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.