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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.
Black Poetry Before the Harlem Renaissance: Overview and Timeline
This site aims to make available poetry by African American poets from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. From that period, the movement that is best known today is the Harlem Renaissance, where a group of authors, editors, and publishers helped create a literary sensation. Anthology editors, magazine editors, and mainstream publishers all contributed to the rising cultural capital of Black poets in the 1920s.
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 and The Voice of the Negro
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.
The Voice of the Negro was a magazine of news and opinion published in Atlanta between 1904 and 1907. It covered issues related to African American civil rights, as well as poetry by writers like James D. Corrothers, Benjamin Griffith Brawley, and others. In many ways, it appears as a predecessor and model for The Crisis.
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: The Voice of the Negro begins publication in Atlanta.
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"
1916: Fenton Johnson, "Songs of the Soil"
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"
Langston Hughes, "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" (1921)
I've known rivers:
I've known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
flow of human blood in human veins.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
went down to New Orleans, and I've seen its muddy
bosom turn all golden in the sunset.
I've known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
First published in The Crisis, June 1921