Women of the Early Harlem Renaissance: African American Women Writers 1900-1922

"Harlem Renaissance": Definition and Periodization

By Amardeep Singh, Lehigh University

The materials on this site were largely written by poets writing before the most intensely productive moment of the “Harlem Renaissance”; is it even appropriate to use the phrase “Harlem Renaissance” to describe the works collected in this archive?

The definition and periodization of the Harlem Renaissance is a matter of some debate within the field, and some of the available positions mirror debates about defining and periodizing modernism. As with modernist studies, here are scholars who accept a narrow and traditional definition, scholars who prefer a broad and inclusive approach, and those who reject the term outright in favor of terms that are more technically precise. For our purposes, retaining the term “Harlem Renaissance” while aiming to expand its chronological reach and aesthetic categories seems to be the most productive path. Critic George Hutchinson’s approach as follows seems to encapsulate this orientation to the field:

“The Harlem Renaissance in literature was never a cohesive movement. It was, rather, a product of overlapping social and intellectual circles, parallel developments, intersecting groups, and competing visions – yet all loosely bound together by a desire for racial self-assertion and self-definition in the face of white supremacy. (Hutchinson, 1)

Hutchinson is in effect working with a very broad and inclusive definition, which allows for heterogeneity, aesthetic diversity, and the incorporation of different spaces and scenes. Steven C. Tracy defines “Harlem Renaissance” even more broadly, as a catch-all term that “stands for the variety of African American cultural production in the United States and abroad from the turn of the 20th century into the late 1930s” (Tracy, 595).

That said, traditional anthologies have taken a somewhat narrower approach to the period. One traditional point of origin cited by literary critics is Alain Locke’s groundbreaking 1925 anthology, The New Negro: an Interpretation. Locke’s editorial focus is on younger poets (the section of the anthology on literature is called “Negro Youth Speaks”), mainly those born after 1880. Moreover, Locke has a decided preference for male writers. Of the thirty-three poems Locke included, only seven were by women (four different women writers), and these were all placed together in the anthology as a block. More recent Harlem Renaissance anthologies do include writing from the 1910s, suggesting our usage of the term to refer to somewhat earlier materials may be reasonably justified. Maureen Honey’s anthology, Shadowed Dreams: Women’s Poetry of the Harlem Renaissance (1989), for instance, includes poems by many of the writers whose works we are also collecting without differentiating them by period. Venetria Patton and Maureen Honey’s Double-Take: A Revisionist Harlem Renaissance Anthology (2001), also includes some of these earlier materials. Both of those anthologies also, it should be noted, include far more women writers than earlier generations of editors and critics did. “Women of the Early Harlem Renaissance” aims to build on Honey’s inclusive, canon-broadening approach while providing tools for researching and accessing these materials that are unique to the digital medium. Finally, David Levering Lewis’ Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader (1995) largely focuses on poetry published after 1925, again suggesting a narrower definition. And while Lewis includes women writers who had been overlooked or unknown to Locke (Mae Cowdery, Helene Johnson), with respect to poetry he still dedicates far more pages to men (especially Langston Hughes, Sterling Brown, and Claude McKay) than to women.

Two other points of contention might relate to the aesthetics of Harlem Renaissance writing and the geographic location of the major writers. With respect to aesthetics, there is enough diversity within the mainstream of the Harlem Renaissance (one thinks, for instance, of Claude McKay’s preference for traditional verse forms such as the sonnet, as against the free verse preferences of writers like Langston Hughes and Gwendolen Bennett), that the fact that the writers in our digital collection often use conventional poetic forms is not a serious point of concern. Indeed, that traditional formal emphasis might be the starting point for a line of inquiry unto itself: one might be interested in comparing the sonnets of a writer like Carrie Williams Clifford against the sonnets McKay published in Harlem Shadows.

A bigger concern might be the name “Harlem” -- none of the writers currently slated for inclusion on “Women of the Early Harlem Renaissance.” lived in Harlem or New York City. The most important hub for African American women writers in this period might well have been Washington DC, where Georgia Douglas Johnson lived -- and hosted a regular “Saturday Nighter” salon. For that reason, critics such as Steven C. Tracy have suggested that the influential term “New Negro” (as in “New Negro Poetry”) might be “more technically appropriate” than the geographically-bound term “Harlem Renaissance.” However, despite the lack of direct connection to Harlem, in the broader public understanding of African American literature of this period, “Harlem Renaissance” remains a far more legible and relevant term than “Negro Renaissance.” Also, as Cheryl Wall notes, women of the Harlem Renaissance tended to fit a different social and demographic profile than their male peers, many of whom were migrants from the deep south and part of what historians have referred to as the “Great Migration.” By contrast, Wall indicates,

Unlike Hurston, the literary women were mostly northern born and bred; they knew little of rural southern black culture, and what they didknow they have been trained to deny. Despite being born in Atlanta and rural Virginia, respectively, Georgia Douglas Johnson and Anne Spencer wrote poetry that neither spoke in the accents of the region nor represented its social reality. (Wall, 5)

Of the major women writers in the Harlem Renaissance (again, as traditionally defined), only Jessie Fauset and Nella Larsen lived in New York during the primary years of the Harlem Renaissance. As Wall points out, Anne Spencer lived in Lynchburg, Virginia; Alice Dunbar-Nelson lived in Wilmington, Delaware, and Georgia Douglas Johnson, as mentioned above, lived in Washington, DC (Wall, 10).   

While a deeper survey of the African American critical tradition will be occurring as this site continues to develop, hopefully this brief outline of some critical discussions of the Harlem Renaissance suggests that the term can be used inclusively and broadly to describe writing from the early 20th century by African American writers. “Women of the Early Harlem Renaissance,” limited as it is to writing published between 1905 and 1922, can mark a new literary movement in its moment of emergence. Some writers whose works will be collected here, such as Angelina Grimke, enthusiastically embraced the new literary movement. Writers like Carrie Williams Clifford and Georgia Douglas Johnson, by contrast, might be described as transitional figures -- who came of age alongside late Victorian writers like Paul Laurence Dunbar and who were socially somewhat more conservative than were later writers like Zora Neal Hurston. Claudia Tate describes Johnson’s transitional status as follows:

Neither a subscriber to Victorian ideology nor a fully modern woman, Johnson stood between those of the generation who understood sex as the husband’s conjugal right, race as fixed and poetry as sedate, speculative wonder on one extreme, and those ofthe next generation who assumed sexual liberty, fluid racial identities and poetic sensibility of social activism on the other. (Tate, xix)

While Tate is referring specifically to Johnson here, her generational description might well apply to writers like Carrie Williams Clifford (born in 1862), Carrie Law Morgan Figgs (born in 1878), and Clara Ann Thompson (born in 1865) as well. The women whose works we are working with generally adhered to the social norms for middle-class African American women of their day; that is not to say that their writings lacked the rhetorical force or ambition that one might expect from writers from an emergent literary movement.

Works Cited
Crawford, Margo Natalie. “‘Perhaps Buddha is a woman’: women’s poetry in the Harlem Renaissance.” The Cambridge Companion to the Harlem Renaissance. Edited by George Hutchinson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
Gallon, Kim, “Making the Case for a Black Digital Humanities.” Debates in the Digital Humanities. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press. Digital version accessed here: http://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/debates/text/55.
Grant, Jacqueline. White Women's Christ and Black Women's Jesus: Feminist Christology and Womanist Response. New York: AAR Academy Series, 1989.
Honey, Maureen, Ed. Shadowed Dreams: Women’s Poetry of the Harlem Renaissance. Second Edition, Revised and Expanded. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2006.
Huggins, Nathan. Harlem Renaissance (Updated Edition). Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.
Hutchinson, George. “Introduction.” The Cambridge Companion to the Harlem Renaissance. Edited by George Hutchinson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
Hull, Gloria. Color, Sex & Poetry: Three Women Writers of the Harlem Renaissance.. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1987.
Lewis, David Levering, Ed. The Portal Harlem Renaissance Reader. New York: Penguin, 1995.
Locke, Alaine. The New Negro: an Interpretation. New York: Albert and Charles Boni, 1925.
McKay, Claude. Harlem Shadows. Accessed via “Claude McKay’s Early Poetry, 1911-1922” Digital Archive by Amardeep Sing. https://scalar.lehigh.edu/mckay/
Patton, Venetria and Maureen Honey, Eds. Double-Take: A Revisionist Harlem Renaissance Anthology. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2001.
Pinkard, Michelle. “‘Don’t knock at my door, little child’: The Mantled Poetics of Georgia Douglas Johnson’s Motherhood Poetry.” In Christopher Allen Varlack, Ed. Critical Insights: Harlem Renaissance. Ipswitch, Massachusetts: Salem Press, 2015.
Spencer, Jon Michael. “The Black Church and the Harlem Renaissance.” African American Review, Vol. 30, No. 3 (Autumn, 1996), pp. 453-460.
Splawn, P. Jane. “Introduction.” Writings of Carrie Williams Clifford and Carrie Law Morgan Figgs. New York: G.K. Hall and Company, 1997.
Tate, Claudia. “Introduction.” Selected Works of Georgia Douglas Johnson. Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. New York: G.K. Hall and Company, 1997.
Tracy, S.C. “Harlem Renaissance.” Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Edited by Roland Greene, Stephen Cushman, Clare Cavanagh, Jahan Ramazani, Paul Rouzer. Fourth Edition. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012.
Wall, Cheryl. Women of the Harlem Renaissance. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995.


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