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

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. That phrase, "the New Negro," is not Locke's, though Locke defines it ably in his introductory essay in that volume. Factors influencing the advent of the period include:

1) the development of a critical mass of Black writers, readers, and critics, who had been publishing in the flourishing Black newspapers and magazines of the period nation-wide throughout the 1900s and 1910s;

2) 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'"); 

3) the growth of Black colleges and universities, which had, by the 1920s, been educating a growing, highly literate Black middle class. 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, 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 African Americans. 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. Years such as 1919 were marked by signficant racialized violence, including violence against returning World War I veterans. 

The literary style -- whether we understand it as "New Negro" or Harlem Renaissance -- is marked by a few key traits:a degree of race-consciousness coupled with high aesthetic ambition; an interest in bridging the gap between Black audiences with white American readers and critics; and an engagement with new aesthetic forms and voices, including those influenced by popular music.

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.

June 1921: Langston Hughes published his first poem in The Crisis, "The Negro Speaks of Rivers"

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 PoetryThe 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). 

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, The Weary Blues

November 1926: Publication of Wallace Thurman's Fire!! A Quarterly Devoted to the Younger Negro Artists 

1926: Jessie Fauset leaves The Crisis

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. Claude McKay's novel Home to Harlem would be published in 1928; Nella Larsen's Quicksand appeared in 1928, followed by Passing in 1929. 

By the early 1930s, the "vogue" for Black writing and art amongst mainstream publishers would decline. However, many of the writers named above would continue to publish throughout the subsequent decades. 

This page has paths:

This page references: