissance was essentially in full swing. Another important anthology that appeared was Countee Cullen's anthology, Caroling Dusk, which was published in 1927. 1927 also saw the publication of James Weldon Johnson's God's Trombones, Langston Hughes' Fine Clothes to the Jew, Countee Cullen's Copper Sun, and the Charles Johnson anthology, Ebony and Topaz.
1928: Claude McKay's novel Home to Harlem would be published in 1928; Nella Larsen's Quicksand also appeared in 1928, followed by Passing in 1929.
By the early 1930s, the "vogue" for Black writing and art amongst mainstream publishers would begin to decline, especially with respect to poetry. However, many of the writers named above would continue to publish throughout the subsequent decades. Writers like McKay and Hughes, who started out publishing mostly poetry, would shift gears and publish more fiction and nonfiction prose during that period. Moreover, Zora Neale Hurston's career would really find its peak during this 'post-Harlem Renaissance' period, with the publication of novels like Their Eyes Were Watching God. Other important writers, such as Gwendolyn Brooks, would also emerge in that period.
"The New Negro: an Interpretation." Anthology Edited by Alain Locke (full text) (1925)
Full text/ Digital Edition of "The New Negro: an Interpretation"
Table of Contents
Part I: The Negro Renaissance
The New Negro Alain Locke 3
Negro Art and America Albert C. Barnes 19
The Negro in American Literature. William Stanley Braithwaite 29
Negro Youth Speaks Alain Locke 47
The City of Refuge Rudolph Fisher 57
Vestiges Rudolph Fisher 75
Fog. John Matheus 85
Carma, from Cane Jean Toomer. 96
Fern, from Cane Jean Toomer. 99
Spunk Zora Neale Hurston 105
Sahdji. Bruce Nugent 113
The Palm Porch Eric Walrond 115
Poems. Countée Cullen 129
Poems. Claude McKay 133
Poems. Jean Toomer. 136
The Creation James Weldon Johnson 138
Poems. Langston Hughes. 141
The Day-Breakers Arna Bontemps 145
Poems Georgia Johnson. 146
Lady, Lady Anne Spencer 148
The Black Finger . Angelina Grimke 148
Enchantment Lewis Alexander. 149
The Drama of Negro Life Montgomery Gregory
The Gift of Laughter Jessie Fauset
Compromise (A Folk Play) Willis Richardson
The Negro Spirituals Alain Locke
Negro Dancers Claude McKay
Jazz at Home J. A. Rogers
Song Gwendolyn B. Bennett
Jazzonia Langston Hughes
Nude Young Dancer Langston Hughes
THE NEGRO DIGS UP HIS PAST Arthur A. Schomburg
American Negro Folk Literature Arthur Huff Fauset
T’appin Told by Cugo Lewis
B’rer Rabbit Fools Buzzard
Heritage Countée Cullen
The Legacy of the Ancestral Arts Alain Locke
PART II: The New Negro in a New World
THE NEGRO PIONEERS Paul U. Kellogg
THE NEW FRONTAGE ON AMERICAN LIFE Charles S. Johnson
The Road Helene Johnson
THE NEW SCENE:
Harlem: the Culture Capital James Weldon Johnson
Howard: The National Negro University Kelly Miller
Hampton-Tuskegee: Missioners of the Masses Robert R. Moton
Durham: Capital of the Black Middle Class E. Franklin Frazier
Gift of the Black Tropics W. A. Domingo
THE NEGRO AND THE AMERICAN TRADITION
The Negro’s Americanism Melville J. Herskovits
The Paradox of Color Walter White
The Task of Negro Womanhood Elise Johnson McDougald
WORLDS OF COLOR:
The Negro Mind Reaches Out W. E. B. DuBois
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 five of these anthologies, with a sixth in progress as of summer 2023.
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 The 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 single 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 earlier anthologies by Johnson (1922) and Kerlin (1923), both limited in their own ways, 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.
Countee Cullen, Ed., Caroling Dusk: An Anthology of Verse by Black Poets of the Twenties (1927). Perhaps the most comprehensive African American poetry anthology of the 1920s, this anthology is notable for its inclusion of a large number of important women poets (in contrast to The New Negro), including Angelina Weld Grimke, Anne Spencer, Carrie Williams Clifford, Effie Lee Newsome, Georgia Douglas Johnson, Helene Johnson, Gwendolyn Bennett, and Jessie Fauset.
Ebony and Topaz: A Collectanea. Edited by Charles S. Johnson. Published by Opportunity: Journal of Negro Life. With poems, short stories, and one act plays by Jessie Fauset, Angelina Weld Grimke, Anne Spencer, Georgia Douglas Johnson, Helene Johnson, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Frank Horne, Countee Cullen, Gwendolyn Bennett, Alice Dunbar Nelson, and others.